An excerpt from Be the Hero by Yvonne and Rich Dutra-St. John
January 26, 2009
It was one of those weeks. My fifteen-year-old daughter, stressed beyond capacity, kept snapping at everyone. I reminded myself that anger is always a cover for other feelings and, in an attempt to help, as well as to move the rest of the family out of the crossfire, I asked her if she wanted a "session."
A session combines the tools of "emptying the balloon" and giving "the gift of listening." Rich and I use this technique with our families, with each other, and in the Challenge Day organization. In fact, giving and receiving sessions is a very important part of the training that each person goes through in order to become a Challenge Day leader.
At first my daughter just mumbled, "No," which I took to mean, I want to, but I'm really scared. Finally she released breaths of fire and reluctantly followed me into the most private room in our house.
My goal was to stay open and be ready for anything in order to support my child in her journey through the pain of her unfelt feelings and into the discovery of a new part of herself.
I stood approximately four feet away from her and looked into her eyes. This gave her plenty of space to breathe, feel, stomp her feet, and move her body like any child who naturally remembers how to collapse into a tantrum. I did my best not to look anxious or "weird." My highest chance for success was to be open with no agenda, and instead just listen and trust the natural process.
As she breathed deeply her face reddened and it seemed as if she was contemplating blowing me off. I imagined it took courage for her to trust me enough to go into her feelings instead of shutting down or numbing out. I guided her by suggesting, "Why don't you finish the sentence, 'I am angry that…'"
That did it. Tears began flooding her eyes and rage exploded through every vein as she yelled, "I am angry at you!"
I silently reassured myself. Okay, here we go, she is going to start with me. Don't get hooked, just listen.
She continued yelling, her voice growing louder with every statement, but she still seemed a bit tentative, as though checking in to see if I was truly ready to hold her anger. Then, blasting through her doubts, she shouted, "I hate that you are always gone! Every child in the world is more important to you than your own!"
She'd triggered my defensiveness, and my mind searched for rebuttals. When I am home, you are always busy with your friends and you rarely have time with me anyway. But I kept silent, remembering that the only way this session could end with me feeling proud would be for me just to listen—no matter what. I stayed with her and asked softly, "What else?"
She upped the ante and took her best shot, screaming, "I hate you!"
My ego grew horns, but I managed to keep quiet. I told myself to keep my body in a relaxed and open posture while I let her hostile energy just flow through me.
She continued with a full head of steam, "You like Lauren more then me! You baby her all the time!"
My mind raced, my heart pounded and I suppressed the urge to protect myself. Instead, I held onto my goal of being as non-reactive as possible.
Then we got past her testing point and off she went. "I hate my life! I hate my sisters! Dad doesn't listen and he never trusts me! You are always nagging me, and it seems that my room being clean is more important to you than all the stress I am under!"
I breathed, softly but deeply, internally complimenting myself for being able to listen without reacting.
She kept going, showing no signs of slowing down. "I hate school! I don't know why they teach us half this stuff anyway! I feel so stupid! I am retarded and it is so embarrassing being in Special Ed!"
Now I wanted to take care of her and reassure her that she was brilliant. I wanted to list all the geniuses in the world who had forms of dyslexia. Yet I knew she just needed to feel, not be saved. I asked, very softly, "What else?"
She immediately responded. "I feel so ugly, I am so fat, I hate my body!"
I wanted to tell her about how our media portrays women and intentionally launches us on an endless cycle of hating our bodies in order to buy things in the hopes of looking prettier or thinner. But I resisted, remembering how fat I felt at her age. In my mind, I relived my desperate, secret life with bulimia. Strong waves of understanding rippled through me and I allowed some tears to spill—not so many that she would have to turn off her feelings and shift over to taking care of me but just enough to let her see that I got it.
My daughter was not just talking about her pain, she was fully feeling it.
As she continued emptying her balloon, she literally resembled a woman in full labor. "I have no clothes that fit me! All the other kids have nice clothes with brand names. Why do I have to be the poor kid with hand-me-downs?"
My parent's version of "You think you have it bad" rolled through my head, though once again I chose to ignore it. I actually felt excited that she was doing what I call, "following the thread in." I knew that her only true way out of this "feelings storm" was to go all the way into and through her emotions.
