Did you know emotions only have a shelf life of 90 seconds? That’s it. 90 seconds. In less time than you can walk to the mailbox and back, in less time than you can clip your fingernails, in less time than you can sauté an onion, your brain has effectively rid itself of the very emotion that – a mere two minutes ago – was coursing intently through your veins.
When Bee was at that facetious toddler age – a little less than 2, maybe? – where they’re just sort of generally causing mayhem all over the place, she pushed an unopened cube of Table Topics off a shelf and onto my left toe. I screamed the most extremely guttural yell, like part cheetah or maybe bat, I don’t know. Bee’s eyes widened; my foot swelled. The toe broke.
(Of note: the Table Topics cube did not.)
I remember the pain lasting a minute or two, and then it dulled to the achy kind for the next six weeks. But in that first minute or two, everything was sharpened:
OMG my toe. I can’t believe that happened. Why didn’t I put the Table Topics higher on the shelf? She could have broken her own toe! Or worse! Why didn’t I know better? My toe hurts. Why am I such a bad mother? My toe hurts, my toe hurts, my toe hurts.
Between deep breaths, the retrieving of an ice pack, Ken coming upstairs from the basement to identify the animal scream, Ken laughing at my overreaction, me yelling at Ken for laughing at my overreaction, Bee darting her eyes back and forth between the two of us like one of those puzzling/creepy oil paintings, the purple, darkening, ominous foot, 90 seconds had passed.
My body had rid itself of the emotion: the surprise, the anger, the pain, the hurt.
My brain had not.
My mind was still holding fast to the story I offered it, the story of a mother who did not effectively protect her child, who did not effectively predict the injury, who surely could not effectively parent. Right? Wasn’t that what had happened? Wasn’t that the lesson here?
I held onto that story for every bit of those six weeks as I hobbled around on the broken toe, as I taped and retaped the injury, as I stuffed the swollen foot into my snow boots and winced, as I replayed what could have happened instead of my own broken toe.
My foot ached for six weeks, and it slowly healed.
But the story stuck around for a bit.
It still comes up. I’m still attaching it to random, miscellaneous emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, doubt. It’s a wonder my left foot doesn’t swell as the very thought reappears: Why am I such a bad mother?
I don’t think I’m a bad mother, of course. It’s a thought, an irrational one at best, completely illogical, and yet, it arrives with the emotion, like a flea on a dog, attaching itself, wading around in the fur far longer than necessary, impossible to rid.
The trick I’m learning, then, is not to invite the flea in the first place.
I’m learning to ride the emotion itself, to set some internal timer, to breathe through what arrives – anger, fear, anxiety, doubt – and to stop making up stories about it.
The emotion leaves every single time.
I’ve heard people sing praises of “breathing through it.” Of breathing through the pain, the chaos, those crazed moment where toddlers wail and dogs bark and toes and hearts break and sanity alarms bellow and good gracious, I am losing my miiiiiiiiind.
And I always thought “breathing through it” was dumb advice, as if life was just one big Lamaze class, and sure, it’s great in theory but when that baby is crowning, you’re probably gonna scream either way.
I can breathe for 90 seconds.
I can do anything for 90 seconds.
I’ve been practicing. And I think it’s been working.
The oxygen helps, sure, but I think what the deep breaths really do is distract your brain from chattering at you. It gives you something else to focus on so you don’t make up wild, angst-ridden stories like a mean drunk at a dinner party.
This is not the time for Table Topics, you’ll say.
Set the timer, 90 seconds.
Ride the wave.
It’s almost over.
Just 90 seconds.