Recently I entered a room to find a 6-year-old girl lounging on her backpack on the floor, legs crossed, ready for her check-up. “Hi, Dr. Schlegel, is being sad a feeling?”
There wasn’t any particular reason for this child to feel sad that day. She was just pondering sadness after finishing a regular day of elementary school. But there it was: “Is being sad a feeling?” And the follow up question, “Can you be happy and sad?”
I usually ask about mental health and feelings at the end of the check-up. Kids will tell me they feel sad about their dog that died. Or that their sibling didn’t share a toy. Or that a friend left them out at recess. But on this particular day, we talked about mental health first.
“Yes, being sad is a feeling. What do you think about being sad?” I asked. She answered me appropriately and then quickly transitioned to a discussion about feeling happy. As I listened to this 6-year-old speak so maturely, I felt hopeful for our future as humans.
Naturally, I had to introduce her to a quote by the philosopher Khalil Gibran that hung in my room as a teen. “The deeper sorrow cuts into your being, the more joy you can contain.” I wrote it on a piece of paper for her (in mirror-image writing, which is a weird skill I have), slapped a sticker on it, and gave it to her to take home.
That same night, I finished reading What Feels Like Bravery, by Laurel Braitman. A beautiful book that I strongly recommend, Braitman writes: “There is no such thing as happily ever after. There is only happily sad or sadly happy. And that is more than enough.” Here again, my life was presenting the concept of juxtaposed emotions. How can two opposite things exist at the same time?
My good friend, Susie, is a therapist and social worker. Through the years, she has directly and indirectly helped me understand the concept of having two feelings at once.
Susie always stresses the and when I’m talking to her about hard things, or when she’s advising me, so that my head and heart will process that this is a moment where two opposing things are possible at once. An example would be, “I love being a mother and it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
When children are very young, the concept of opposing emotions, or two things being true at once, is not a concept their minds can grasp. First they will learn the basic emotions we teach them. I am happy. I am sad. I am scared. I am mad.
As they grow up and their vocabulary and understanding broaden, we can give them more words for their feelings. Being angry can at its core be about feeling embarrassed, or ashamed, or slighted, or even afraid. Being happy can be about feeling proud, or hopeful, or excited, or delighted.
I think many of us are still trying to find space for opposing emotions in our adult selves, but I will propose that as we are learning this very important skill for ourselves, we also need to teach it to our children. Holding space for both emotions instead of fighting them, especially the hard ones, can bring peace.
I love being a working parent and I envy the parent who gets to attend every school function.
I love being a stay-home parent and I envy the parent who has adult interactions at work.
I am so proud of my child and I am frustrated with her choices.
I am happy because I had so many good years with my friend and I am sad that my friend died.
I am stimulated by my work and I am exhausted.
I am grieving that my son is graduating from high school and moving away, and I am so excited for his future.
Hot and cold. Happy and sad. Up and down.
I have been working within my adult self to notice triggers when I have emotions that are unpleasant. Why does that one person bring out the worst in me? What is it about this situation that makes me enraged? Is it possible that the way I feel is related to something in my past, and do I want to keep holding on to that, or let it go?
What currents are churning underneath the calm surface of my presenting self? What about my kids’ calm, presenting selves? My mother has always said about people that “still waters run deep.” The surface of the body of water is calm like a mirror, but the emotional currents underneath are in constant motion.
The world and its people and cars and noise swirl around me, and the deeply rooted tree stands still. I feel young and vibrant and also achy and perimenopausal. The rose bush in my yard has beautiful, pink flowers, and the stems have thorns that can prick my fingers.
The more we talk about feelings and emotions with the next generation, the more it will give them a head start to change the world. I am in awe of my patients who are learning to identify their emotions at such a young age. I am appreciative of the parents who teach them.
I am blessed by lessons taught to me by children whose paths cross mine. I am fearful about some aspects of the future we are leaving our children. Yet when I talk to 6-year-olds who already understand that you can hold two emotions at once, I am also hopeful.