Emotions. For some, this topic might stir up images of times when emotions were painful, embarrassing or seemed more trouble than they were worth. Maybe it reminds some of feelings that have gone under lock and key, with the resolve to “never go there again.”
Which brings up a good question. Why would we want to bother with emotions? They can tend to be messy, inconvenient and sometimes painful.
Like it or not, having emotions is part of what makes us human. The choice before us is not whether or not to possess emotions. Our emotions exist. The choice before us is whether we will respond to our emotions in a healthy or an unhealthy way. We can choose to ignore or suppress them. But if we do, we shut down a part of us that brings meaning and connection to our lives. If we choose not to feel pain, we also are making the choice to not feel love, joy, awe or amazement. Feelings can be messy and embarrassing. But without them, we will never experience the richness of life that endears us to one another.
To choose not to feel is to choose emotional numbness. In her book entitled “Daring Greatly,” Author Brene’ Brown defines numbing as:
“The embrace of whatever deadens the pain of discomfort and pain.” (pg. 117) She goes on to say, “We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” Pg 137
We may have made the choice to “not feel” because of a perception that if we choose to allow ourselves to feel, we’ll be at the mercy of any and every feeling. We may believe that if we choose to feel so that we can experience the good feelings, we’ll also have to live indefinitely with unwanted feelings like anxiety, anger, sadness or despair. The question is, is this true? Or is there a better way?
There are a number of ways that we can choose to respond to our emotions. Let’s take a look at them:
First, we can choose to ignore our feelings. We do this when we deny their existence. When we feel a negative emotion, we submerge it. Compartmentalize it. Stuff it down deep where it can’t hurt or embarrass us. There’s only one problem…
If we believe that stuffed emotions = resolved emotions, we are believing a lie. Stuffed emotions do not just dissipate like the morning mist. Though banished to our sub-conscious, they still exist. Like a tea kettle left to simmer, our emotions will eventually have their say.
In his book entitled, “When Life Hurts,” author Jimmy Evans says,
“…Life hurts. We are all touched by pain and heartache, and often that pain is so devastating, so traumatic, so profoundly wounding that it alters the fabric of our emotional health. In some cases the pain is so unbearable that it directs the very course of our lives. (pg 25) The pain we experience is seldom resolved… (pg 26) we don’t always know it is there, and so the wounds go untended. Instead of dealing with these wounds, we stuff them into the hurt pocket of our spirits, where they grow and fester. (pg 46) Unprocessed pain is a dangerous and deadly force. It can cripple and debilitate even the strongest spirit.” (pg 62) End quote
If we don’t intentionally decide where, when and how our feelings are expressed, our pent up emotions will. Usually in damaging ways. Ways that can be explosive or can come out sideways.
When we stuff emotions, we break with honesty. Honesty with ourselves. Honesty with others. Honesty with God.
The second way we may choose to respond to our feelings is to allow them to control our lives. If this is our response to our feelings, we not only give every feeling the power to have a voice, but also allow those feelings to drive our behavior. It has been said that feelings are like children. We can’t stuff them in the trunk, but we also shouldn’t let them drive the car. This response to feelings has the potential to lead us into sin. If we allow our emotions to control our lives it may be because we believe that we are a victim of our emotions, so we wear every emotion on our sleeves. Even the most compassionate friends may become exasperated with us if we choose this path. The good news is that God has given us everything we need to rule over our emotions. (Genesis 4:6-7)
The third way we may choose to respond to our feelings is to identify, own and address them. This person knows that emotionally healthy people allow themselves to feel. They aren’t ashamed to feel, so they admit what they’re feeling. Even if others don’t reciprocate. This person has learned to keep their emotions from calling the shots. They also recognize the need to process painful emotions. This person is intentional about how their emotions are processed.
Why do people go on emotional lockdown?
One reason people go on emotional lockdown is because they were taught as children that it isn’t ok to feel. They may have been shamed into denying their feelings. They may have been mocked for being “so sensitive.” They may have been punished for expressing emotion. Verbally or non-verbally, they may have heard, “You are bad for feeling,” or “You’re such a wuss.” The truth is, even mighty warriors sometimes need a good cry. Jesus is called a Mighty Warrior, and he wept.
Another reason people sometimes go into emotional lockdown is because previous attempts to own and express feelings did damage. We may have waited until we “blew up” emotionally, and those we care about the most may have been wounded. Instead of learning to express our feelings in a healthier way, we may have gone into emotional lockdown in order to protect those we love. Sometimes inner vows were made that declared, “It’s too dangerous to tell others how I feel. I’ll never do that again.” For more on inner vows, go to: https://walkwhole.com/?s=inner+vows
Emotions can be a powerful tool for good. If, however, they are but if not expressed in a healthy way, they can also be a destructive tool. The same hammer used to build a house can also be used to destroy it if not used wisely. The good news is that we can all learn to express our emotions in healthy way.
