Monday, January 30, 2012

when words fail us

Working at a residential placement for teenage girls with serious emotional and behavioral disorders, I am challenged every day by frustration, anger, fear, and disappointment. Unexpectedly, it is not my own, but theirs: the frustration after she studied and still failed a test; the anger when her mom announced she is moving to another state; the fear that she will never have a real home again; the disappointment from finding out her court date has been pushed back. I have seen girls so desperate to release their escalating emotions that they break windows, slap each other, and even cut themselves. As a student of psychology, I understand that destructive behaviors like these are genuine yet inappropriate attempts to regulate emotions or “big feelings,” as a former supervisor calls them.

Despite this psychological explanation, I am still amazed by the extent to which relational and personal experiences can be felt in an intensely physical way. After returning from a difficult home visit, one of our residents dissolved into a violent breakdown, during which she confirmed my developing theory that emotional experiences are deeply connected to physical reactions. While clutching her stomach tightly, she shouted to anyone who would listen, “I have this anger inside of me, here.” Minutes later, she swung a broom at the office window. Oftentimes we discourage such physical reactions and suggest that others use their words to communicate. However, there are moments when words fail us and we can no longer articulate with language what is happening or how we feel. Acknowledging the limits of verbal communication, we must ask this question: How can we express ourselves without speaking? And from there, let your creativity take over...

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