Thursday, October 06, 2022

When I was 11 years old I attended sports and arts camp, and was consistently, repeatedly called Temikah. I even won a competition—likely the only sports competition I will ever win—and when they called me up by the name Temikah I recall a strong internal debate as to whether or not that could possibly be referring to me.

In more recent years, I’ve been called Jemima, Teminah and my favorite: Terminal. While this can be humorous and make for a great anecdote, it can also be frustrating to feel as if an aspect of myself—something so basic—is so easily missed.

So when people mispronounce my name, I typically provide a simple correction with low energy and the person will then apologize or just re-pronounce the name, perhaps asking me the origin or what it means. Bim, bam, boom—we’re done. If only it were so simple in other contexts.

How would you feel, if after an extremely long day you came home, knowing that you needed rest and a loved one told you that “you’re not actually tired, you just don’t want to help out” or if you felt blue and were told that “you’re not actually sad, you’re just bored!” So often we hear from others how we do or do not feel, robbing us of the connection to our emotions and instead invalidating our experiences.

Parents often tell their children, “No, you’re not hungry!” or quickly rush to say that a child who fell is not actually hurt and is fine. The intention is typically well-meaning; when it comes to hunger a parent may know that the child just ate and may even have complained of fullness just a few minutes ago. Or the hope that if the child knows he is not actually injured, this will then provide comfort and allow him to move on. But instead, the parent is actually causing the child to doubt himself and his awareness of his needs.

When we tell someone, “You’re fine” we’re essentially expressing that we know better about the person’s emotions and not leaving much comfort or opportunity to ask for help and support. Essentially we shut the person down and perhaps unwittingly lead the person to judge, question, and likely blame himself.

So what can we do instead? Especially in those moments when we know that the child is uninjured, may not be hungry, or we can’t quite understand why someone may be having a particular reaction?

1. Be open to the idea that the person may know best: Just because you might be full after eating a certain amount does not mean the child—or perhaps even adolescent or adult—is too. When we tell a child that he isn’t hungry anymore we are asserting that we know more about their bodies than they do, and also that they cannot trust their cues. The first step is considering that maybe your projection of an experience is not the same as the other person’s actual experience. We all have different pain tolerances in injuries or have different emotional responses to the same news or situation. Recognize that your way is not the only way.

2. Be curious: If you know, for example, that a child is likely bored—and not hungry—then we have the opportunity to help him connect to this and develop awareness, but it will not come from telling him how he does/does not feel. Instead, pose a question or curiosity: “I noticed you complained a few minutes ago about feeling full and now you’re hungry. What do you think could be going on?” By asking the child to consider the situation we’re giving space to explore instead of shutting him down.

3. Encourage reflection: In this example we can tell a child that we’re going to pause for a few minutes and then see if he is still wanting something. This is NOT “the kitchen is closed” or “if you’re hungry eat a fruit”—these comments only support a restrictive mindset. We want the child to actually sit with, and consider the experience in his body. “I know you said you’re feeling tired, what else could be going on?” Allow for introspection and communication—this allows the individual to consider alternatives without being told how s/he’s feeling or what s/he’s experiencing. Sometimes we may eat when we’re bored, or eat for a sense of comfort. This is normal and should not be shut down but can be done so with the reflection of the emotional experience, as noted above.

We want to support one another in identifying what we’re feeling. We also know, at times, that someone may be communicating one experience and yet we suspect something else entirely. It is still not our place to tell one another how the other feels or thinks. By remaining curious and posing ideas we can actually consider differing emotions while still continuing to share our opinions and even set boundaries.

My name is Temimah. And just as someone wouldn’t tell me, “No—I think you’re pronouncing your own name wrong,” I’m hopeful that we can stop telling others how they feel and instead practice more openness to listening.

Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 18 and older in New York and New Jersey who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, please visit www.temimah.com 

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