The line between honoring & dismissing

I am a sensitive person.  I have sensitive children.  None of this is news.

I have often in my life felt as though I have to get a grip, get over it, be less sensitive, be less intense, stop taking things personally.  These admonitions to myself are deeply embedded in my self-conscious, and I am frustrated with myself on a nearly daily basis.  I feel like my reactions are my fault.

Often, this is true.  I know it is.  When I wrote 10 Things I Want my Daughter to Know, to and for Grace, I included a specific point on this:

8. It is almost never about you.  What I mean is when people act in a way that hurts or makes you feel insecure, it is almost certainly about something happening inside of them, and not about you.  I struggle with this one mightily, and I have tried very, very hard never once to tell you you are being “too sensitive” or to “get over it” when you feel hurt.  Believe me, I know how feelings can slice your heart, even if your head knows otherwise.  But maybe, just maybe, it will help to remember that almost always other people are struggling with their own demons, even if they bump into you by accident.

It did not to take me long to realize I was writing to myself as much as I was writing to Grace.  These ten things – life lessons, central points about the human experience – were things I wanted to know, too.  This one for sure.  And I’m still struggling to learn it.

I’ve written before that parenting is an exercise in coming face-to-face with our own demons and flaws animate in another person.  Also, of course, our gifts and our deepest joys.  But it’s the demons and flaws that are on my mind right now.  When Grace and Whit come home with bruised feelings, I often feel torn about how to react.  I want to honor their reactions and sensitivities while not playing too much into them.  Does that make sense?  I don’t want them to develop the internal voice that I have, the one that says get over it already (not saying my parents gave this to me: they didn’t.  I’m not sure where it came from).  I do want to honor their feelings. And I do want to help them develop the coping skills not to be buffeted by their every reaction.

Sometimes I worry that responding too emotionally to their hurts will actually create anxiety for them – oh, wow, wait, there is a real reason to be worked up here!  I also fret that if they engage with me mostly or exclusively around hurt feelings, they’ll think that that’s the best way to get my attention.  But I know instinctively that telling them to not worry about it is dismissive and doesn’t validate what I know are authentic feelings.

What I try to do is to say I get it, I know that this hurts, and I would feel badly too, but you have to remember that it really isn’t that big a deal. Try to remember that it is likely not about you (again, a lesson I’m still learning, at 41).

I haven’t figured out how precisely to honor Grace and Whit’s feelings while simultaneously helping them learn to manage them.  Just one of parenthood’s many liminal areas, places where what I think is the right answer lies in a gray, murky zone.  Or maybe it’s not murky at all! Maybe saying I refuse to dismiss your feelings is crystal-clear.  And maybe saying you can feel something and at the same time choose to not be gutted by it is also entirely straightforward.  It doesn’t always feel that way, but maybe what’s muddying this matter for me is my own sometimes-intense empathizing.

I don’t know.  But I’ll keep trying to figure it out.

25 thoughts on “The line between honoring & dismissing”

  1. Hi Lindsey. I definitely understand this. Being a sensitive person myself, I see the same traits in my 8 year old and this makes me frustrated with him! Why? Because it’s myself that I’m really frustrated with. People who know better than me have told me that empathy is the key. That helps, as does reflecting back their feelings to them. “You seem anxious/worried about that. I get it”. Maybe there isn’t always a need to come up with the winning answer or solution to every problem. Maybe it’s enough to acknowledge whatever they are going through on a particular day. And to be by their side. Who knows really though. It’s a bit of a mystery most of the time!

  2. This is such a timely post for me. I spent a lot of time this weekend gauging my response to my sensitive child’s upset about a fairly minor issue. Balancing validating him without inflating his emotions further hard. So I really get your worry over whether your response could create more anxiety for your children. Thanks for writing about this!

  3. THIS resonates, because it’s me exactly. I keep telling myself to get over it on a daily, hourly basis. And yet I can’t. What you’re doing is the only thing you can do, striking that balance of allowing and acknowledging the hurt while trying to keep the fact that most times it is not about us in perspective. I sometimes wish I would have had that earlier in my life, someone teaching me to allow space for both of these facets. I hope when the time comes I can provide for my son what you’re giving your children.

