Emotional Toddlers

I’ve recently diagnosed myself as a “feeler” with a little help from an online personality test. I’m an INFP, and as far as I’ve been able to understand this means that my feelings are usually so close to the surface that they freak other people out. I don’t think this means I feel more deeply than other people. I just think it means I’m a little messier about expressing my feelings, and I frequently require time alone to settle down and run an emotional recalibration on myself.

I tend to think of this as a problem, especially when I am in the middle of a meltdown that I can’t seem to turn off. I’ve been reading a book this week, though, called The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron, and this book has reinforced for me what the personality tests also indicated. Being “sensitive” or “emotional” aren’t personality disorders or personality flaws. They are just personality. They are part of my personality type. They are just part of life.

I’ve been thinking about this along with something I got from another book I read this week. In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr talks about the fact that we need to get away from dualistic thinking if we want to grow spiritually. We do tend to divide the world into opposites: “If I’m not like you, something must be wrong with one of us, and I have to choose whether to blame you or blame me.” This is not good. The beauty of life is that we all get to be many varieties of different and unique and still be normal. We don’t need fixing nearly as often as we think. We just need to hold off on the judgments and love ourselves and others a little more.

Life doesn’t have to be divided into one or the other. If I can’t agree with you, that doesn’t mean I can’t be friends with you. If I can’t define an issue the same way you do, that doesn’t mean I can’t love you.

I’ve often thought that everyone needed brothers and sisters to teach them these basic human friendship truths. Brothers and sisters fight like the devil with each other and fight for each other to the death. They know that their differences do not define their relationships.

Brothers and sisters teach us how to get along with each other and how to get along in life. A sister teaches a brother how to treat women, and a brother teaches a sister how to treat men. In the best cases, we learn these problem-solving skills early because we are going to need them our whole lives, and according to Elaine N. Aron, we are going to revert to who we were as small children in our relationship conflicts throughout our whole lives.

So if I get into an argument with a guy friend, and I accuse him of being childish, I am correct. In the middle of a conflict, he will inevitably revert to being who he was as a toddler. I am also being childish. Conflict is a two way street. It takes two to take a conflict to the playroom, and as soon as one person goes there, the other is sure to follow.

We all become children in the face of emotional conflict or upheaval. There is no getting around this. This is not a disorder or a failure to grow up or a character deficiency. This is just reality. We are emotional babies one and all. The sooner we recognize this, the better off we are. Those babies inside of us need a lot of reassurance and a lot of emotional TLC. By the time we reach a certain age, it’s pretty certain that no one else is going to provide that TLC. We have to learn to give it to ourselves. We have to learn how to call time out and mother our own insecurities before our tantrums bring the whole house crashing down on us.

There’s more. Not only are we all different as adults, but we started out that way as well. We do all revert to infancy when faced with conflict, but we didn’t all have the same personalities as babies, and we didn’t all respond to fear and uncertainty in the same way. According to Aron, we can basically be divided into two camps: the babies that screamed for help, and the babies that shut down and hid out until the danger seemed to have passed.

I imagine it is often extremely difficult for the two different types to understand each other, but both are perfectly normal. We can call each other every name in the book, and it won’t do a bit of good. We are all just doing what we are physically and mentally programmed to do. We are all just being human, and humans never leave behind their infant selves.

When faced with conflict, you will very likely do one or the other. You will cry and scream and plead, or you will go into emotional hiding until the danger seems to have passed. People will try to tell you there is something wrong with you. You will tell yourself there is something wrong with you. There isn’t. This is the one way you are just like everybody else. You are just a child in the face of your own emotions.

Be good to that child. Nurture that toddler. Give that baby as many reassurances as it needs. Feed the baby. Rock the baby. Sing to the baby. Let the baby go back to sleep. And then get up and brush yourself off and do your best to find your inner grownup again.

How you react in the moment to conflict is not nearly as important as how you show up to make peace in the aftermath.

My friend and I once heard a dean say to a student, “It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility,” and we’ve been using that line on students ever since.

Be who you are. Be proud of who you are. Don’t let anyone tell you there is anything wrong with who you are. And if you have to melt down sometimes, go ahead and let go, and let it happen. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. It isn’t your fault. It’s just your responsibility. Own that responsibility in the end, and everything is cool.

Be the child you are on the inside, and be the adult you have worked to become as well. There is nothing wrong with either part of you. You are beautiful and unique and wonderful and lovable in all of your human messiness just the way you are.

At least I hope so because that is my lesson to myself today.

That and remember that other people are just toddlers on the inside too. When you are able, tell your inner toddler to be gentle toward the inner toddlers of those around you. Every single last one of us is just bumbling around looking for someone to reassure us that the world is not a scary place. The world is a scary place, and there isn’t much reassurance to be found. Remember this, and be good to one another.

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