Learning how to feel

Yesterday Miles looked at me and said, I'm keeping my mad mad mad right inside, while he put his hands on his chest like a feelings plug. In here, he said. I'm keeping it inside.

He said it like it was good. He said it like I'd appreciate that he wasn't letting it out. And then when I started to explain that it's best to let it out in a way that doesn't hurt anyone, he interrupted with a, I mean, I'm putting my mad mad mad outside. I'm taking it out, that's what I meant to say. It was like a correction he didn't mean, a quick response,what he thought I wanted to hear.

He said it like a people-pleaser,
with no regard for himself,
just an effort to keep me happy.
He forgot about the mad mad mad
and thought about me instead.

And then he looked confused, his big eyes looking up at me...

In or out, Mom. Which is it?

Out, child. Out.

But don't look at my example. I choose in far too often.


If I could teach my boys only one thing, it would be this - Let yourself feel.

Sure, I'd like to add a list of things to that, an exhaustive list filled with thousands of things we mothers agonize over, big things that matter, that we feel responsible for: Have faith, believe in yourself, take care of your body, work hard, be kind to people and always respect and honor women, take responsibility for your actions, be honest...

Then I'd like to add all the small things I at least pretend I'm concerned about, or am simply annoyed by: Chew with your mouth closed, take your shoes off, inside voice, no whining, clean up after yourself, finish your peas, put your dishes in the sink...

But what is any of that worth if they can't feel? What is faith if not felt? What is kindness if not genuinely from the heart? Why should they take their shoes off if they don't actually care about the person who owns the floors? Why put their dishes in the sink if they don't feel true respect for the one who made the meal? Why open the door for a girl and really listen to her unless their heart honestly treasures hers?

We do so many seemingly good and honorable things robotically, habitual actions born out of rules on our minds rather than beliefs in our hearts, the place where emotions live and spring out to the pits of our stomachs.

That's where we should be living from, our heart-guts. But we can't if we won't allow ourselves to feel.


My boys are in the stage of constant NO and Don't and Stop It. For their safety and my sanity, all day long, that's pretty much all they hear if I'm not careful. Just imagine what that does to a person. Or maybe you don't have to, maybe you remember it in your own life, as a child or in all the moments at any age that your voice wasn't heard, or you were told, subtly or not, that your feelings were unjustified or just plain silly.

Grown-ups have a way of invalidating children and each other without ever speaking a word, and many times while speaking too many.

To these small people of mine, the anger or frustration or hurt in them that's coming out in a whine or cry or hit or scream is everything, and already Miles is learning to stop these feelings for the sake of others or to avoid punishment.

That scares me, of course. But I have to remember that everything is a process, even learning how to feel. It takes most of us a lifetime to understand how to feel and what to do with our emotions. It's hard work.

I looked at Miles' face yesterday, the expectancy in his eyes. And I thought, If I could teach my boys only one thing, it would be this: Let yourself feel. To feel is to live, and what is life if not for living?

So I told him that it's best to get his anger out in a way that doesn't hurt him or anyone else. I gave him examples and then I added something: but if you forget and you hold it in and starts to make you feel bad or do things that aren't okay, I'll still love you. I'll love you if your mad is in or out. I'll love you no matter what.

Maybe understanding our feelings starts there. With a gift. A feeling. Unconditional love.

The Extraordinary Ordinary


  1. Yes, yes, yes! We work so hard not to feel, right up till we know we're going to turn to stone if we don't let ourselves feel. Well said.

  2. I really love this. Wonderfully written and so thoughtful. Thanks for making me thing more about this.

    My daughter is almost two and just starting to talk about happy and sad (and ask "Mommy sad? Mommy happy?"). This came at a good point for me - thanks.

  3. That is such a great point Heather. And you're right on that sometimes children hear nothing all day but "no". We've tried "not for baby" instead of "no" with our 14 month old since he was old enough to understand and I think it makes a difference for both my hubby and I and our kiddo.

  4. This brought me to my knees. I don't really know what else to say other than I'm so glad I read this today.

  5. I love this. And I love that your son trusts you enough to tell you what he's feeling, even if he's trying not to let it out.

    He has a sweet heart, that boy.

  6. i choose in far too much too. in fact, as i read your post, i had to fight the urge to plug feelings of guilt and shame. earlier i pleaded with my daughter to keep her feelings in, so that i could have some peace and quiet. she was whining. loudly. and i was annoyed. after reading your thoughts, i realize that she was only expressing emotion the only way a five year old knows how. still, everything in me wanted to click the red X on your blog. your words held up a mirror to my own intolerance, and i don't like the reflection. i passing my own arrested development on to my daughter and that's unsettling. closing the browser would have provided a much desired stopgap for the flood of negative emotions that rose up as i continued reading your post.

  7. Dionne,

    Thank you for your words. Really. Honesty is good because every mother has felt the same things and when we don't say them we assume we're the only one.
    This is a tricky thing because we don't want to tolerate whining. We've all met ten year olds that are still whining to get their way and that's not good either.
    It's hard to figure out how to set up boundaries without shutting down feelings...a very fine balance. I have NOT figured it all out, that's for sure, but I think the best thing we can do is to be AWARE of how our reactions, our tones, are having an effect on these sensitive little hearts. YOU are aware and you obviously care deeply for that sweet little five year old of yours :)
    I know guilt and shame far too well, friend. I hope you can "unplug" those feelings and let them go. We do the very best we can with what we know to do and we keep learning and changing and we MUST forgive ourselves.

  8. This is excellent. My mom chose "In". Stifled everything. Erroneously thought that would make her the perfect wife, perfect mother. One day she told me she admired my ability to "let it out." What a gift. (Almost as huge as that unconditional love, which she also offered in abundance.)

    The sad end of the story is that my mom's 'holding everything in' literally killed her. She died of cancer at a very young age.

    And I allow myself to feel.

  9. Teaching our kids to "not cry" or "be strong" I think has essentially back fired on us-- because we are teaching them to not FEEL.

    Feeling is good. And painful. Thanks for reminding me to listen to how my kids feel when they are whining.

  10. Beautiful. I've seen so many who just keep it all in (myself included). Thanks for the reminder that part of our job is to teach them that feeling *anything* is okay.


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