  4. “I have often in my life felt as though I have to get a grip, get over it, be less sensitive, be less intense, stop taking things personally. These admonitions to myself are deeply embedded in my self-conscious, and I am frustrated with myself on a nearly daily basis. I feel like my reactions are my fault.” This. It’s like you read my mind this morning as I journaled about this very same thing. It’s funny – my older daughter is more able to take these things in stride, put them in perspective, whereas my younger one is more like me…more tortured, perhaps;). I figure I can only try to teach her what I know, so I keep grappling with this issue. Like you, I beat myself up for caring too much, for being so wounded. But this only makes me feel worse, more wounded…and then more angry with myself for feeling that way. Then I try to jump to feeling compassion for the other person, which can often feel forced. Today it dawned on me that I skip the step where I feel compassion for myself. Where I just let myself really feel whatever it is I am feeling without judging. Just sit with it and feel it in my body. And then say, “ok, this stinks but I am still here.” Then what comes next is clearer, not such a guessing game. Maybe it’s some space from a person or situation, maybe you need to laugh, or cry, or be with a friend, or be alone. It’s so automatic for me to think my way out of things. But maybe we need to hold compassionate space for the feelings first? I don’t know. Sorry for the novel, LOL. Too much coffee. xoxox

  5. “Maybe saying I refuse to dismiss your feelings is crystal-clear. And maybe saying you can feel something and at the same time choose to not be gutted by it is also entirely straightforward. It doesn’t always feel that way, but maybe what’s muddying this matter for me is my own sometimes-intense empathizing.”
    I think you have the answer. The world would be a cruel, nasty, and brutish place without sensitive and empathizing people. Have you ever noticed how others turn to you for comfort in their hour of need? Because they know you
    will offer comfort and understanding. Sensitive souls unite! Do not allow others to take your power. XO

  6. Don’t apologize. LOVE the novel. I suspect we’re sort of the same person sometimes, no? I can’t wait to meet in person at last. I skip that step too. When you say it, I realize that is terrible, but would never have thought of it myself. oxoxoxo

  7. I so appreciate your saying this – I mostly feel like I’m stumbling around, so it’s nice to hear that my approach makes sense at least somewhat. I’m trying. This is honestly very hard for me. xox

  8. AMEN. “Because it’s myself I’m really frustrated with” – oh yes, yes, and yes. I hope that acknowledging that it’s hard, what they’re going through, is enough … it’s all I got, honestly. It gets hard when they ask me to get involved with a parent of another child. Tricky!

  9. I am not a sensitive person, but I’m all about “figuring things out.” The trouble with that is I’m always trying to solve problems for my kids. The hardest part is just listening, without jumping in and trying to fix things. And I think that “just listening” is probably key, no matter what kind of mothers we are. Trying to let things be more about them than about us. That’s hard, but it’s important. One of the most difficult parts about being a mother is letting our kids hurt, but maybe sometimes that’s what we have to do. And also let them know we’re there for them–not to fix things necessarily, but just to be there and to love them. I’m not saying that I’m good at this, but I keep trying! xo.

  10. I agree 100% with this! Gets tricky for me when my child asks me to reach out to a friend’s parent who has been unresponsive and is sending a clear message, and then I’m not sure how to tell that to the child … but in general I totally agree with you.

  11. Boy, do I understand this. And it’s hard because when I do extend that deep empathy to her and whatever she is facing, it’s not because I want to fix it, but because, like her, I am extremely sensitive and so I know what it *feels* like and that it is not a faucet easily turned off. It’s a nuance that I am not sure she sees (yet), and so I often find myself reacting in ways that are not ideal, for her or me. If you ever figure it out, let me know.

  12. Sometimes it’s just finding the people who bring out the best in you and don’t make you feel like you are too much or not enough of something. This age is tough for that but it is a valuable lesson. I’m sorry! Sending you a hug!

  13. I struggle with this in professional settings and well as personal ones. Like you, I am an INFJ and “highly sensitive” – Names for complex emotions and reactions I only discovered in mid-adulthood but have been intensely aware
    of my entire life. The plus: I reflect a lot. The downside – I am so highly attuned to others that I stress about meeting their expectations and take on too much responsibility/blame. And I bruise far too easily. Still working on this. And glad to know I am not alone.
    I’ve found Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability very interesting and wish I could start a vulnerability group (as opposed to a Lean In) because while it may be my more natural approach to life, there is a real cost associated with it.

  14. When my son says he is not good at something (calmly), I am surprised and little bit happy about how he handled peer comparison / competition. I am not able to decide how to respond – to say he should try harder or say it’s ok 🙁

  15. I really appreciate this post! My daughter is more on the sensitive side and I am not so much. I constantly have to remind myself that when she’s upset, I need to sympathize rather than jumping to the solution to the problem. But at the same time, I feel like I need to help her develop skills on how to cope with her emotions, especially as it relates to other kid and in school. It’s a learning process for us both!

  16. This is one of my favorite ever posts! I struggle mightily with this and am just now realizing how much energy I devote to trying to not feel what I’m feeling because it’s uncomfortable. I am currently spending time with an old friend who has always intimidated me and thank god for age because I am finally beginning to see that it isn’t always about me!!

    But just as I am beginning to gain some wisdom, I am flummoxed with Oliver going through his own sensitive kid struggles. I really wrestle with honoring his feelings while also not making him feel like a victim and helping him see how strong he is.

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