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Wibbly Wobbly

I found Emma hiding under the kitchen table, her laptop sitting open on the table above. Her math teacher’s voice was coming loudly through the laptop speakers. “ Emma? Emma?” I heard a stern voice saying.

I crawled under the table to stay out of the video frame. “I hear your teacher calling your name. And I see you hiding under the table.” I whispered.

Emma beckoned me closer and whispered in my ear, “The way she talks makes me feel wibbly wobbly. I don’t like it.”

I understood why. The teacher’s style had become a frequent conversation in our house. I had overheard Emma’s math teacher over the past year of distance learning, and she was not very warm or encouraging with students. Earlier in the year, during one lesson that did not seem to be going well, I heard the teacher let out an exasperated sigh and say to the class, “Do you just not want to do math today?” Emma, considering this offer and deciding she definitely did not want to do math that day, promptly disconnected the meeting link and announced she was finished and would like a cookie. We had to have a big discussion about the confusing nature of sarcasm, though I also acknowledged that I understood her desire to not have to spend more time with someone who spoke in such a harsh tone, frequently responding to students’ guesses with, “I just explained this!” or “Were you not paying attention?”  

Lots of things can lead us to feel wibbly wobbly during our interactions with other people. Sometimes it is about a power dynamic, like when we recognize the person is in a position of authority over us or knows more than we do about a subject. Other times, someone might use confrontational language to critically challenge our ideas. Sometimes it is a person’s body language – the way they fold their arms or the sternness of their facial expression. These things can make us want to hide to protect ourselves or avoid an unpleasant conversation.

Emma and I spent time that day discussing how wibbly wobbly felt to her, noticing where she felt it and what sensations accompanied it. She wrote “Take a big breath” on a sticky note and stuck it to the side of her laptop. The next day, when I heard the teacher call her name to answer a question, I heard a big inhale and then a confident voice respond, “6 times 6 is 36.”

Feelings are information, sending us messages about what we’re experiencing. It is a skill to notice how you’re feeling and think about why you feel that way. It is also helpful to build a wide vocabulary to talk about your feelings as a first step in finding a path forward.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.