Mister Rogers' Emotional Neighborhood
Fred Rogers' most important legacy.
Posted Mar 21, 2012
No, really. How are you feeling? Do you even know?
While there are many different definitions of emotional intelligence, they all include being able to recognize, identify, or perceive one's own feelings. The idea is simple, but the regular practice of staying with our emotions long enough to know them is often very difficult, especially in a world that calls for our divided attention at every turn and a recent suggestion is that digital multitasking may impede young people's social and emotional growth.
For this reason, the renewed popularity of Fred Rogers, on whose lessons of emotional intelligence many of today's adults were raised, should come as no surprise. From the new PBS documentary by Benjamin Wagner, Mister Rogers & Me, to Tim Madigan's re-release of I'm Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers, we can't seem to get enough of the gentle wisdom from the man in the hand-knitted sweaters.
What is Mister Rogers' enduring lesson? Both Wagner and Madigan stress the life-changing impact of simply acknowledging their feelings rather than trying to ignore them, reason them away, or solve them. Madigan remembers:
"We met during a newspaper interview in 1995, and he immediately extended an invitation to friendship.
That invitation came at a time when my life was at a very low ebb. I thus was blessed with an otherworldly guide through periods of debilitating depression, times when he gently encouraged me to share everything about my tattered insides. 'Anything mentionable is manageable,' he would say."
Wagner recounts Rogers saying, "I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex."
Simple, however, is often far from easy.
Psychologist and author Kazimierz Dabrowski also knew the value of recognizing and sitting with our emotions as a way not only to know who we are, but also to become the best person we can become. Dr. Sal Mendaglio, editor of Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration, reminds parents and other adults that mentioning, not managing, is the first step, and that we should not rush in to or assume that we can "fix" emotions:
"Emotions must be dealt with first. Parents and teachers need to respond in a sympathetic/empathetic way. But, they should avoid scripted or counseling type responses that will likely be seen as superficial or gimmicky... There are some obvious types of responses to avoid: Why are you so upset about that? It's not that important; have you tried this other way of handling the situation? The first type is evaluative, and the second one is aimed at problem solving. Neither response is appropriate, because they tend to stifle emotion expression. Appropriate responses are those that are aimed at encouraging expression of emotion, which is what we need when we are emotional." [emphasis added] ~ From "An Interview with Sal Medaglio"
Dr. Norman Rosenthal offers several ways to enhance our emotional intelligence, beginning with taking the time to sit with our feelings, without judgment. We can also work to build our feeling vocabulary so as to have more verbal resources with which to name our feelings, and to use our new vocabulary within the earshot of children to give them the tools with which to make more of their own feelings mentionable.
How can we best respond to the difficult emotions of others? While we might be tempted to offer wisdom or otherwise try to change how the person is feeling, we can often offer the best guidance with simple and sincere acknowledgment that such feelings are valid rather than wrong, however difficult or embarassing the emotions may be. As an adult, Fred Rogers still remembered the hurt of being told to pretend that the bullying he faced as a shy, overweight eight year old did not bother him. Amy Hollingsworth recounts in her book The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers that he "wanted someone to tell him it was okay to feel that way, it was okay to feel bad about what happened, and even to feel sad..."
Rogers reacted very differently to Benjamin Wagner, after Wagner shared the painful details of his parents' divorce: "That must have been very difficult for you, Benjamin," he acknowledged. Then Mr. Rogers strolled to a piano and allowed the emotional language of music to carry the conversation forward.