I kept encouraging her by repeating, "What else?"
With an intensity that shook the entire house, she wailed, "I can't do this anymore! I can't do this anymore!"
I felt proud for being able just to listen, which overrode any temptation to give advice, defend myself or fix her.
Then it came, every parent's biggest fear.
She screamed in agony, "I hate my life! I want to die! I want to kill myself!"
This was my final test. If I could be here with her through this, I could do anything!
I flashed back to what seemed like a lifetime ago, when I was in the mental hospital. Beads of sweat surfaced on my forehead. My inner cheerleader—what I think of as my higher self—chimed in by asking, What would you want your mom to do?
The answer came fast and clear. Just listen and love.
I vividly recalled the terror I had felt at her age when I was certain that I was going crazy. My compassionate tears flowed freely as I said, "What else?"
Her sobs intermingled with screams as her body contracted in spasms. Her movements reminded me of a three-year-old fully expressed in her body.
She cried for what seemed like an eternity, though in reality it lasted maybe 10 or 20 minutes.
I simply stayed in her eyes as I softly invited more. "What else?"
Gradually, her anger moved into what appeared to be sadness and grief.
At some point I said, "You are doing great."
She responded with a withering glare that I translated to mean, Don't patronize me!
I hoped that my off-track encouragement would not stop her release, and I remained totally present, allowing time for her emotional balloon to completely empty.
Then her breathing softened and she relaxed.
Instincts are particularly important in this part of the process and the mother in me knew that this was the moment to gently reach out. I took her hand in mine, and without interrupting the flow, I gracefully made my way over to a nearby chair and guided her into my lap.
She wrinkled her nose, which I was sure meant, Oh mom, I'm too old for that.
"Humor me," I whispered.
I had proven my safety. She allowed herself to fall into me, tucking her head into my shoulder as I began to gently rock her. For a few minutes, her crying increased, though it came from a more peaceful place. I was in no rush. Where else was there to go? What could be more important than this moment? I held her as we rocked.
Then, as if nothing had happened, she looked up with a giggle and said, "What's for dinner?"
In that moment, I knew she was complete. We had done it!
What an honor it was to midwife my daughter as she gave birth to herself through this session. Waves of pride spread through my body as I continued to say I love you in the most intimate way I could—by simply listening and holding space for her as she felt all of her feelings.
Being a teenager can be extremely challenging. Adults tell you what to do and where to go. You have to make major decisions that can affect your entire life, at the same time that your body is changing, your hormones are raging and your feelings are often running the show.
As the mother of four daughters, I have repeatedly learned that the best gift I can give to my children is to remember that their feelings are simply feelings. The greatest way for me to say I love you is to be able to hold the space and listen to them as they move through their emotions—without taking it personally. Most every parent would agree that it is considerably easier to listen to other people's kids than their own, especially when the kids are ready to explode. So, throughout this process the only thing a parent needs to remember is to listen, love and ask, "What else?"
Giving a session is an art, requiring that one person intentionally listen while the other empties his or her emotional balloon. To do that, it's best to set a "container" solely for the session. The container serves two main purposes: the first is to establish a mutually agreed-upon time boundary for when it will end; the second is to be clear that in this container, and in this container only, the person "sessioning" has explicit permission to share anything and to express all his or her feelings in healthy and safe ways. The only thing the one offering the session needs to remember is to listen, and if needed, genuinely ask, "What else?"
When I give a session, I kind of split myself in half. One part of me is the outer or human part that just listens, while the other part is my higher self, the wisest part of me who silently coaches me through the process. It can be difficult to not chime in with my stuff or to jump in and fix things. I need my inner voice to remind myself that my job is to listen.
I remember this particular session with my daughter because of the many times I wanted to stop her pain and make her feel better. I longed to say, "You are not fat! You are not dumb!" At the same time, I struggled to keep myself from getting too defensive. I had to allow her to attack me and hold firm in knowing that I would be more proud of myself by taking it, than by becoming defensive, no matter what. In the end, my daughter was able to break through because I had proven that I was a safe refuge in which she could completely release.
