I went to see Inside Out this past weekend. Cried like a baby through most of it. I saw my son in the main character; the loss of silliness, interests, even friendships and family connection. As I watched the islands of her brain crumble along with her childhood innocence, I felt the loss of my son’s innocence and wonder, only replaced by the emotionlessness, hatred, and anger I see before me today. This journey has been the hardest thing I have ever faced. Mental illness is a hard giant to defeat. Yet in the midst of great pain, all I have felt is anger. The movie brought to life why.
The movie was nothing short of brilliant. With a mix of humour and fact, it brought to life many mental health points, one of which I would like to highlight as a great crisis we face as parents, teachers and adults working with young people; that is the concept of sadness. And I promise, I will get to why I’ve been so angry.
In the movie, it’s the character Sadness who saves the day, not Joy. This is profound for us to understand. Joy, in her epiphany says, “It’s Sadness! When Sadness is there, adults come to help”. This is true. When we are overly concerned with our children being “happy” we don’t give them the opportunity to let us peer into the corridors of their inner life. The problem in our society is that we just don’t know what to do with “sad”. We want to fix it and get happy back as soon as possible. Perhaps this could be a part of the contribution to the increase of depression and anxiety in children today?
I may have been guilty of this when our youngest was born. I was so fixated on making sure our son was happy, that I don’t believe I let him feel the saddness and frustration of such a life change. The result? Fast forward to the present where my eldest deeply hates his little brother. No emotion has replaced any emotion at all. You could say the birth of our second is what caused the deep spiral downwards of our oldest. Sometimes we need to stop and see the sacred in sadness. We need to sit in it comfortably and let empathy become us. It’s a place where the words, “I’m here” may be all we need to say.
- Neurologically, frustration needs to turn into feelings of futility in order for us to learn to adapt to new situations in life. When our emotions are too hardened to permit sadness about something that greatly disappointed us, frustration takes prominence. Sadness is the emotion we feel when we are experiencing futility, along with disappointment and grief. When anger doesn’t turn to sad, we do not learn resilience, but when tears are allowed, adaptation has a hope to be created. These feelings require vulnerability. To allow ourselves to feel it is to come to terms with the limits of our control. It’s surrender, you could say.
- Here lies the problem with many of the issues we are facing with young people today: If futility (sadness, grief, disappointment) isn’t felt, one is more prone to aggression. Bullying, abuse, outbursts of anger – these could be results of locked in emotion. “Instead of tears of futility, there are drops of blood from cutting oneself. Instead of sadness and disappointment, there is sarcasm and contempt. Instead of facing oneself, we attack others. When futility doesn’t sink in there is a failture to let go and a failture of existing limits. Without adaptation there is no resilience in the face of adversity or ability to recover from trauma. Tears are the antidote. They keep us soft and human.” (Gordon Neufeld in Hold Onto Your Kids) No futlity = emotional self numbing that can lead to addictions. We wonder why this generation is gripped by addiction to sex and dope?
- We need to be brave to take this journey ourselves and allow our children to make the trek from anger to saddness with our support. This means us coming to terms with our own sadness. When I was young, emotion was seen as a sign of weakness. My British father would scold me if I showed tears. Years of disappointment with my marriage in the early years made me hard, forgetting the softness of uttering words such as “I forgive you”, with the moist tears of pain clearing my body of bitter toxins. There has been much healing that has come just by uttering the words: “This is painfu! This is unfair! I can’t do this!!” accompanied by tears of deep grief. It has allowed me to come to terms with the hand that has been given to me. Happiness is not my goal – resilience is. The capacity being creating in the crevices of my inner workings has great depth due to grief being given freedom of expression. Every time I allow myself to feel grief, loss, disappointment with everything that encompasses this journey; anger loses some real estate. I was so busy trying to reach the expectation I had on myself to be brave and get back to “happy” that I forgot to feel.
Now for my son. His hardened heart shows me that he, too, desperately needs permission and room to “feel” again. How to navigate this? That’s where professional help is being pursued. As I control the one who I CAN control; me, and allow myself to take this brave journey, I pray it paves the way for him. I pray it gives you hope as well.
Brave on, friends. Time to feel again.