My two year old daughter bursts out laughing: “Again! Do it again!” Usually I can’t help smiling when I hear her playing like this. Instead, I feel my chest tighten and my lips squeeze together in a grim line. My husband is the one playing with her, he’s the one bringing forth her laughter and enjoyment with his new animal game, and I am jealous. This scene has been repeating itself over the past few days, ever since I noticed that my husband has come up with some new games that my daughter finds irresistibly fun.
Coincidentally, as I write this post, my two brothers are visiting us in our little town in Ontario, Canada, and the jealousy has started to creep up between us, too. Just a minute ago my younger brother and I sat quietly working on our own projects, side by side. As soon as my older brother joined us, they started talking to each other, sharing inside jokes and getting distracted from their work. Right away a chain reaction of thoughts starts going in my head: “my younger brother has more fun with my older brother than with me”, which leads to “my older brother is more fun and has a warmer and closer connection to my younger brother than I do,” then “I am fundamentally less capable of forming warm, close relationships” and, finally, “I am less loved and less deserving of love than my brothers.”
These thoughts come with a strong wave of feeling, especially the feeling of being rejected. I feel like I have been permanently placed on a lower rung of the ladder of human worth – a ladder that I intellectually don’t believe in, but which looms up, terrifyingly real and threatening, when jealousy comes around. It’s a ladder that I formed in my mind years ago, and I placed myself firmly on the lowest rungs when my older brother got more laughs from our relatives, when he won our arguments, or when he (as an innocent young child himself) called me stupid for crying over a lost game of checkers. For most of my life, I have been holding onto these uncomfortable beliefs and feelings without knowing what to do with them. And when they become more pressing than I can currently tolerate, I resort to old familiar behaviors to try to get some relief.
As a young child, these behaviors gave me the best chance of relieving some of the vulnerability and terror that arose when I felt rejected. One strategy is to imitate the ways that others appear to “earn” love. In the case of my daughter, I’ve been paying attention to the games that my husband plays with her, and have been trying to replicate these games. These are not casual attempts to try out something that I think might be fun for my daughter. Oh no, the energy is not carefree at all. I feel tense and desperate to prompt joy and laughter in her, as if to say: “you’d BETTER laugh and enjoy this game with me as much as you do with daddy! PLEASE prove that I am just as fun and interesting as he is!” My daughter can sense that something is off, and neither of us is having fun.
I’ve also used an old strategy where I blame my husband, telling him that my suffering is his fault, because he’s set me up to have an unrealistically high opinion of my skills with children. I’ve reminded him how, a couple of years ago, he told me that I’m “remarkably good with children.” Yesterday I yelled at him: “If I’m so freaking great with children, why can’t I get on my daughter’s level, and play in a way that she finds engaging and fun?! You set me up to think I’m so fantastic with kids, that’s why it’s so painful to see that I suck at playing with my own child!” I am deaf to any logic or perspective, such as, being great at something does not imply being better than everyone, at every aspect, at all times. When I blame him, what I’m really doing is finding a “bad guy” to rage against, which brings some temporary relief from the vulnerable feelings of inadequacy and rejection. Sometimes I find more indirect, or passive-aggressive ways to offload my feelings. Once when I was washing dishes, he sat down nearby to play with my daughter. I started to feel that heavy feeling in my heart, and right away I turned the water on full blast, and made sure to leave it running when I stepped aside to get more dishes. The reason? My husband is irritated by the idea of wasting water, so I was trying to evoke his discomfort with the sound of running water to “get back at him” for the discomfort evoked in me by the sound of my daughter’s laughter.
There is another layer of vulnerability that I am trying to stay safe from here: I feel a lot of shame every time I am jealous, especially jealous of those closest to me. I have a judgment and a belief about jealousy that it is a “bad” feeling, and when I am unable to suppress it, I have a gradually growing reserve of aggression towards myself for feeling jealous at all. This shame drives me to hide from my daughter and husband when I see them together, to shrug my husband’s hand off of my shoulder, stomp off to the basement and slam the door.
This morning I dropped off my son at school, and the long walk home gave me some time and space to reflect on my commitment to taking responsibility for my own feelings. In the past couple of years, with the support of Purejoy, I discovered that there is an alternative to suppressing, numbing, fixing, or offloading my feelings onto others. And as I walked, I reminded myself (I seem to need endless reminders!) that it does not matter how thoroughly I can describe what’s happening with my emotions, it doesn’t matter how many blog posts I write about it – I have to actually do the uncomfortable work of welcoming all my vulnerable feelings. All of a sudden, while walking through my neighborhood, I opened up to the unconditional kindness and compassion that have become increasingly familiar since I started practicing the SafeSeat. I opened up to the feelings hiding underneath my recent behaviors.
I said to myself, “Oh, sweetie, of course you want to be the fun one. Of course you want your precious daughter to laugh with you more than she laughs with anyone else. Of course you want her to affirm that she adores you, that you are loved, because that’s not something you grew up knowing with any certainty. All those times when you thought your brother was getting more love than you, those were so painful, and you didn’t know what to do about it.” I kept walking, and crying, with my hand on my heart. “Sweetie, I’m here now, I see you and hear you. I see how much it still hurts to feel rejected. I see how much you punish yourself for these feelings, and especially how much you punish yourself for acting them out. I see that these are your innocent attempts to hide from your pain, and to earn love. And the reality is, sweetie, you are sooo lovable. You are just as precious and wonderful and innocent as your little daughter.”
I stopped for a moment and wiped my tears before opening the front door. Having touched and soothed the true, deep-down location of my pain and discomfort, I was now ready to walk through the front door, to own my behaviors without shame, and to begin to shift back to a relaxed and open-hearted connection with my daughter, my husband, and my brothers. Will I still feel rejected and act out these feelings, today, tomorrow, and for the rest of my life? Certainly! And I remain committed to a continued practice of tending to all of my tender feelings, thereby bringing myself back into loving connection with myself and others.
Masha is a Purejoy graduate from the class of 2021. During the day she plays a lot of Guess Who and creates many video game-inspired interactive chalkboard challenges. When the kids fall asleep, she adds some jokes to her stand up routine, or stays in their bedroom, reading ahead in their chapter books by the light of the nightlight.