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The Reason Why We Cry Over Spilt Milk - and how to help each other

Expressing ourselves. It's hard to do. It takes articulation, an understanding of what we feel, and perhaps, most difficult of all, it takes vulnerability. We oftentimes prefer to close ourselves off, rather than express ourselves. We even build walls around our hearts that are impenetrable to close friends and loved ones. The burdens and stress, desperate to get out, can manifest itself in different ways: anger, short temper, withdrawal and more.

Despite us all having the same challenges, we are often less sympathetic to each other when we are going through challenges. We see the behaviours in others and immediately react to the change thinking, "she's being an idiot" or "he's just in a bad mood" or "how unreasonable are they?!" We see the behaviour and take offence. We don't always give each other the grace needed to allow us to be open to one another. But each offence taken and bad feeling we develop only makes vulnerability, openness and articulation harder.

My daughter, Aspen, used to get very frustrated and upset in certain situations. She would close off, hide her face and shut down all lines of communication. Sometimes she would shout at us and run to her room, hiding under her desk or tucking herself into a corner. One evening we were at a restaurant in Johor Bahru, sitting on a beautiful wooden deck that was raised above the sea, looking over the straits with Singapore in the distance. Our drinks had arrived and we were waiting for our food that we had ordered. Aspen leant over to get something and accidentally knocked over her glass of orange juice which was almost full. We managed to catch it and so only half of the juice was lost, along with some of the ice, and an attentive waitress came quickly to clear up the mess. Aspen cried loudly, visibly upset. I told her not to to worry, that I'd get her a new drink and that we would clear up the orange juice, but that didn't work. I carried her to the other side of the deck to look out at sea and to calm down for a little while. Aspen is a real daddy's girl and loves her time in my arms, but this didn't work - she pushed me away, ran back to her seat and sat on the floor, partially under the table. We couldn't understand why she didn't take the help that was given to her and get on with the evening.

A few weeks later, back at home, Aspen was making her breakfast - some cereal - and we had some friends with us for breakfast. Our son stepped back from the fridge and accidentally knocked into his sister, forcing the milk to slosh out from the jug and land on her pyjama top. She cried, shouted at her brother (who was incredibly apologetic) and ran to her bedroom where she sat under the desk and cried. My wife followed her, and made it clear in a calm, understanding voice that she could choose a fresh pyjama top, or get changed, or have a quick wash if she was concerned about the smell of the milk. For the first time ever, Aspen articulated something she had never articulated before that gave us huge insight to her behaviours and reactions.

"I'm just embarrassed" she said, looking at her pyjama top and crying sadly. Immediately, we understood, encouraged her - we let her know that no-one minded, that we all loved her the same and that no-one thought she looked silly in the process. She felt better and soon came around. She accepted her brother's apology more readily than normal and changed her top.

It was a few hours later that my wife and I were able to process Aspen's grasp of a new word and as a result, clear communication. We were able to point out situations including the spilt orange juice in Johor Bahru where she was embarrassed, but didn't have the vocabulary to express herself. The light had switched on and it all made perfect sense. I wished I knew that this was how she felt earlier, so we could be more understanding.

As adults, we often have the vocabulary but not the will. As we get older we tend to pick up more inhibitions and pride and close ourselves off. Perhaps the hurts we have received from beng vulnerable in the past get in the way. For some reason, despite all going through the same thoughts and feelings, we sometimes find it hard to have sympathy, empathy or compassion towards each other. Perhaps we are too bogged down with our own thoughts to allow others to occupy the space. I wonder whether you agree. I see it often. Colleagues complaining about small things others have done that have upset them. Friends taking offence to not being included, or to something someone has said. I've done it myself - responding harshly to someone who has seemingly poked their nose in where it doesn't belong. While sometimes a firm re-direction to someone about their behaviour/opinion/action is needed, do we also go a bit deeper to see if there was a good reason for the unwelcome action?

I am struggling to express what I'm wanting to say without giving more examples and writing what will become a book! But, some practical thoughts to help us move forward, perhaps....

1. How can you create a culture of openness around you? Even in the most hostile working environments, people can find connection with someone who cares. Can you create a culture around you that helps people to open up?

2. Ask, don't assume. "Hey, you seem to have a lot on your mind - is everything OK?" This sort of question can really show you care (please apply a kind tone!) Ask it with time to spare, so that there's space for an answer. Be ready for an answer. Sometimes we ask to be nice, but don't ask to listen. So listen. Be attentive. Follow up at a later date.

3. Be vulnerable. That's right. We can't expect others to open up and share when we don't do it ourselves. Vulnerability takes courage. In a safe environment it can be the most freeing thing ever, but in a hostile environment it can be painful to share. Understand the risks but don't hide away. In my experience, the risks of vulnerability are all worth taking.

I hope this has helped a little or given you food for thought. Please do write to me in the comments section here and let me know your experiences and thoughts on this topic. Thank you!

(Title image courtesy of iStockPhoto)

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