How to cope with 'childish' feelings
What kind of response do we need from those close to us when we find ourselves getting upset over something ‘irrational’?
Our upset or anger may be triggered by a rejection, a jealousy or a fear. This could be feeling snubbed by a friend, not invited to a party or not being chosen for a role we’ve wanted.
When the anger and hurt bubble up the feelings can seem hard to deal with and we may criticise ourselves for being so ‘childish’. Partners and friends may also think we are being ‘immature’. After all, adults are supposed to be grown up and ‘rational’. We are not supposed to get upset about such things.
But being told that you are being childish and that you need to pull yourself together does not usually help. Instead, what we really need those closest to us is some empathy.
After all, that is how most of us would deal with a child who felt anxious or distressed about something. We would try and be understanding, as well as perhaps offering some strategies on how to deal with the situation.
But when we become adults our culture seems to assume that we no longer need this kind of support and that we must be about to handle everything ourselves and not need others too much.
This view was challenged by psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, who was a member of the Freudian establishment but broke away to focus on the importance of empathy and relationships in human development.
He argued that the child’s need for a supportive other did not end when the child became an adult but that we all continue to need empathy and support from people close to us throughout our lives.
Kohut argued that the child needs to have an adult who is able to truly empathise with the feelings and experience of the child. If this happens the child grows up absorbing (or ‘internalising’) this treatment and feeling that it is a worthwhile person. The child is able to then give itself empathy and understanding when things are difficult.
But just because we are grown up does not mean we no longer need that kind of empathy, especially when early childhood wounds are triggered.
Many people do not have partners or people close to them who offer this kind of empathy. It can feel easier and less threatening for people to offer solutions or ‘get a grip’ exhortations than to just empathise with the difficult feelings.
One of the roles therapy plays is to offer a place where someone can bring these ‘childish’ feelings. A good therapist will be able to offer empathy as well as helping the client explore whether unmet needs in childhood may still be influencing adult behaviour.
Over time, the client may be able to internalise the therapist’s empathy and become more able to empathise with him or herself and to contain those difficult feelings.