The scene felt oddly familiar to me. Peering through our window, no one would have known we’d just had a three month respite from academia. It was mid-afternoon in late August at our kitchen table, and I was hovering watchfully over my whining child, trying to convince her six-year-old brain that homework is good for us. “Charlotte, work is good for you. You can do hard things. Let’s finish this so you can rest or play.” She couldn’t or wouldn’t get there, and I backed away, rolling my eyes, secretly nursing fearful images of her being a bum as an adult, failing to launch, and all of the other lovely prophecies specific to a parent who tends to work in order to feel safe.
I have a confession: I have not known what to do with a child who goes to paralysis when she’s anxious about schoolwork. For as long as I can remember, I have chosen the path of rigor. If I feel afraid, I lean further in. If I feel insecure, I redouble my work ethic. To the extent she avoids, I press in. This ‘pressing in’ feels productive, right, and wise. In my kinder moments, I am patient but requiring of her. In my not-so-kind moments, I only see her willfulness and internally call it laziness.
Thankfully, I have a kind friend who sees children’s’ hearts really well. In my work to wipe out Charlotte’s non-work, I asked her about it. “What if her willfulness isn’t the biggest thing operating when she sits down with her work, Meredith? What if she is sincerely flooded with anxiety about getting it right, and she raises her voice and her will to cope with that fear?” She suggested I let Charlotte stop working when she begins to wring her hands. “What if you let her come away from it for a little while? You could do something grounding together, like coloring, scratching her back, letting her tumble around in the den, anything that will ground her enough to help her re-enter her work?”
Flooding, grounding, re-entry. All words I use with adults in my office. Not words I think about with my child. All require me to be present and grounded as well, to let go of my penchant for pushing forward and accomplishing. All the same, my friend suggested I let Charlotte pull away from her knot of overwhelm, check in to something that calms her, and then come back to the work, covering up all sections but the one she currently needs to work on. This all may sound incredibly basic, but nothing could be more foreign to how I have handled my own performance anxiety.
This is a picture of the difference between self-preservation and self-care. Self-preservation speaks: it is all on you. You really are on your own. Scary things will keep happening; frustration, bad grades, bad reviews, rejection by peers, and you need to figure out how to handle and push past this fear. And you need to figure it out quickly. Push until you get exhausted, numb out to a screen, and then get up and do it again tomorrow. Above all, just handle it. There’s no time to ground. It is not efficient to feel or open yourself up to an activity that might make you feel something.
The picture my friend offered for my little one changes the landscape of an afternoon. There’s still flaring and whining, reluctance to focus on homework. But the door is also open to acceptance of her overwhelm. I may even listen to it, and help her figure out what will fill her up before doing the next hard thing.
This picture changes the landscape of a life. It is the perfect description of caring for ourselves. We could do something differently when weariness, fear or pain rises in us. We could actually listen. Self-care is the disengaging from the knot of all that ties us as adults, yet staying awake to another activity that helps us rest or brings joy. Self-care is also re-engaging in a realistic way, one that does not overwhelm or sprint forward, but engages the next thing. As we ignore our stress, we fruitlessly engage the tight knot within. Our failure to stop sooner leads to so much numbing. Numbing does not help us re-enter. Yet we exhaustedly collapse into it so often.
Choosing to come away for a time to fill up requires such real trust, in a Presence who witnesses, notices, helps, strengthens. His wise involvement will keep the world running while we renew. And when we return, right-sized as the children we are, we can really show up.
Meredith joined The Barnabas Center staff in January 2009, upon completing her Masters in Counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and her Bachelors in Religion and Psychology from Furman University. She counsels, leads women’s groups and teaches a seminar called “Hope in the Darkness” for those walking with individuals suffering from depression or bipolar disorder.