Standing at the kitchen bench cooking the family dinner, when a piercing shriek came from the next room. A shriek of pure terror. Dropping everything, I ran, my heart pounding. To find my child pointing terrified at the ant that had wandered into the play space. My relief was immediate and palpable. I laughed “it’s just an ant!”
Many kids are scared of loud noises, jumpy dogs, monsters, strangers, spiders, the dark, the space under the bed, all sorts of things. Being afraid is a normal part of child development, it is a sign a child is gaining awareness of the world, and is trying to make sense of what is around them. Research says that some fears, (for example, the fear of heights) are built in. Babies (and baby rats) resist crawling over plexiglass surfaces, but ducks don’t resist. Ducks can fly, and they don’t have the instinct to be scared of height in the same way. So as we grow we learn about scary things, but some of it is in our programming already too.
A child’s experience of fear is visceral and instinctive. The ‘danger’ appears, and the response is immediate. As the heart rate rises, shaking, tears or screams come instantly. They don’t pause to think, they just react. They feel it, they sense that something is wrong, and they respond. Loudly.
As parents we teach our children to be brave. To face their fears. Sometimes we try to brush it aside “why on earth would you be afraid of an ant?” or “there is nothing to be scared of, all the kids at your new school will be nice”. We try to teach them that some things are dangerous, but others aren’t. And that there is no need to be afraid. We rationalise with them. We talk them down.
And most kids do get more courageous, the lessons sink in and they learn to distinguish the true danger from imagined.
Talking kids down from their fears teaches them to apply a layer of logic over their instincts, to rationalise. To rely on their judgement, to ignore their feelings and ‘push through’.
I recently listened to a brilliant podcast about survival skills. A few women talked about terrible experiences of violence at the hands of the stranger. They were interviewed years later, and all said things like:
- when he walked in, I knew instantly he was wrong
- when I found my front door already opened, I felt strange, but went in anyway
- when he asked me a second time for directions, I didn’t want to offend him, so I helped him with his map
- he spooked me a bit, but I kept walking the way I was going
- I knew he shouldn’t be in my driveway, but he had a cute dog with him and seemed nice
- He offered to help me with my bags as I struggled up the stairs. I said No, but he wouldn’t accept that. It felt rude to keep saying No.
- When he stepped into the elevator, I immediately registered that I was vulnerable, but I stayed in there anyway. It would have looked odd to just walk out again.
There was a consistent theme of pushing your instincts and feelings aside. Of rationalising, ‘he looks safe, so he must be OK, right?’ A theme of doing the ‘right thing’ and not offending the stranger, not being rude. And a theme of not listening to what your body is trying to tell you. Using logic to talk yourself into something your body is telling you not to do. Using your logic to talk yourself into staying in a vulnerable position. All of the women interviewed said they saw so many warning signs, but talked themselves out of responding and getting out of there. They felt fear, and pushed it aside.
Not every assault is like this. Lots of violence comes with no warning. But often your instincts, your gut, your physical senses, your body’s reactions and your emotions can tell you things you are not quite able to see for yourself yet.
And it doesn’t just apply to assault and violence. Your instincts are talking to you all the time, about all sorts of more mundane things. When you interviewed a nanny, or first meet your child’s teacher, and something just didn’t feel right. When you feel sick every time you arrive at work. When you get that sinking feeling every time someone walks into the room. Or when you feel uneasy leaving your child to play with their new friend. The rush you get when you start your new job. When a loved one swears they are fine, but you have a deep knowing that they are not OK. These are all examples of your instincts, and your body talking to you.
How much do you trust your instincts? How much do you listen to the messages your gut is giving you? How much do you trust your feelings about things? How much do you talk yourself into or out of stuff you don’t want to do?
Maybe you make a habit of pushing your feelings aside and ‘being nice’. Maybe your well-intentioned parents encouraged this, way back when. Maybe you have been raised to not trust your feelings, but to rely purely on brain power to make your decisions.
Learning to reconnect with your feelings, learning to trust your instincts is another step on the adulting ladder we are all on. When you get clear on trusting your feelings, and relying on what your instincts are telling you, everything in life gets simpler. It helps you find the right career, parent better, speak up and say how you feel. Choices become easier. You back yourself and trust yourself. You stay safer, and you find more happiness.
Is it time you started listening to what your gut is trying to tell you?