A few weeks ago, my younger son went on a trip to Mexico with his grandparents (my parents) for his 13th birthday. He was excited to go, but after the fun of air travel and tacos in Arizona had worn off, and he realized he’d been signed up for 9 days of getting up at 6 or 7am to ride buses for hours with only middle-aged and elderly people, to see cultural presentations, I started getting texts. At one point he wrote, “I’m so unhappy, I don’t know what to do.” He missed his friends, he missed skiing, he missed his privacy, he missed his bed.
My reaction was anger and frustration. Here was my child, physically safe but miserable, without an escape option, thousands of miles away from me. Here was my thirteen year old, extraverted, athletic son, for whom my parents had planned a trip that appeared to account for none of those characteristics, and I was completely helpless.
I spun in that for about 24 hours, but I realized: this is the growth. This is the purpose of discomfort. Neither he nor I had intentionally set up a difficult situation, but now that he (and I) were in one, the question became: how do I help him navigate this so that we both get the maximum benefit from the experience?
Someone asked me a few weeks ago about my previous tale about the quilt; she wanted to know how the story ended. What happened was this: one of the organizers saw my writing and called me, distraught, to apologize. At that point, though, I was grateful, and the circle was already complete. I understood that had I needed to revisit, and rewrite, the story that I was a victim of bullies in my childhood and that I didn’t belong anywhere; that narrative was playing internally, and wasn’t helping anyone, least of all me, live a full and flexible life.
It wasn’t that I could turn the experience to my advantage, but rather that it was happening as part of the fluid dance of the universe to serve me. Every time it gets unpleasant, I can ask myself – how have I started to view a present, uncomfortable situation as happening to me? How am I making it worse by not taking responsibility for what’s in my control? What can I do to get the benefit of this moment, with an added bonus of not making everyone around me miserable as well?
And so, when confronted with a weekend-ruining mindset-minefield in the form of my son’s trip, I engaged the following protocol:
· I acknowledged that I was experiencing emotional pain and allowed myself to mourn (in this case, that my son was hurting and I couldn’t fix it, and that I was uncomfortable with his discomfort).
· I assessed what was in, and what was not in, my control (I could text with him, and I could contact my parents, but I couldn’t change the fact that he was committed to the trip. I could also make it worse by encouraging him to feel like a victim in the situation, getting cross with my parents, or, alternately, by not allowing him to experience and express his own pain).
· I recognized that the situation was tailor-made to move me into a new level of growth and wisdom (at every stage of childhood, my kids are showing me the edge of my comfort with their freedom and their choices, and that curve only ramps up, so it’s good work to learn how to manage the feeling of not having control, or being able to keep them safely under my wing at all times).
· I asked for help from people I trust in moving through these three steps, and in how to act thoughtfully and productively.
I received some brilliant advice. A friend told me that, when her son is struggling (and he has struggled a lot in the recent past due to changing home dynamics which require him to go into situations where he is uncomfortable), she reminds him of two things: one, that every single time he has been unhappy, he’s made it through and been happy again on the other side, and two, that she trusts him to access that ability to make it through, and to find what good there is to be had in the current environment.
Which made me realize the following:
The most important thing we can offer someone who is struggling is our full faith and confidence that they have, or can access, the tools they need to get through.
That is also the most important thing we can offer ourselves.
When I was very, dangerously, maybe not-going-to-be-okay sick, and definitely in a lot of pain, people would ask me, “What can we do? How can we help?” And I realized, what I needed most from the people I loved was for them to take care of themselves and trust me to take care of me. When you douse someone in your fear and worry, you are telling them, “I don’t believe you are going to be okay.” And then, if that’s not okay with you, your pain becomes an added burden on them. It’s an endless loop of codependence and dis-ease that perpetuates unnecessary suffering.
My son had, within himself, the capacity to be okay, and even happy. All he needed from me was the reminder that I already knew that.
He still missed his friends. He still missed skiing. He still had to confront the disappointment of being too light to go on one of the coolest zip lines in the world.
But he had a great time riding on one of the most beautiful train routes in North America, seeing some exotic and interesting places, collecting souvenirs, and coming home with stories (including calling his brother when he got back to Arizona and telling him he was “the first human he had talked to in almost two weeks.” I haven’t told my parents that.)
I trusted him, and he trusted himself.
Have YOU told yourself, in your darkest moments, that you trust you to make it through?
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