In Praise of Being Grounded

© 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer Lake Windermere, UK

© 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer Lake Windermere, UK

“You’re grounded!” Two words no teenager wants to hear. These words are the sign that your plans are sunk and all possibility of fun is gone. Being grounded means being disappointed. It means missing out. It means being stuck at home with everything and everyone you don’t want to be stuck at home with. And truth be told, it is no fun for the parents either. When parents ground their kids they are also stuck at home with an angry teen who will spend the entire time in a state of sulking silence, maybe not trying to make their parents miserable, but doing a pretty good job of it anyway.

I’m 53 with no one to really ‘ground’ me, but that’s what I did this last weekend. I grounded myself. I’d been on the road for most of this spring, coming home, dumping my suitcase, and repacking it and moving on.  Keeping up with things enough to avert a crisis, but not enough to know what was actually completed. My life was starting to feel like a professional version of the fairy tale, The Red Shoes—where I was dancing as fast as I could—and mostly staying upright— but my life had an energy that was starting to feel quasi-maniacal.

I arrived home at midnight on Wednesday looking towards another fast turnaround to head out for the weekend on Thursday afternoon. I had planned on this weekend for months and I had been looking forward to it through the early part of the week while I was working. But on Thursday morning I stared at my suitcase with exhaustion and began to wonder aloud whether going away was a good idea.

Immediately I argued back. Of course I needed the weekend! I rationalized that the weekend would really help me—I could ‘chill out’ and ‘recharge my battery’—but even as I said these things out loud I knew the words didn’t feel true. I knew I felt untethered and off balance.

For the better part of a day, I sat in a standoff with myself not entirely unlike any scenario of a parent and teen. There was the part of me that wanted to go away—that argued and rationalized that, no, really, I would definitely get to everything that wasn’t done next week—that I really, really needed the time off—and there was the part of me that stood there in the doorway of my room as the inner ‘mean mom’ and said, “Nope. You are grounded sister.”

As disappointing as it was, it was just time to stop. It was time to stay home. It was time to regroup. It was time to ‘be grounded’ so I could actually ‘get grounded.’

And did I hear that inner voice of wisdom and say, “Oh, thank you. That’s so helpful.” NAH. I did what any self-respecting teen would do in the situation of being grounded: I called my best friend. I wanted my emotional wingman, I wanted someone on my side. I wanted someone to trash talk the inner mean mom and make it possible for me to do what I wanted, so I could go back to that inner voice with just the slightest bit of snark and say, “See, Jane thinks it’s a good idea.” And Jane did her job perfectly— she tried to help me figure out how to go away—because that’s what best friends do—they want you to get what you want.

But the problem with true inner conflict is that there really is no bad guy—no one to take sides against. Because for better or worse—you are actually both sides. You are the angry teen. And you are the mean mom. And that’s the beauty of it really—when you finally drop the end of the rope in the tug of war with yourself. You are both. And in that moment of stopping—you have all aspects of yourself in one place—but not yet together.

You can’t get grounded until you stop, but how do you ground yourself? At its most basic level, it is about stopping, and, as one of my wise mentors says, ‘being where your feet are.’ But the act of stopping is usually not enough. Getting grounded takes work. And it takes different kinds of work at different times—depending upon what feels untethered or disconnected.  First, you have to have some sense of your physical and emotional state and ideally connect your brain to your body. Marsha Linehan, who created Dialectical Behavioral Therapy writes about grounding yourself in your five senses. Using the warmth of something like hot tea, or a cool washcloth. Or the sound of music you like or the smell of something that soothes you. This is a handy practice because your five senses are always with you and if one doesn’t seem to help, perhaps another will. Other grounding practices are mindfulness and breathing which can help you connect your body and your brain. And some people need more activity—like walking or biking to bring themselves in to the present.

Another thing that can be amazingly grounding are routines. Slowing down enough to reestablish and connect with routines that help you feel healthy and more solid: bedtimes, meals, walks, reading—routines that can offer some consistency and constancy and help you relax and settle in to yourself and your life. They can be especially effective at grounding you when you have become ungrounded by crisis, loss or trauma. And sometimes things like tidying up and putting everything away, or organizing something (anything) can help you feel like you and your life is more in order.

Once you have reestablished a physical connection with yourself —and a connection between you and the rhythms of your life, you can also ground yourself in your values and your noble purpose— ground yourself in the motivations that drive you and the reason you get up in the morning. Connecting to your values and purpose can recalibrate your inner compass and remind you where you are headed or where you want to go.

Being grounded is not a quick fix like penicillin or a pain pill—it’s a feeling that needs to work its way back into the fabric of your being. It needs some time to settle, to knit, to mend. When you regain that feeling—you need to steep in it a while. Take some time to feel the ground underneath your feet, and your feet underneath your body. Take some time to feel your breathing, your values, your purpose and your relationships. And take time to have all the pieces of you get to live in the same place for a while—long enough to find common ground.  The common ground of steadiness and sturdiness – a platform from which you can leap again—when you are ready.  

 © 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD