There’s been plenty of times I’ve decided I’m having a bad day and it’s barely 7am. I’m a neurodivergent parent of neurodivergent children in a world that doesn’t sync well with our kind. It’s not hard to decide you’re having a bad day by 7am.
But it’s not useful to make the call that the day is bad and for a couple of reasons. Firstly, judging the whole day by what’s happened previously and what is happening right now doesn’t make a lot of room for the day to get better. We all know this. We know that once it’s announced a bad day, it tends to stay on that course. Our brains have a natural negativity bias anyway, so we all notice the annoying stuff with much more frequency than we notice the neutral or pleasant stuff. Some of us have brains with negativity biases on steroids – unless it’s a lotto win, we don’t categorise it as ‘good’. We are wired for disaster. Deciding we’re having a bad day pretty much auto writes off any hope of deliverance from that disaster.
The second reason though is a bit more complex. Sometimes something seems really bad in the moment. Last Friday, I was curled up in a ball howling over something that seemed very bad. I rocked back and forward and the pain in my chest made it hard to get an in breath. By any objective measure, it was bad.
After 20 years parenting though and 45 years of self reflection (yes, I’m sure I started ruminating from birth), I’ve learnt some things that made that bad, bad moment, okay.
I know that whilst this moment right now is horrible, the intense feelings will pass as they always do, and the dinner will still need to get made, and your mind will wander to some other topic and the big waves of emotions will calm. They always do. Eventually.
I know that big feelings tend to amplify the more you feed them. My food of choice is a voice in my head re-telling the story of whatever made it bad over and over. And when my mind begins to move to other thoughts, that voice finds a way to get my attention back on the bad and keep it there.
I know that FEELING where the bad is settling in my body and putting my attention there, instead of playing house to my thoughts, means the intensity will pass sooner.
I know that sometimes, what is very bad in the moment can actually turn out to be a good thing in time. Your family holiday is one heavy struggle to the next and you’re sure you’ll never do it again. A couple of weeks later, your autistic kid tells you they had the best time ever and recounts all the highlights with a lit up face.
I know this to be true for me and I see that it is also true for my children, who are both drawn to finding the bad with all the genetic power that I blessed them with.
I am no believer in wishful thinking and neither are my children. We cannot ‘replace the bad thoughts with happy thoughts’. If you try telling us all that we have to be grateful for and to cheer up, we will eat you. We are not able to be cognitively moulded by happy thoughts and we’re suspicious of anyone this actually works for.
What we can do though is better understand that ‘bad’ occurs in a moment or moments. Sometimes in long moments. But if we give those moments more attention than they actually need…if we allow them to influence our whole day or longer, we are robbing ourselves of the reality of all the small neutral and pleasant moments that are also there if we are present for them.
I’m not telling you to stop and smell the roses.
I’m not suggesting you look on the bright side.
I’m suggesting that paying closer attention to what ‘bad’ actually is when it happens – how it settles in your body and what thoughts you have while you are in the midst of the bad, will change how you experience the bad.
You’ll find that it will rise in reaction to something.
It will seek to hold your attention for as long as it can.
It will be felt in your posture or your gut or your chest or somewhere else.
It will have peaks and troughs and eventually, it will lessen.
I know that if you watch that process carefully many, many, many times, bad will become just a series of moments. Horrible, frightening, uncomfortable moments. But they will pass. And you won’t get lost in them or make big calls that your day or even your life, is bad.
Parenting children is overwhelming. In our house, ‘bad’ is sure to visit at least once a day. I bet it’s the same in your house. You can’t really stop the bad from happening, but you can change what you do when it does. And if you can do that, the bad won’t seem so powerful.