A few weeks ago, I did an interview for Today’s Parents with a parenting expert—Leslie Petruk from The Stone Center for Counseling and Leadership—on how to teach children to cope with frustration. To listen to the interview, go HERE. In the thirty-minute interview, I asked Leslie a number of things I often wondered about when it came to dealing with kids when they are frustrated, upset or angry.
What do you say to them?
Do you ignore their tantrums or do you tell them to stop behaving that way and cheer up?
Her response was straightforward—acknowledge and reflect back how they are feeling at that moment in time.
That answer was not new to me but it was something I had never thought about in terms of ALL our relationships—our relationship with our family, with our co-workers and most importantly, our relationships with our partner or spouse.
Often, when our friend, co-worker or spouse is upset or frustrated about something or someone, we respond in one of the following ways:
- We suggest solutions to solve the problem; or
- We tell them they are making a big deal out of nothing; or
- We tell them to cheer up, think positively and look on the bright side.
Maybe we even do all three in the same breath.
Sure, we have only good intentions. We want to help alleviate their frustration. We don’t want them to be stuck in a rut, in a negative self-perpetuating loop. God forbid that if we show them some empathy, we might reinforce a negative attention seeking behaviour. They might learn that the only way to get people’s attention is by being down and complaining all the time. Perhaps there is some truth in there, but maybe—just maybe—what the other person needs is just someone to ‘hold the space’ for them to be upset.
That, is what I believe is missing in many relationships—the ability to ‘hold the space’.
As a society, I think we have all been conditioned to hide our upset from others. We put on cheery facades and forced smiles to indicate we are fine and dandy. When people ask us, “How are you?” We neither pause to really consider the question before answering nor are we truthful about it. We simply dish out the stock standard response, “I’m fine.” Why? Because we are unaccustomed to sharing how we really feel and also because we don’t believe the other person actually wants to know. On the flip side, from the perspective of the person doing the asking, perhaps we are merely adhering to social coventions. Perhaps a part of us wishes that the other person would not ‘unload’ their frustration on us because we are afraid we wouldn’t know how to handle it. So both parties obligingly go through the niceties of asking after each other without really meaning any of it, all because neither of us know how to ‘hold the space’ for the other person to be truthful. To be vulnerable.
So, what exactly does this ‘holding the space’ thing actually look like?
If you asked me five years ago, I wouldn’t have a clue because I had never come across such a concept before in my life. It was only when I started attending personal development seminars and live events that I had the opportunity to witness what ‘holding the space’ actually looks like. It was only when I started being around people who knew how to ‘hold the space’, that I finally allowed myself to be openly vulnerable, to have the courage to express my pain, my anger or my sadness outwardly instead of internalising all of it all of the time.
You see, what every single one of us need is to feel that we will not be judged for the emotions that we feel, especially the not-so-pleasant ones like pain, frustration, sadness and anger. What every single one of us need is to feel that another human being sees our pain, our frustration, our sadness or our anger and allows us to express them rather than dismissing them or trying to negate them.
My friends who are life coaches or NLP practitioners may disagree with me. They may pull out all the tools in their toolbox, analyse a person’s meta-model, examine his or her belief system, ask him or her when would now be a good time to change etc to make them seemingly feel empowered in the moment. Yes, those are appropriate tools and techniques in a coaching session. Yes, they do work. And yes, that might help but sometimes what a person really needs is just another human being’s compassion. Sometimes all they need is to feel that someone else understands their pain, and that they are not alone, that it is safe to express whatever it is that they are feeling and they will not be judged for those emotions. They will not be called a sissy, a wanker, a plonker or whatever derogatory terms people use to label them with. That is all they need in that moment—validation. Not names and labels, not psychoanalysis or hypnosis or techniques.
In the course of my interview with Leslie, I asked her what many people might wonder—wouldn’t that encourage negative attention seeking behaviour? Her response was, “Quite the contrary.” She told me that once children feel that their emotions have been acknowledged, they feel settled and then are able to move past it to a place where they are able to problem solve, either by themselves or in conjunction with a parent or an adult, which led me to think—adults are no different, except that many adults do not possess the skill to ‘hold the space’ for another adult without rushing into the ‘fix-it’ or problem solving mode.
Spiritual teacher—Iyanla Vanzant once said, “Emotions are meant to be expressed. After all, there is more space to hold it on the outside than there is in the inside.” In my view, the reason many people tend to internalise their emotions is because they do not feel safe to express them. They do not feel that they can express how they feel without being demeaned, dismissed or discounted. So perhaps, what we really need to learn is not just to express how we feel but also how to hold the space for another person so that they feel safe enough to express how they feel.
To learn more about how to teach kids to cope with frustration, go here to listen to the interview I did with Leslie Petruk:
To Holding The Space,