Hi EQ World Changers–

Have you raised a teenager? (or, oh my, are you raising one right now?) I have endless respect for you. I know everyone’s experience is different, but I have met enough parents with teenagers to know that raising one can be the most difficult job in the world. This week’s Illuminate is about an “encounter” I had with one of the teenagers I care about in my life, and it is really about navigating and learning from any fiery social situation. What if we could learn to respond proactively to uncomfortable situations? ​​​​​Will you stand in the fire with me? 

(ps- want to get the little gift of Illuminate in your inbox every week? Treat yourself for free here.)

Over the weekend, I witnessed this common family archetype: The fiery, flame-spitting teenager.

I was eating dinner with one of my favorite families, merrily chatting and making jokes when the nearly-teen daughter got extremely offended by something someone said. I’ve known this girl since she was a baby; she has always been a firecracker, but this was the first time I’d seen the teenaged version of her blaze. She hurled hurtful words, she glared with eyes of disdain, she stood up as if to show us how big she could be and how little she found us. The tension mounting, the rest of us flipped quickly through the book of pacifying tactics. We attempted to diffuse tension with laughter, backtracking, and hushed silence. All to no avail. The episode ended with her stomping righteously out of the kitchen, feet afire with blame and hatred. I felt stunned, hurt, awkward. It all happened so fast, and I spent the night pondering this question— what could I have done differently? How could I have handled this fiery situation with more emotional intelligence?

Have you asked yourself recently how you could have handled a fiery social situation differently? Can you bring a social situation to mind that could have used an ounce more emotional intelligence in it?

What could I have done differently? I don’t know that I have the right answer, but I did notice a pattern I played into. Everyone at the table, including myself, did what all humans like to do: We attempted to minimize discomfort. We laughed nervously, backtracked, and silenced ourselves. She was uncomfortable. We were uncomfortable. Rather than dealing with it proactively, we simply wanted to sweep that pile of discomfort into a smaller and smaller pile until it disappeared under the rug completely.

Come back to your own social situation. What reaction did you have? Did you react with an attempt to minimize discomfort, wanting to sweep the discomfort under the rug?
Or was your reaction more like that of the teenager– desperate and loud, shouting for action?

In discomfort, our brains are wired to fight (fiery teen), freeze (me hesitating), or flee (the dad trying to change the subject). In which category did your reaction fall?

We tried to sweep the discomfort of the teenager under the rug. But in life, and especially in life with teenagers, no rug conceals a behavioral habit for long. If we want to meaningfully change the trajectory of our habits, we need to lift up that rug, lovingly bang it with a broom, and explore all the dust particles free-floating slowly through the air. Only then, with our habits right in front of us, will we have the space we need to explore them. But this process takes time, and it takes a readiness (and sufficient safety) to step into discomfort.

Maybe just three deep breaths could open the door to being ready for that discomfort?

I gave this teenager precisely zero opportunity to explore her own rug. I followed my own pattern unconsciously which helped her follow hers unconsciously. If I could do it all over again (and one thing’s for sure— I will have this opportunity again!!), I would try to slow down the scene. In the future, instead of quickly reacting with discomfort-reduction strategies, I want to take a deep breath, put the scene on pause, and step closer to the center of her fire. I want to say:

“Can we stop here for a moment? I see a lot is happening right now. I don’t think I’m really understanding you — can you tell me again, what happened?”

I want to ask what emotions she is feeling. I want to ask her what her anger and disgust are trying to communicate with her. I want to help her explore her own rug. But first– essentially– I need to step out of my pattern of seeking comfort. She’s blazing with fire, instead of covering it, minimizing it, and I need the courage to acknowledge & stand in it.

How could you say or do something differently the next time a similar social situation presents itself? What questions could you ask the other people to slow things down and “explore the rug”? What response from you would both be appropriate for your situation but also yield a different result than responses you’ve tried before? 

My wish to step closer to her fire while it is burning could really help her grow. I want to honor this rich opportunity, while her rug is already shedding pounds of fiery silt and debris, to explore her patterns, habits, and stories. 

Next time, stepping closer to her fire would gift me an opportunity, too. I want to learn to be more vulnerable and courageous. I want to learn how to ask powerful questions in times of tension, even though I will feel uncomfortable at first. I know I am not as young as her, but I still want to change some stories I tell myself. I want to learn this new story: Discomfort can be okay. I want to learn this new story: Anger can be met with love. I want to learn this new story: I can step into the center of the fire and step out stronger.

This would let us rewrite the story. 

What stories could you change by responding differently? How could the other people in your social situation grow from your changed response? 

I want to step closer to the fire– hers’ and mine. I have made my decision. I don’t want to stand on the seemingly safe banks of discomfort-reduction tactics any longer.

Have you decided on your course of action the next time you face the social situation?

And, yet, I have to face reality. I may ask her my best emotionally intelligent questions, and she may stomp out anyway. She may yell and glare and lear at my softness.

Despite your best efforts to change your response, how could your social situation go differently than you would hope? What’s the worst case scenario?

If I can learn to step forward intentionally, I hope she will learn that I love her unconditionally, so much so that I will endure her fire and angst. In time, I hope she will see that I won’t give up on her, that I will provide her the space to slow down and learn together. To stand in the fire together, even when it’s really hard.

What personal values are behind your desire to respond differently? Even if the people around you don’t have the response you hoped for, how can you stay committed to your goals for change?

In the end, I think this fiery teenager showed me more about my own rug than I will ever show her about hers. Maybe we’re all just fiery teenagers needing to examine our own rugs, inspiring people along the way to do the same. Whatever the case may be, we owe it to ourselves and everyone around us to stop shrinking away from the fire of discomfort. Will you stand in the center of the fire with me?

PS- Please check out the full, magnificent poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer that inspired the “fire” imagery of this post here.

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Maria Jackson
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