I liken this process to the difference between pulling the weed out with the roots versus just cutting off the top. I went for the roots. My daughter was able to vent all of her feelings and completely empty her "emotional balloon." And I was able to let her know she'd done it perfectly by holding her when she was finished. That was one of the things I craved during difficult times as a teenager. I wanted to be held and rocked but I never asked because I thought I was too old or too big. Still, I longed for that kind of nurturing. The phrase, "Just humor me," has become a great tool. Saying it then allowed my daughter to surrender as I tenderly rocked and mothered her.
I feel so blessed every time I have the privilege to vulnerably support or midwife someone into, and completely through, their feelings. It's the same kind of emotional breakthrough that happened to me in the psych ward and ultimately saved my life. If you really knew me, you'd know that each time I do it with someone else, I picture a butterfly.
Butterflies are a miracle of nature. In order for a caterpillar to complete its journey through life, it must spin its own cocoon. Once inside the cocoon, miraculously, it allows itself to completely melt down into "imaginal" cells. The caterpillar melts in order to transform. Out of this natural, spectacular process of metamorphosis, a magnificent butterfly soon appears, ready to soar off into its new life.
What if, like the butterfly, we are also born with the ability to transform our lives?
If you have ever deeply and courageously "followed the thread" of your emotions to their origin and then emerged out the other side, you understand exactly what I mean. It can seem as though you are literally melting down and transforming.
Many people have certainly had the experience of being overfilled with feelings as their emotional balloons explode. But without someone listening and holding a "sacred space," it's all too easy to hurt ourselves or others, emotionally or physically, along the way. The melting down part takes place but the transformation is missing.
We used to inherently understand how to do all of it. But ever since we threw our first tantrum, many of us have been forcefully taught not to go there, that to express strong emotions is wrong. Children are punished for their tantrums and adults are shunned. As a result, so many of us never empty our balloons.
We need to be responsible for our feelings. Just as we care for ourselves by eating healthy, exercising and having a spiritual practice, it's vital to fully express our feelings in order to grow as human beings. The key is to intentionally set a safe container. In my ideal world, people would understand this process.
Ideally, our families would lovingly demonstrate unconditional listening as we rollercoaster through the full gamut of our emotions. Unfortunately, without access to the tools of setting a safe container and sessioning, most of us have been stifled, shamed, punished or perhaps even physically hurt as a way to shut us up. Regardless, no one is a victim here. If we are avoiding our feelings, we are continuing a cycle that has been passed down from generation to generation. Now, however, we can become more conscious and notice what we're doing so we can make a different choice, and then act on that choice. Steps for a Session Find a partner who has read this chapter or understands how vital it is for people to fully feel all of their feelings.
Create a container by choosing a safe and private place, and setting a timer.
Make sure you've got plenty of Kleenex on hand.
For the person in need of the session, commit yourself to allowing all feelings to be expressed. The listener commits to accepting those feelings without defensiveness, fixing or responding.
As the listener, you can begin the session by asking simple questions such as, "What are you feeling?" Remember, the best gift you can give someone who is having a session is to encourage them to fully empty their emotional balloon.
A powerful tool to get an anger session rolling is to evoke emotion by having the sessioner match your volume and energy by completing the sentence, "I'm angry that…!" This tool can be used as needed throughout the session.
Ask "What else?" if the sessioner seems complete, gets stuck or needs reassurance that you are still there and willing to continue listening.
After the timer goes off, pause, breathe, and allow the emotions to settle. Then validate your partner for his or her courage. Remember, do not respond to anything that has been said.
If necessary, "attention-out" with questions that move the sessioner from the heart to the head. You want to prepare the other person to either leave the session or switch to your turn, knowing their feelings are simply feelings, and that they can go back to school, work or life without their emotions running the show.
If your partner has sessioned about someone else and that relationship is not complete, make sure the sessioner goes directly to the person to clear up anything that is between them. Then have your partner come back to you and let you know when that has been completed.
What's said in the session stays in the session. It is crucial to keep all shares confidential. The only exception is if someone is in danger of physically hurting himself, hurting others or being hurt by another. In any of these situations, seek professional help and get your partner the support he or she deserves.