Our garage is linked to the main entry to our house through a small stairway with doors on each side. A few weeks ago, my daughter, who is 4, decided that she wanted to climb the stairs “in the night,” as she likes to call it. Both doors are closed with no light penetrating in, and she climbs up in the pitch black holding onto the handrail. It has now become a habit, and my 2 year old son has followed suit.
Many children would think this is scary. Many children would be afraid of the dark, and wouldn’t want to do what my daughter is doing.
As I have watched her do this day after day, week after week, I have held my tongue. At the beginning I wanted to ask her if she was scared, but I didn’t. Throughout, I have wanted to praise her courage for not being scared, but I haven’t.
Do you want to know why?
Because I have recently awakened to the idea that our feelings don’t actually become real until we name them. Nothing is scary, until we say it is scary. Nothing is worrisome, until we say we are worried. Nothing is anxiety-inducing, until we say we are anxious. Nothing is stressful, until we say we are stressed.
Which means, that if I were to tell my daughter I was proud of her for doing something scary, she would then be scared.
Yesterday, I was at the park with my children and I heard a dad say to his sons, “Don’t be scared of the big kids!” In that moment, I asked myself, “Were they scared? And if not, are they scared now?”
A couple of hours later, back at home, my daughter and I walked into the hallway together and she turned on the light “because it is scary.” I turner to her and said, “An hour ago, you walked in the stairs in the dark and it wasn’t scary, but this is scary. What’s the difference?” She couldn’t give me an answer, but I have my own--I gave her the word and the context.
The stairs between the garage and the main house aren’t scary because I never alluded to her that they were. Yet the stairs from the first floor to the second floor are scary, because at some point I told her they were. It’s the same reason she likes the hall light to be on when she sleeps--because I told her about being scared of the dark.
I think that many of her fears have come from me. My words of “be careful”, and references to “being afraid,” and my questioning, “Are you sure? It might be scary.”
Which begs the question, if there were no name for the emotion, is that emotion actually happening? The body sensations may be happening, but is the emotion?
I often tell clients and non-clients alike, that the body doesn’t know the difference between excitement and anxiety, so why not choose the word that empowers you the most. Why not trick yourself?
I am slowly incorporating that same teaching into how I talk to my children, and how I talk to myself.
I am not worried, I am planning.
I am not busy, I am energized.
I am not tired, I am contemplative.
I am not stressed, I am enthusiastic.
I am not scared, I am excited.
I invite you to do the same.
Courage. Compassion. Connection