Contagious Emotions and Giving Space

I am a formerly highly emotional person, who now is almost flippantly cold. The change does not shock me, and I know the root cause: GRIEF. But that is not the topic of this post. That will be another day. But let’s say the grief I am talking about is not your run of the mill grief, not the kind after someone you kind of knew died or left you. It is the BIG kind. The kind that makes you beat your chest and scream, and afterwards you are incredibly numb for years on end.

After this grief reentered my life, I have worked hard to not make the same mistakes as the last time I faced this beast.  Namely, I do not want to be emotionless for a while and then one day break into a million pieces, unable to pick myself back up. So I am slowly, every so slowly, attempting to give myself space to feel emotions. I ask myself to search for feeling, not to ignore it or actively push it down. I do my best to stop the dissociating and actually FEEL stuff. Sounds easy, but it is not. Three years into this big grief and the emotions that peak through seem to flood out in a fury, overwhelming and scaring the rest of my feelings quickly back into submission.

One thing I have noticed during this time is how contagious mood and emotional response can be. I can be pretty chipper, going about my day with an almost hyper attitude, because I am accomplishing so much. Then I run into someone who is not, and you can almost hear the air being let out of my balloon. Within about 10 minutes I am flat. Now equally as sad, depressed, dejected, frustrated, irritated or whatever it may be, as the person I am interacting with. It can infuriating. It can be downright ridiculous. I remember trying desperately to keep a positive attitude while working in a factory, but everyone’s mood just kind of melted into mine. So I am faced with a problem, how do I give myself space for my own emotions and moods, and also give other people there’s? In the past I simply cut out people who were not what I wanted to be around. Which of course has meant loneliness, because who is positive and encouraging all the time? Clearly this is not the way to go.

In my personal life, I have coached my significant other in holding space for me and my unpredictable moods while simultaneously encouraging him to explore his inner landscape. He is similarly detached from his emotional state, and also experiences random break through moments of intense, usually negative, emotion. So here we both are, trying to connect to our emotional states, asking ourselves how we feel, and attempting to describe our own experiences with more “feeling words.” As you can imagine, it has been messy. He has done really well with it all, and is getting very skilled at holding space for me and my moods. Not trying to swoop in and fix it, but just allowing me to feel something and being okay with it. However, he recently pointed out I do not give him space for his emotions. And he is 100% right. It is as though he is never ever allowed to be the least bit upset or angry, never allowed to be frustrated or sad, I expect him to be positive and encouraging 100% of the time. And that is wrong.

Now we reach today’s dilemma. I was pretty upbeat at work, and as the finish drew closer, I got more and more excited to go home and see my family. Especially since we had a planned evening out at Chuck E. Cheese already paid for by someone else. So I return to my home in a tremendous hurry, walk in and am greeted by the most adoring sound of “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Ready to go!” from my enthusiastic toddler. Ah, the warmth. Fifteen seconds later, her Dad walks out of the room, and my heart drops. I can tell from his face, body language, tone of voice and behavior that he is definitely not feeling chipper. His mood is deep and dark, he is ruffled, irritated and frustrated. I acknowledge it, but really I am saying he better change it. We head off to Chuck E. Cheese, and he is still dark and stormy, we tiff a bit in the car because it takes me no time to adopt and mirror back his roughness. Once there, it is clear he is unorganized, flustered, barely able to handle the interactions taking place. So I take over, order and set about getting to the fun. I became tense, scared, nervous, apprehensive, and slightly pissed that he is not happy. Here we are at Chuck E. Cheese and it is costing us nothing for goodness sake, put a damn smile on I think to myself. But really what I am doing is invalidating his already fragile emotional state and totally failing at giving him space to feel what he feels.

The evening continues and he is easily set off, which then makes me easily set off, and I spent the rest of the time just staying out his way and playing alone. Why? Because his mood was so freaking contagious I had to walk away. But inside I just wanted to scream at him to “Get over it!” And I am really not the great at hiding anything, so he can tell I am not giving him space. And I am sure he loves it when I repeatedly badger him with, “What’s wrong? Are you okay? Seriously, what’s the matter?”

At some point I was able to find enough of my own space to let loose and really enjoy myself for a few minutes. The kids were laughing and getting a kick out of this new experience and it filled me with joy. The joy was fleeting, but hey, I felt a positive emotion! Woohoo! But then a second later, I am back to absorbing the mood of my guy. Damn it!

We closed down the place, and of course the kids are exhausted and starting to act up. I expect it, and am just rolling with the punches, and doing my best to get them to bed at a decent time. But then again, I have been doing this parenting gig for 10 years now. With the seven years experience in my pocket helping someone else raise their kids, I know what to expect. I know that overtired kids are assholes, and that the entire experience of parenting is exhausting, no matter what. My poor guy is getting his first taste of all of this, he has no younger siblings, no close connections with any young kids of any kind. And so he is often taken off guard, he usually has no idea what is next, and fails to see the “kid view” of why they are behaving they way they are. As the nighttime routine drags on, and the kids get more and more restless and crazy, his mood darkens further. By the time they are asleep, we cannot even talk, he is too down in it. The only thing I get from him is, “I am not cut out to be a parent. I hate this.”

For some reason, I am absolutely crushed by this. I feel it is my fault we have these children. I feel like I single handedly threw him in the deep end of life by making him a parent. I was already a parent, a step-parent, but still a parent. These battles are somewhat familiar, and not nearly as frightening and novel to me as they are to him. And I absolutely love being a mom. Do I cherish every single freaking moment? Hell no. I have days were I am a terror and far more melancholy than him, but overall I just love it. When they spread food all over their face, when they mispronounce a word, when they accidentally do something so hilarious I fall to floor laughing. Life is so interesting with them. They challenge me to be a better person, they make me keep myself accountable. And they force me to heal myself rather than go further down into my neurosis. Which is why I am trying to find my emotional states again, for them. I am so incredibly grateful to be their mother, and I want to stay home with them as much as possible. In fact, I really hate going to work and leaving my kids, especially the one still breast feeding. When I gave him the whole day to “play with the babies,” I thought it was a gift, not a burden. When I planned this whole free outing, I thought it would enrich us, not drag us down. So my heart feels crushed, I keep pushing back the feelings and am genuinely uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable with his emotional state, and am doing a piss poor job of giving him space. How do I simultaneously give myself and others space? Yeah, I have no clue.

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