Mitch Abblett

Mitch Abblett Ph.D.

A Special Education

From the Mouths of Babes: The Solution to Suffering

Want to feel inferior? Babies are better than you . . .

Posted Jan 06, 2011

My seven month old daughter has it all figured out. She quickly smiles if something happens that makes her happy. It is so easy to get her going with laughing or giggling. All I have to do is tickle her under her arms, or make a sudden, dramatically goofy face (usually accompanied with a weird, loud noise that startles her) and she erupts with pure joy.

It's so clear for her. I find myself more than mildly jealous. Very young children are on to something that seems to evaporate once they get a bit older - often after only a handful of years. They may be more open to happiness because of one core reason: they don't have the ability to suffer.

I spend the majority of my professional time working with school-aged children who suffer a great deal - from the effects of depression, anxiety disturbances, developmental disabilities, social rejection, school failure, family conflict, and trauma. Without a doubt, these kids suffer. What is it about very young kids (babies through toddlers) that makes them different? Of course babies can suffer, you might be thinking. What about those who are neglected or abused in some way? What about when they merely wake up in the night and find themselves alone and afraid in their cribs? Of course they suffer.

Yes, they feel pain, but suffering requires more mental processing power than their little brains can muster. It requires what psychologists call "meta-cognition" - the ability to think about thinking. It's when you step back in your mind and "talk to yourself" . . . "I shouldn't have eaten that extra slice of pie - I'm pathetic" or "Other people are always giving me a hard time. Who do they think they are? I'll get even with them . . ." Insert your dialogue here - our more developed minds seem to never stop with the inner chatter about every experience we have. School aged kids and adults have brains that have developed enough prefrontal cortex to evaluate, judge, and compare. This mental perch we have on ourselves allows us to plan and navigate the world's complexities outside of high chairs and nurseries. We climb corporate ladders and scale Everest as a result. The problem is that this same perch of perspective can quickly become a cliff we throw ourselves off of.

It's like we each have those grouchy critics from the Muppet Show balcony inside our minds - nagging, badgering, belittling and blaming ourselves and others, and in the process, stirring up a whirlwind of suffering.

Pain is universal and inevitable. There's a purity to it - it's there to let us know that something damaging, or that we've lost something. Evolution wove pain circuits into our brains so that we would derive the motivation to take the necessary action to survive. Without pain, I would have grabbed my pizza out of the oven tonight without pausing to slide on a mitt first. Obviously, pain serves a purpose. Suffering occurs because of the Muppet-critiquing capacity of the prefrontal cortex in our brains (which is only beginning to develop in very young kids).

Current evidence-based psychotherapies (such as "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy" or "ACT") make this key distinction between pain and suffering. According to the ACT perspective, pain is "pure" but suffering is "dirty" - the result of our inner negative verbal chattering. Depression is deepened by self-condemnation. Anxiety is exacerbated by endless, irrational thoughts piling up in what amounts to a cognitive trash heap. Relationships are destroyed by inner rantings and ravings based on conjecture and unfelt fear of isolation and unmet needs.

It's what made me a lousy outfielder in Little League as a kid. While I did great as a third baseman when a line drive was belted my way, I often dropped the high pop fly balls coming at me in centerfield. The line drives deprived my prefrontal cortex time to chat away my chances for making the catch. Pop flies gave me seemingly endless seconds to chant silently like a monastic Charlie Brown . . . "Gonna drop it . . . Gonna drop it . . . Gonna drop -"

So what is the antidote? Since we can't climb back into the crib to live the rest of our lives (not without some scorn from our friends and family), what can we do to approximate what we knew (or more accurately and innocently did not know) as young kids?

• Learn to label your emotions . . . Recent research shows that activating the prefrontal cortex in a different way - to merely label the emotions you're experiencing (without evaluation or judgment), can help sooth the intensity of these feelings.

• Practice mindfulness awareness . . . Studies are piling up to show that mindfulness (such as that found through regular practice of meditation, some forms of yoga, or simple breathing exercises) can significantly reduce the effects of negative mental meandering, and can have benefits such as boosting the immune system, increasing resilience to stress, and even improving medical conditions such as diabetes and chronic pain. Studies are even beginning to indicate that regular, intensive meditation may actually change the physical structure of the brain to improve executive function.

• Develop a habit of "savoring" your daily experience . . . Train your brain to soak up the rewarding aspects of the smaller moments of your life. Eat more slowly. Linger a bit in your office before leaving to review all you accomplished during the day. Stop long enough to experience gratitude for what others have done or said in your direction.

Not only do we need to "smell the roses" more (as my seven month old likes to do with the fake flower poking up at her in her exer-saucer), but we need to learn to sidestep the weeds of our thinking that hide our experience of life. We need to take a lesson from young children and realize we are more capable of riding our experience than we think (because we think too much).

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