Last fall I came up with a ritual that my husband and I could do with our kids during dinner every night. I called it, “What made me happy about my day.” While eating we would all go around the table and share one thing that made us happy about our day. The point was to highlight and focus on the good in our lives.
Before long this ritual was commonplace and we would take turns going first, making family dinners that much more communal. When we had guests we invited them into our happy circle.
We enjoy hearing the different things that come to mind and how “What made me happy about my day” altered from day-to-day. When we traveled we offered our ritual as a suggestion to whoever we were dining with. By and large, “What made me happy about my day” was a crowd-pleaser. Quick and easy, yet just enough to uplift anyone sitting around the table.
Sometimes “What made me happy about my day” was sentimental, like doing something special with a loved one. Sometimes “What made me happy about my day” was light-hearted or funny. One night we had hotdogs for dinner and my cousin said, “What made me happy about my day is that you have two kinds of mustard at your house.”
Since opening up about living with a mental illness, it came to my attention that while it is important to focus on the happy, perhaps it is equally important to acknowledge the sad or the anger or the fear that we all encounter. We don’t have to let the bad overrule the good, but we mustn’t deny its existence.
Until recently I viewed mental illness as a bad thing so I didn’t talk about it. On top of that, I’ve struggled about what to do with negative emotions my whole life. Not wanting to bring others down or be vulnerable about my personal problems, I fell into an unhealthy trap of burying my emotions if they didn’t sparkle or shine. When it came to mental illness, I buried extra deep.
One of the many lessons I have learned about my experiences leading up to being diagnosed with a bipolar disorder and the denial I lived in after the diagnosis is that, mental illness or no mental illness, you can’t hide from the bad in your life by sugar-coating it with the good.
Last week as my family and I sat around the dinner table doing “What made me happy about my day,” a thought struck me. Shouldn’t we also have an opportunity to give voice to anything that didn’t make us happy about our day?
Because really, by only highlighting and focusing on the good we aren’t giving any un-happy emotions a chance for discussion. What an opportune time, sitting around the table together, to give our kids an early warning sign that not everything will make them happy about their day. What an opportune time to start early conversations about how to identify and talk about those emotions — especially in a safe zone — and help them work through problems.
At three and five my kids are too young to understand the complexities of emotional intelligence. Further, they are living the dream right now with a roof over their head, popsicles in the freezer, and a swimming pool down the street. But the simplicity of childhood woes like who lost at Candy Land or who didn’t get to push the button on the garage door opener will make way for bigger problems as they grow.
Not talking about my struggles with mental illness due to stigmas did not serve me well. I don’t want my children to bury their emotions or problems the way I did. I want to teach them how to let “What made me happy about my day” trump the bad — and to know that some days are just good — but I’ll be hard pressed not to give them opportunities to talk about what didn’t make them happy about their days.
“Start ’em young!” we say about teaching kids the important things in life. Teaching my kids how to express their emotions, starting at the kitchen table, I hope will serve them well as they grow.
Otherwise how will they ever truly be able to appreciate the fact that we have two different types of mustard at our house? How will they ever truly eat a hot dog in peace?