What are some symptoms of emotional lockdown?
- Emotional numbing (feeling nothing when an emotional response would be healthy)
- Inability to feel compassion, empathy for others
- Overly strong logic response
- Inability to identify one’s own emotions
- Reluctance to own feelings
- Fear of talking about emotions, esp. negative ones
- Difficulty maintaining relationships
- Devaluing of emotions
- Difficulty being vulnerable and connecting with others on an emotional level; fear-motivated fleeing when discussions involve emotions
- Tendency to express only emotions that make us feel “in control,” such as anger, rage, contempt
- Venting to others who are neither part of the problem nor part of the solution. Excluding the people who were actually involved in order to avoid owning feelings
- Shaming others who own their feelings
- Feeling the need for a catalyst in order to feel, i.e., drugs, alcohol
- Sexual drive shuts down
- Uncomfortable when others express emotions in public.
- Shutting others down when they own their feelings (while at the same time craving connection)
- Letting relationship problems go untended in order to avoid emotional honesty
- Past traumatic life events that were very stress filled
- Feelings of unworthiness, inadequacy
How to unlock our emotions:
The first step in unlocking our emotions is to acknowledge, “I am experiencing an unpleasant emotion.” I am in pain.” “I feel afraid.” Or whatever the negative emotion is. This means that when we have a painful life experience, we stop. Recognize the negative emotion is present, even if we cannot identify what emotion we are feeling.
The second step in unlocking our emotions is to recognize that we need a safe place to unpack our emotions. We need a refuge. A place where we can KNOW that it is safe to talk about what we are feeling. A place where we can be assured that we will find comfort. A place where we will not be shamed for feeling. The problem is, how do we know who we can trust? Even the most trustworthy person may blow it. So where do we turn for refuge?
There is only ONE place where we can turn where we are guaranteed to be safe. Only one place where we will NEVER be shamed for feeling. ONE place where we are promised to find the Comforter. That ONE is God Himself.
You may be thinking, “I can’t do that.” Well, you are not alone. For some reason that I can’t explain, there is something in humans that finds this difficult to do. But if you will take that first UNCOMFORTABLE step of going to God when you are in pain, you will be hooked! You will find such comfort and help that you will crave God’s presence the next time you are in pain. Ok, so let’s get practical here.
How do we take refuge in God when experiencing negative emotions?
When you recognize that you are experiencing an unpleasant emotion, get alone with God as soon as you are able. Don’t put it off if at all possible. When negative emotions make it difficult to keep your composure, NOW is the time to step into God’s presence. If you wait until the swell of emotions has past, you’ve missed your best opportunity to connect with God. Picture it like a surfer, waiting for that big wave. Wait for it…wait for it…NOW! Catch the wave! That swell of emotion you’re working so hard to suppress…that’s your wave. Catch it! It will enable you to ride into God’s comforting presence. This is your best opportunity to experience intimacy with God. Some of you may think it is dishonoring to talk about negative, ugly feelings in God’s presence. If that is you, the best way I can explain it is to compare it to an earthly parent and child. As a parent, it was satisfying to me when my children brought their problems to me. It made me feel trusted. I enjoyed giving them counsel, comforting them. Helping them find a solution. God is the same way. He desires intimacy with His children. He “rises to show us compassion.” He loves to comfort us. Jesus described Himself like a mother hen, longing to comfort and care for its’ chicks.
So here it is, the practical. Physically get alone with God. Shut the door behind you. Turn on some worship music. Enter His presence with worship. Then begin to talk to God about what happened. Tell him (if you are able) what the event made you feel like. List every emotion you can think of until you can’t think of any more. Don’t try to hide the ugly ones. If you feel hatred, confess it. If you feel lust, confess it. Disgust? He already knows it’s there, so confess it. Bring the emotions into the light. If you cannot identify what emotion you are feeling, tell God that. Ask Him to give you understanding. Ask Him to search your heart and tell you what He finds there. If the enemy tries to shut you down with shame, put your hope in Jesus’ blood to cover any sin in your life.
Linger in God’s presence, and allow Him to comfort you. Before you leave God’s presence, forgive anyone who played a part in the painful emotions you’ve experienced. Lastly, declare that your hope is in God. Leave His presence with a worshipful attitude.
May you find comfort in the One who restores our souls,