My son has a new practice. For the last couple of weeks, I have noticed that whenever he feels that the energy in our home is getting too intense — say for example, because I’m chasing after the kids to put their shoes on in the morning — he will stop in his tracks, look straight at me, and say “I love you, Mommy.”

The effect of this extemporaneous declaration of affection from him is that it, indeed, diffuses the energy of whatever is going on. Instead of continuing to focus on the fact that it is 7:58, and we need to get out the door — I am now looking at my son in the eye, as he waits for me to return the love. It is also remarkable the effect this has on the rest of the household — my daughter, one sock in hand, another in the process of being put on her foot — will also look up and say , “I love you, too Mommy.” While the urgency of putting on the socks, shoes, coats, and getting out the door is still there — it is now — somehow — less urgent.

We just…stop, and…it’s okay.

We still get out the door, but now — we are calmer, feeling love towards each other.

I started to pay attention to other moments where this impulse of his comes out — and they tend to stay within the same range of events: disagreements, stressful moments, moments of big feelings coming out from both the kids and grownups in the house. On his own — he will stop whatever is going on and say, “I love you”. If the big feelings are coming from him, he might even add “I am mad at you, but I love you.”

I wish that I could take credit for this kind of energetic awareness, but it is something that has emerged naturally from him. In moments of big energy, my three year old son will try and ground us.

Since turning three, his life has been somewhat challenging — between hospitalizations, changing medications, doctor visits, and the unpredictability of his own body’s reactions — he has had to adapt to a lot of struggle for such a small being. I wrote in a previous post that I always knew psychological/emotional challenges might be in my children’s futures, but that physical ones take me by surprise. Now, I stand here in awe of him as he is the one that reminds us that what matters every day isn’t whether we get to school on time, but rather that we are here for each other, and love each other.

His “I love you”s sometimes give me pause- and have me asking, “what am I missing right now that I should be paying attention to?” “What is being hidden from me behind my frustration/exhaustion/anger?” It is so fascinating to take a step back in the midst of a heated situation because, all of the sudden, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Or rather, the goals shift.

Let’s take the morning rush example — when we’re “running late” the goal is to get everyone out the door as swiftly as possible, often times with elevated levels of emotion at needing to go back upstairs to fetch a mask, or forgetting a water bottle. Stepping back from this energy, however, and it becomes an opportunity for ritual preparation for a day of learning.

The goal shift becomes a powerful tool. Even in the midst of something that can seem overwhelming, we can actually stop and reorient- we can change the goal.

Let’s take another example:

You are in the middle of a presentation or giving a class, and you sense that something isn’t going well. Suddenly, you start to stumble over your words, you forget what it is that you’re even talking about, and your mind goes blank. Meanwhile, there is a sea of eyes looking back at you, or a mosaic of little boxes with people’s heads and the suffocating silence of a fully muted Zoom room. While others may not notice immediately, suddenly your internal energy systems are going haywire — and what was supposed to be a smooth program that you’ve done dozens of times suddenly feels impossible.

You’re sweating, you’re choking on your words, you’re coughing, your joints hurt.

So, what do you do?

Well — you can try to power through the moment and finish what you started, even if it won’t be what you know you can give. Or — you can shift the goal. What many of us often forget in high stress/energy/expectation moments is that we are still human. So the presentation isn’t going well? Ok — it’s time to connect humanly with the room.

Take a breath, say. “you know what, let’s take a minute here- it seems like the energy is shifting.” Or — “Let me be honest, this isn’t going where I expected it to go, let’s figure this out.” Or even simply — “I’m getting a feeling this isn’t going well, let’s pause” Oftentimes, naming the feeling gives it less power, and it allows for others around you to relax into what perhaps, they are also feeling.

With over a decade of teaching different modalities and alternative programs, I have had this happen a number of times. The energy of the “mess up” is a big one — suddenly you feel flustered, it is hard to come up with things to say, your body starts to heat up because your stress instincts are triggered. Our body doesn’t know the difference between messing up a speech and being chased by a tiger- the nervous system is triggered, and we are suddenly in fight, flight, or freeze.

Once, standing in front of a room filled with undergraduates, telling them about my history of trauma and recovery as part of a speaker series, I realized it was the anniversary of a traumatic event — at that university. I had to stop, and tell them — “listen, I need to take a breath here.” I invited them to breathe with me.

When my son says “I love you” to us in heated moments, he is inviting us to join him in returning to a grounded feeling of human connection, so that we remember we are also there with him as people.

Goal shifting — sometimes, it may not be about the perfect outcome, but rather the human connection that can get us through to a meaningful outcome.

Goal shifting — remember to human for a minute.

Writer, Runner, Speaker, Teacher - Founder of The “I Am” Project