Children Are Our Greatest Teachers: What we can learn about emotions from a five year old

You are the sky. Everything else–it’s just the weather.”

–Pema Chodron     


The lifespan of any emotion is 90 seconds.


When I first came across this statement I was astounded. There have been DAYS – I’m talking DAYS in a row – where I’ve been filled with immense sadness. Looking back at my darkest times, that empty, hopeless and sad feeling was so crippling that I didn’t leave my house for DAYS. That was A LOT of 90 seconds! If you’ve ever carried a grudge against someone, felt the pang of heartbreak, experienced tragedy or the like, you know what it feels like to BE in that emotion and to feel like you’re never going to leave it. I wondered how the lifespan of any emotion could be 90 seconds.


In her book, Mind Over Medicine, Lissa Rankin speaks about the physiology of mood. Rankin says that our emotional suffering might start in the mind but it’s an embodied experience. Simply put: we experience our emotions IN our body. When we are in what Rankin calls a “dark place” (i.e. anger, fear, anxiety), we set off a stress response in the amygdala, an almond-shaped group of nuclei that is the boss when it comes to processing and storing memories of various emotions. That stress response, the emotion we feel and experience in our body, only last 90 seconds…IF we don’t add more stress response into the mix. And, while it makes perfect sense to not add fuel to the fire, when something happens and we feel bad, we tend to feed that emotion-to act on that feeling or build a story around it. In other words, we create a vicious cycle that keeps that emotion alive.


We all have stories. Some of us have carried our limiting beliefs and storylines around for so long that they hardly seem like a story. What starts as one self-limiting comment, as one-90 second experience, as one chapter, turns into an anthology. It’s a story we keep retelling and every new circumstance that comes up, everything that happens around us, just fuels that storyline. We find reasons of we’re not good enough or we’ll never get “there” in the world around us. My storyline is around being good enough. It’s a story that began when I was six and my brother walked away with the coveted Mr.Torresdale pageant award. Never mind the fact that I was awarded a trophy every year from runner up to second place; because I didn’t win the title, it was evidence I wasn’t enough. The not-enough storyline followed me in adulthood and supported my eating disorder. I believed if I was thinner, I would finally be enough. This is still a storyline that comes up any time I am presented with a challenge or am facing fear. As soon as the stress response is elicited, my mind shoots off like a sprinter out of the running blocks. The stories we tell and retell create a vicious cycle that keeps those “dark” feelings alive. For most of us, the 90 second experience seems like a pipe dream.


Emotions can spur us forward or they can hold us back. And, as I learned from my 5 ½ year old son, it’s all in how we choose to hold the emotion.


I have a rambunctious 5 ½ year old son Johnny who has more energy than he knows what to do with. So when he asked to play CandyLand the other day, I jumped at the opportunity to sit and relax. We start pulling cards and taking turns and each time I advance in front of Johnny he gets angry, telling me it’s not fair. I keep reminding him that at any moment I can go back to the start. This is how CandyLand operates. The back and forth advancing seems to quell him…until…I pull a special location card that moves me three spaces away from winning the game. At this point he picks up his game piece and throws it across the room, hysterically crying. I pull the proverbial parenting lines of I haven’t won yet…you can still beat me, no one will want to play with a sore loser, and it’s just a game to no avail. The tantrum magnifies as he begins to throw himself all over the floor and I decide we need a little time-out sess. As Johnny is in his room crying, I sit outside the door fueling a storyline of how I could have better parented the situation. I’m just delving into another chapter of ‘I’m not good enough’ as Johnny emerges from his room red-eyed and wet-faced calmly asking me to play again. This all happens within the span of roughly a minute and a half to two minutes.


Children are our greatest teachers when it comes to emotions because they are present with their emotions. In taking a tantrum or having a meltdown, they are able to FEEL the emotion at its deepest level rather than resisting the feeling or numbing the pain. Children also haven’t learned to hang onto the emotion to keep it alive longer than 90 seconds. They aren’t building a story around it. They get upset. They let it out. They’re on to the next thing. Just like that. With practice, we can feel the way we want to feel. With practice we can call up our inner 5 year old and fully allow ourselves to experience the emotion without judgment or storylines. It all comes back to awareness.


Our thoughts fuel our emotions and our emotions fuel our actions. But, we get to choose which thoughts we give power to. We have a choice to beat ourselves up for making a mistake; or, we can be compassionate toward ourselves. We have the power to take what others say to us personally and buy into that storyline; or realize what they say is a projection of their reality. We have the power to stay in an unhappy relationship because we’re scared of being alone or think we deserve that kind of love; or, we can call up the courage to walk away because we know we deserve better. We have the power to be a personal “doormat” and ignore our own needs; or, we can set healthy boundaries so that our needs are met. We have a choice. We ALWAYS have a choice. We can choose to fuel the dark thoughts of fear, anxiety or sadness by creating a storyline around the emotion…or, we can choose love.


Love is an evolving practice, not a destination. It’s a choice we have to make over and over again. And it’s the most important choice we can make when we are confronted with our dark places. Rather than resist the fear, love invites it in. It invites us to feel it fully, as a child would. Rather than picking up an old storyline, love simply reminds us to breathe and that our breath holds the power of awareness. Love reminds us that just as one breath follows the next, love is the answer to every challenge, however impossible it seems. Love moves without an agenda and it reminds us to move on from one experience to the next without attachment, to simply be present.


LOVE is our power. Love softens and dissolves fear. Love breaks through self-imposed limitations. Love amplifies courage. Love allows us to realize that we are love-that we already possess everything we need. We are the sky. Everything else is just the weather. And, if we choose it, our storms can pass in 90 seconds too.


Are you feeling how you want to feel? What storyline are you telling? Are you willing to hold up the mirror of love so that you can see what’s right about you?


To whatever life gives you this week, may you remember you have nothing to fear and everything to gain. Everything you need, you already possess within you right at this moment. You are the sky and the answers are within.