Ruth was so angry she could hardly speak. “I can’t believe that man did that!” she fumed. “I will never, ever, go back to that museum again.”
She began to tell me what had happened. Ruth’s extended family had gone to a children’s museum over the holidays. They lived in different states, and had not had the opportunity to be together very often. Since they were there rather late in the day, the museum was not crowded, Ruth delighted in playing with her nieces and nephew, and she had been enjoying helping them do crafts, learn how to do tangrams, and play in the different play areas. Her nieces and nephew lived far apart from each other, and it was so fun to see them play together and enjoy each other.
One play area was marked for children who were four or younger, and there was a sign by the entrance that had a measuring stick. The children were supposed to only go in that area if they were under a certain height.
Three of the children in her family were under that height and had gone in the room to play - but the fourth one was taller. She obviously wanted to go in the play area and play. Yet the room monitor would not let her go in the area. Ruth had talked to him personally, and had explained that since there were no other children there, and there was obviously nothing that could be damaged in that area, they were asking permission for this young girl to enter. “No,” said the monitor, “she is too tall.” Ruth’s niece was standing there, waiting, obviously shy and hesitant, and when the monitor said no, she turned, walked quickly away, lips quivering.
As Ruth told me this, she was still visibly angry. “I have never met someone so insensitive in my life!” she said, with great emotion. “It makes me so mad. I know just how little Deanna (the niece) felt, and I am just sick about it. My niece isn’t going to understand that it was about rules. She is going to think it is about her, and that something is wrong with her.”
Now I understood something. Emotions are tricky things. We feel an emotion - and as we feel it, we link it in our body with similar emotions that we have felt before. Our body links memory by the emotions and sensations associated with it. Ruth’s emotion in this museum incident had become linked with another emotion she had felt in the past.
Ruth then told me about an experience in her life as a child. She was ten years old. She was in a store, with her mother and siblings, and the children were doing their own Christmas shopping. She had brought her own money for this, and carried it with her in her piggy bank jar. Because it was cold, she had the jar tucked under her coat, and she held it with her hands.
Ruth was tall for her age, and because of this, people often thought she was four or five years older than she was. She was sensitive to that. On this particular day, as she was looking for Christmas presents, a store manager came up to her and said, “What do you think you are doing?”
Ruth was a shy child, and this came as a surprise. She said, “I am shopping.”
“What do you have under your coat?” the man asked her. He might have spoken kindly, but to Ruth, he was ferocious, and threatening.
“My money,” she said, and held out her piggy bank. The man looked at it, and said, “Oh, that’s fine, you’re okay,” and hurried away. She noticed a woman there, and suddenly knew that the woman was a customer who had thought she was shoplifting. The woman looked away too, and left.
Ruth never told her mother, never told her siblings, and simply walked quickly over to where her mother was, and didn’t leave her side the rest of the time they were in the store. Her mother never knew this had happened.
“I never went in that store again,” said Ruth. “When my mother took us shopping, I only wanted to go if I knew she was not going to that store.”
“That man was so insensitive! He had no business doing that. I was TEN, for goodness’ sake. I had a right to shop in the store, and he didn’t even say sorry. I couldn’t help being tall! I hate being tall! I hate how people judge you and think you should be older than you are.”
It turns out that Ruth didn’t like to go trick or treating - because she hated people saying things like, “Aren’t you a little old to go trick or treating?” Ruth mentioned several other experiences where she had been horribly embarrassed, and how she actually felt she wasn’t able to really be a child and enjoy things that were age appropriate.
We had a real discussion about how those emotions had affected her. There are many important emotional health lessons associated with this experience.
Point: We link emotions together with similar emotions we have felt in the past. In order to understand our emotions, we have to understand how this idea of “linking.” In order to heal, then, we have to ask ourselves when we have felt that way before.
At the end of our conversation, Ruth was calm. She was able to look at it with a little more objectivity. She was able to understand more about herself - and feel a little more forgiving of others. This is the starting place, and it is important.
She was also able to see that she could help her niece. Maybe it had been an isolated experience, and maybe the niece wasn’t really bothered long-term. But Ruth now saw that perhaps she could initiate a conversation, or find ways to help her niece understand that people often make comments just because they “aren’t thinking” and “aren’t seeing people as individuals.”
Ruth could say, “The real problem was that the museum worker simply didn’t look at Deanna as a child, and didn’t realize that she had real emotions about the situation. Even if he couldn’t have let her go in, he could have been more sensitive to her feelings.”
That was good. That is how we heal. Sure - those things happen. That is very unfortunate. But we have to choose what to do with those emotions.