I have been a classroom teacher for the past twenty-seven years and witnessed countless young people come through my classroom door hauling heavy bags of emotions. Sometimes it is not easy to decipher what emotions are being carried but usually the two emotions that stand front and center waving their arms and jumping up and down is anger and resentment.
Everyone has a story. You have a story. I have a story. Some stories are more traumatic than others. What we hold as our story shapes our perception of the world, the way we listen to others and directly affects our daily relationships. I believe that we all do the best that we can in life with the tools we gather throughout our journey and as we learn new tools we do better with life’s challenges. Most young people learn to “stuff” their emotions down and develop coping mechanisms, some of which do not serve them in a positive way. Some of the symptoms of “stuffing” emotions can look like withdrawal from family and friends, developing an eating disorder, numbing out with alcohol or drug use, or acting out by bullying, fighting, teasing, and gossiping about others.
Do you remember your high school experience? Were you stuffing emotions? Hiding out?
For many students going back to school in August is not a pleasant or welcoming experience. Some others look forward to going back school to get away from their homes filled with chaos and turmoil, hoping to find a safe space to be who they are and to possibly share what’s going on in their lives.
I know that I used high school as my respite thirty plus years ago. I loved being at school and couldn’t wait to get back in August for volleyball practice and to connect with my friends and teachers. I had a heavy bag of emotions that I was carrying around. It was the 1980’s and talking about what was going on in your life wasn’t commonplace. In fact the tools that I acquired by the time I was in high school that I could access in my emotional coping belt were based on shame. Not saying anything for fear of judgment from others or for speaking about a family “secret”.
I was living with fear and anxiety on a daily basis but no one knew because another one of my tools was to immerse myself into school and activities and be the best that I could be in all of my endeavors. This probably showed up as frenetic energy and my peers thought I was always trying to beat out the next girl in sports. If they only knew what was in my bag. I am grateful that I channeled my fears into something positive, but I was far from peaceful.
One of my brilliant life coaches along the way said once, “Lead from your wounds”.
I embodied that quote and realized that I could be an offer to others going through tough times and possibly heal some of my own wounds. I designed a class and a program that would address the concerns of young people and help them “lighten their load” so that they may thrive on life’s journey not just settle for mediocrity. The class is called REAL (Reality Education about Life) and the program is called Reality Check.
During our Reality Check program, we use an actual bag as a metaphor to show the effects of stuffing emotionsto our students. We use props like foam bricks to show what goes into the bag on a typical day for a student in middle or high school. Bricks printed with words like anxiety, fear, depression, perfection, sadness, and anger all attribute to a heavy load to carry around for a young person. We also teach tools for dealing with a heavy bag and how to lighten things up.
Some of these tools suggest talking with a teacher that the student feels safe with, speaking with a school counselor, journaling feelings and experiences daily, learning to shift their moods through music or art. The biggest challenge for the student is getting past the fear of judgment and realizing that they are not alone in their struggles. That each one of us has a story and our own bag of emotions that we carry around, we are not special in that regard. During our Reality Check program our intention is for the students and adult volunteers to realize that their story doesn’t have to define them and that they have choices that are available to lighten their load and help them live peacefully.
As we embark on another school year, how can you support the young people in your life? By emptying some of that bag that you or they may be carrying around? Let us all look at how we can lighten our loads in order to live with more peace and connection.