People have a lot to say when you are struggling with something in life. We’ve gotten so far removed from our feelings that we don’t know how to deal with them in others. It’s uncomfortable. So we say all kinds of crazy things to push people out of their emotional states, either by making them happy or by shoving negative judgments at them.
“Put on your big boy/girl pants.”
“Suck it up.”
“Buck up and deal.”
Underneath these phrases, we tend to mean “I have no idea what to do and I’m really uncomfortable”. I read one translation that said “shut the f*&! up”. This demonstrates that we (as a society) don’t have the skills to listen to emotional content. And occasionally, people truly believe that life is supposed to be a negative dull daily grind of unpleasantness. If so, then you know that you can take their opinion with a grain of salt.
Often these phrases are said as if to mean that you just have to grind through whatever difficult situation you are in, whether that’s a toxic job environment, a bad relationship, horrid housing, health issues, and more. This is not helpful or healthy for several reasons: (a) it creates a power struggle within yourself or with others; (b) it erodes connection and love between people; (c) it removes the chance to learn good coping skills and (d) it ignores the possibility of obstacles unique to each of us.
To push yourself through something difficult without integrating that it is your choice to do so, sets up an internal power struggle. The parent in you is saying “just do what I say” and the child is saying “I don’t want to”. This is how the issues of procrastination, tardiness, underachievement, and more, establish themselves. We’re ignoring our inner toddler, who has a good point.
Have you ever had a power struggle with a toddler? They dig their heels in. You’re in for a long haul if you don’t try two things: 1. empathize and validate their feelings; 2. explain or discover why and how.
Here’s an example: The toddler wants to go to the park, but doesn’t want to put their shoes on. You can stand there forever saying “Put on your shoes!” while they run, scream, kick, dawdle and so on. Or, you can let them know that you understand how much they dislike putting on shoes (they are uncomfortable after all). Then let them calm down as you continue to empathize. Once calm, you can ask them or tell them what the shoes are for and how they protect our feet. You can ask why they don’t like their shoes. And finally, you can talk about how to get them on if that could be the issue. It likely takes the same amount of time or less to go through this than it would to do the “yes”/”no” game. And you both walk away feeling more understood and connected to each other. And next time, it might not be so hard because you can choose a key word from your first talk and just repeat it. “Remember to protect our feet?”
We don’t outgrow these two needs, and we shouldn’t. Empathy and validation lead to connection and love, two of the most beautiful aspects of life. Why and How are two of the most powerful questions to ask in any situation. Our motivations and the steps we take to get to where we want to go give us power.
Another reason we can’t just “suck it up” is because it is important to process the feelings around the issue. Process really means to feel them, express them and understand them. When we are upset, we are supposed to express those emotions. That is natural and healthy. Yes, those weird, scary, uncomfortable, unpleasant emotions, they are healthy. They are part of the road-map that tells us which direction to go in. See the film “Inside Out” if you haven’t already for an entertaining glimpse into this concept.
Luckily, just grinding through life all on our own is NOT what it means to be an adult or to buck up and deal for that matter. It’s a huge myth that adulthood is all about duty and bland daily existence of chores at work and at home. This myth is creating a lot of mental illness, especially anxiety and depression.
Those who “grind” through effortlessly, often don’t even realize how they do it. Perhaps they are making things fun by turning on some music, daydreaming through the task (shh, don’t tell the mindfulness crowd about that), whistling, singing, dancing, focusing on doing their best, or whatever it takes to get the time to pass. Or they reach out for help from family and friends. Or they consider the possibility of delegating or trade those tasks that are most disagreeable to them.
And don’t forget the obstacles that get in the way. Have you ever decided to do something simple, like quickly run around the corner to the store for something, only to have your keys go missing and the traffic make you wait 10 minutes to turn left? That same thing happens with our bigger life struggles too. Essential to our success is including a plan to manage those obstacles either proactively or as they come up. Being aware of this in our lives and in others’ lives reduces our snap judgement that they are not wearing their big girl panties.
So that discussion that you are trying to have with someone, the one where you may be whining a little. That’s you trying to connect, and reaching out for answers to the why and how of a situation. And those of us around you, we need to be aware of that and stop pushing you away by saying “buck up and deal”. Instead we need to validate how hard that is and then help you discover the answers to why and how. And the next time you find yourself saying “put on our big girl panties”, you can remember to instead offer up how to do that, being open and aware of the obstacles that might be in the way.
Let’s help each other put on our big boy/girl pants rather than judge that they aren’t already on.
by Anne Pariseau – Anne is a licensed mental health therapist with a background in psychology and 25 years of experience in a variety of settings worldwide including the Yale Child Study Center and Trinity College Dublin. Through these experiences, she has developed a passion for bringing the lessons of therapy to the larger community, demonstrating how to shift attitudes and behaviors towards health and wellness.