Statements such as; “I can see that you’re feeling upset / worried / angry” do not land well in our house.
They are quickly returned defensively with “I’m not upset/ worried / angry”.
And whilst interoception challenges / alexithymia are factors we also juggle, what I am referring to here is not about ‘not knowing’, it’s about ‘don’t tell me!’
If instead, we offer an acknowledgement of how tough something is; “I know and understand that x is really difficult, or it’s really hard or upsetting when x happens”, it can feel much more supportive and validating.
I make sense of this in terms of how threatening it can feel to have your inner world commented on. Our feelings are very personal and when they are big feelings, they can make us feel very vulnerable. Having our feelings named, can therefore trigger a neuroception of threat and naturally lead to a defensive response.
When we talk instead about how difficult x or y feels (the external event or stimuli) and name the emotion that stems from experiencing the stimuli, it can feel much safer to receive and actually considerably more validating.
The former example might feel like an accusation or a sense of blaming the self, whereas the latter is much more about acknowledging how the thing outside of oneself; has understandably given rise to some difficult emotions. Ultimately, when we respect and honour the person’s experience and validate how an external stimuli is absolutely challenging, we establish a much safer and empathic narrative.
We live in a world, supported by diagnostic manuals, that all too often positions ‘the problem’ inside of a person. In some ways the experience of being told that you are anxious, or angry or upset can feel akin to this and therefore, be very threatening to hear.
There are many instances where it may be much more helpful (and accurate) to identify and validate the source/origin of a person’s distress and this will more often than not be within their environment or relationships.
Emotional literacy and supporting children to name emotions is so important, but in the context of Autism, PDA and anxiety, textbook approaches need considerably more thought and consideration.
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