last week i went to see “won’t you be my neighbor?” a documentary about fred (mr.) rogers and his iconic television show that helped raise so many children in late twentieth century america.
my inner child and i sat in the theatre remembering this man who was our television neighbor, ally, friend and advocate.
what i mainly remembered before watching the movie was his kind presence and embodiment of pure love (as well as his puppets, train cars, sweaters and songs, of course!) but the movie reminded me that he was also passionately committed to presenting the hard realities of the day in ways that were more digestible for children; giving us all permission to safely feel and emote the wide ranges of emotion that come with being human.
his songs included bright, heart warming favorites like “i like you as you are”, “it’s such a good feeling” and “won’t you be my neighbor” of course, but also more shadowy songs like “what do you do with the mad that you feel”? and “sometimes isn’t always”
these more somber tunes let kids know it’s okay to mad, frustrated, sad, scared or whatever else they are feeling and reminded us that whatever we are feeling won’t stay ‘always’.
the movie also showed that this man, who had become iconized for his good heartedness and gentleness, had his own moments of feeling frustrated, discouraged, angry and unsure of himself and his purpose in the world.
if mr. rogers made space for all the emotions in the neighborhood, certainly we can give permission for all of ours.
we have been conditioned, for the most part, to think our emotions rather than feel them. we’ve learned that displays of emotion can be unsafe, unacceptable or indicative of poor character. but an emotion, in its purest form, is simply e* (energy) in motion. when we feel safe enough we will naturally emote (cry, laugh, growl, moan, shake, scream, tremble, etc.) this happens for anywhere from a few seconds to about two minutes; in fact, the full length of an emotional circuit in the body doesn’t exceed two minutes. when an emotion is kept in motion in it entirety, we almost always feel at least a little more space, ease and peace of mind with which to respond to what life is asking of us.
alternately, when we don’t feel safe enough we will wall off the emotion and begin to create stories and painful thoughts about it. the response becomes frozen and shows up in the body as tension, anxiousness or numbness (a strategy our body uses when we short circuit from an overloaded system). all of this bottled up emotion can’t stay contained forever or completely, and it will leak out in toxic ways all over our life, causing eruptive reactions rather than clear responses.
instead of feeling and safely expressing pure rage for one minute, we might go around leaking out small amounts of irritation for years.
it is also important to acknowledge that the emotion we experience is our own. as mr. rogers tells us, when we aren’t sure what to do with “our mad” we can “stomp, stomp, stomp.” he doesn’t tell the children, you can go scream at your parents and tell them how terrible they are. reactionary emotions directed at someone else are unproductive and tend to be generative of more of the same. when we give ourselves the space to emote without story or blame, then our responses are clearer and truer to our intentions and desired outcomes.
in order to do this we don’t need to just find an outlet – we can remember that we *are* the outlet, we just need to plug in to ourselves.
there are infinite numbers of ways to plug into our emotions. (i’ve shared a fun one below!) listening to or making music is a big one for me. as is screaming in the car with windows up, punching a pillow or dancing wildly with lots of unedited sounds. or more gently, finding a few quiet moments to do become present with myself or someone i love and trust, and simply acknowledging what feels hard, always opens my emotional gates.
one of my favorite and most and fun, accessible ways to get blocked emotion moving is “the laughing game.” to play this simple game, you simply set a timer for a minute or two and then laugh for no reason. and then laugh some more about the silliness of laughing for no reason and keep going. you can do it on your own, but is even more fun with friends, and especially children.
i shared this trick with a client of mine who shared it with her toddler son. earlier this week she sent me an audio clip of her four year old teaching his baby sister the game. i’ve had listened to it every day since and laughed right along with it every time, always feeling better after. below is a clip of it to get you started!
sometimes we’ve bottled up emotions for so long it can feel like once we open the floodgates, it will never stop. but i promise you it will. and finding a safe place on your body to come back, reground and breath slowly after an wave or two, will be very helpful in that.
so thank you, mr. rogers, and all the many allies in this world, who remind the children, and the children within us all, that there is wisdom to be found in all the many emotions in our neighborhood…. our sadness sensitizes us for compassion… our fear alerts us to potential threats… our joy reminds us to play through it all. they all play their part in the fullness of our humanity.
laughing, crying, screaming, moaning, shaking, dancing and moving through it all with you,