Pull-Ups Are Safe; Underwear Is Scary

Tracy Thompson

I was recently in the think tank at my house. Some people in my family call this the shower, but I prefer “think tank,” because it is the only place in my house between my two-year-old’s toddler superhero orchestras, my four-year-old’s Michael Jackson impersonations, and my husband’s band practices where I can be alone, in the quiet.

On this evening, I was thinking about the lofty, scholarly subject of my four-year-old and his recent potty training goals. My son has been potty trained since he was about three and has been wearing a pull-up at night since then.  On the cusp of his fifth birthday now, he wants to try staying dry through the night. The conversation I was mulling over went a little like this:

Me: Do you want to wear underwear tonight or do you want to wear a pull-up?
Son: I want to wear a pull-up.
Me: You’ve been dry for the last two weeks. Are you sure you don’t want to try tonight in underwear?
Son: I really like to wear pull-ups because they’re cozy.

The Sacred Scared

Cozy vs. Scary: Emerging from the ChrysalisHis “cozy” brought to mind one of my favorite notions from Glennon Melton Doyle—the sacred scared. See, what my son was doing is what I have done a million times, any time I am faced with something new and scary. He was trying to stay in a comfortable place, because it was really scary to move out and do something he hadn’t done before. For Doyle, we find the sacred scared in moments where our fear immobilizes us and makes us doubt our abilities. We run up against this fear when we are forced to think differently about something very familiar—in my son’s case, his body and his transition between his well-known place in our boisterous home and the changeable, less-known territory of sleep and dreams.

It’s in the movement away from cozy to new and unknown that we learn about the strength and resilience that we tend to keep hidden from ourselves.

Giving Up What’s Cozy

In my think tank, I understood that it is this very precious place—where routines meet the unknown—that most transformations occur in my counseling work. So much of it comes down to people making ever so slight adjustments to cozy notions and habits. And it always amazes me how these little adjustments can open our lives to whole new worlds and possibilities.

Another mom recently shared with me a story about her two-year-old and his reluctance to part with his pacifier. After a few conversations with his parents, he decided on the spur of the moment to take his pacifier and throw it in the trashcan. He celebrated aloud, “I’m ready to be a big boy.” When bedtime came around though, and he was faced with forming a new sleep routine without the pacifier, his big boy enthusiasm faded and he missed his cozy old habit.

Scary Isn’t Just For Kids

Old-Fashioned Daisies on the Cusp of BlossomingNew things feel scary, for all of us! In some way, when we try something new, we’re all a bit like little boys trying to fall asleep in a new way. We don’t know if our choices will bring sweet dreams or if we’ll wake up from a scary one and wish ourselves back to the past. In some fashion, we all face this moment of fear again and again throughout our lives.  When moving to a new place, going to a new school, or getting a new job, we are faced with staying in the place we know and being comfortable or stepping out and seeing if we can make it.

I remember having this same mix of fear and exhilaration the first time I took my parents’ car out by myself. I felt so cool that I was driving myself to the store, but when I had to turn out onto the highway without anyone sitting in the seat next to me, I started to feel like maybe I wasn’t ready to be in the driver’s seat after all.  It was scary and exciting, and I didn’t know if I could handle it but kept going because I wanted my parents to know that I was capable. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that I wanted to know I was capable, too.

That’s the heart of the sacred scared—that moment when we face our fear of vulnerability and experience it within the full scope of our ability and desire.

There Will Always Be a New Next Thing

In my think tank reflections, I realized that this feeling never goes away. It’s not something we just learn to overcome. There will always be something new and something big that I want to do that will require me to find someplace deep inside myself where there is a tiny bit of courage. This is where I can step into the fear and step into the unknown and brace myself for whatever happens as a result. When we are faced with these moments and these feelings, then we can go to wherever our “think tank” is and find that little bit of what we need to take that next right step.

All of these things tap into the feelings of my four-year-old when he was scared and on the cusp of something new. He wanted both to stay comfortable and try the new thing.

Straddling the Divide

The Power Inside: We Can Do Hard ThingsAfter our conversation, he made a plan to try one night with his underwear on and the next night with a pull-up and one night with his underwear on and the next night with his pull-up. I was pretty impressed at how he was trying to balance one foot on each side of this line. When he woke up the next morning completely dry in his underwear, he was so proud of himself that he never went back to pull-ups.

We will not know the outcome of taking the next step. We may still fall; we may have to come up against a couple of big waves. But in moving forward, we find our balance and confidence. These moments take us to a deeper place within ourselves where we can find an affirmation that stands in the face of shame and doubt. As Doyle says,” we can do hard things,” even if that means one day you try underwear and the next day you wear pull-ups until you recognize that you really can do what’s new and scary!


Tracy Thompson is a Licensed Professional Counselor. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Trevecca Nazarene University and received her Masters degree in Community Counseling from Western Michigan University. Much of her experience has come from working with children and adolescents in treatment facilities and school settings.