Archive for the ‘emotions’ Tag

Reading the Heart’s Braille   Leave a comment

I woke up today with a sweet dog snuggled up to me and a loving God looking down on me with a good-morning smile. I lay there talking with Him for some time, and then sat up and all the good feelings drained away like cascading water. This is a regular occurrence, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

I’m like an emotional preschooler, unable to understand my own emotions–what I feel and why I feel that way. I have the emotional theory down pretty well, but like passing a written driver’s test, knowing the answers on an exam doesn’t help much behind the wheel. Trying to interpret the principles into practice is still largely a conundrum for me. I’m not sure approaching it like a science is the best route anyway. If I thoroughly studied gravity, balance, muscular response and tried to apply that knowledge to learning to ride a bicycle, I think I would find it more a hindrance than a help.

But that analogy fails to capture the complexity and variability of emotions, and the experiential feedback I get is not like falling off a bike—it is not immediate, clear, and simple. Occasionally I know straight off that I got it right–that my gentle response to a harsh retort came from a healthy place and felt emotionally rewarding. But that immediate and clear reading of my heartbeat is rare and comes after a great deal of struggle, trial, and slowly growing insight into some facet of my heart. Often my response is partially unhealthy (which part, and how?) and my emotions are conflicted–a dash of fear, a sprinkle of false guilt, a slather of confusion, a pinch of hope.

We all ride bikes the same, but our emotions play out uniquely for each of us. So we learn basic principles about emotions, but using them to understand ourselves (and others) is a complex skill that must be learned the long, hard way by practice, regularly skinning our knees and running into things in the process. It takes fearlessness, tenacity, and commitment.

Had I been taught as a child to notice, validate, understand and respond affirmatively to my feelings, I think I would have learned the process and developed the skills by now. In our inescapably fallen world, I was rather shaped by society directly as well as through its influence in my family and playmates to ignore, judge, and control my feelings. Anger was forbotten, sadness was curtailed, fear was mocked. Meanwhile love, hope, and joy were pushed as the acceptable feelings to manufacture and share. And in turn I too became a spinner of these lies. In short, a great deal has to be unlearned and long-ingrained reflexes untaught, in the process of discovering what is true and good for our hearts. So we misplace our true selves early in life and get further lost with our borrowed and faulty compass and map.

What might come naturally, like learning to walk, now requires much deeper insight to untangle our confused legs, clear up our bleary eyesight, and reorient our backwards direction. Unlearning is far more difficult and involved than learning fresh from scratch. The whole outlook must be re-oriented before individual bad habits can be addressed and a healthy direction taken, and all of this must be done in the face of constant opposition from the world around us.

Society says, “Don’t worry, be happy!” and ostracizes us when we frown. The church agrees with “Worry is a sin against faith!” and judges us if we share our fears, especially tenacious fears. How then can we find a way to validate our own experience and feelings, to be understanding and empathetic with ourselves? It often feels as though we are on our own, swimming against a very strong current.

So I write this to those of you on this long journey with me because it is so easy to get discouraged and lose hope. The road to recovery seems to be so hard and take so long. Weariness and doubt and confusion drag down our resolve and steal our hope. Let those of us who wish to take this way encourage one another. I believe in you!

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Posted July 17, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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The Emotional Complexity of Father’s Day   Leave a comment

Wherever father’s day is celebrated, it is packed with emotions, sometimes simple and straightforward (at either end of the spectrum), and often a complex swirl of thankfulness, regret, delight, anger, pain and comfort.  Relationships are always complex, wonderful in a hundred ways and awful too because our flawed humanity leaks out on everyone around us and distorts even the good that comes to us from others.  There is no “right” way to feel about any relationship, so do not demand of yourself or others some prescribed emotion.  Today is culturally designated as a time to think of the good in our fathers, and if you are able to do so honestly, then by all means join the festivities.  For those whose heart is not in the celebration, that is okay too.  Be gracious to yourself and others as best you can.

Healthy emotions are mixed emotions–it is okay to laugh over some memory of a loved one whose funeral you are planning and it is okay to be somber at a birthday party, even your own.  Feelings ebb and flow, mingle and separate, clash and fuse. Try to foster a context of safety for your feelings to find a voice within your heart, even if not expressed outwardly.  Giving them a space of their own is especially difficult on occasions when certain feelings are assumed, expected, or even demanded because we have a false notion that feelings must compete and the right one must win and and squash its rival.  Those who are happy feel threatened by sadness in others, those at peace feel threatened by the fearful or angry (and vice versa), and so we try to coerce or barter or cajole them into having feelings that agree with our own (or at least pretending to).  We even do it to our own feelings.

Unfortunately, this process feeds an unhealthy loop–assuming emotions are competitive, we feel threatened by the “wrong” feelings and push for conformity, and in so doing we create even more tension between feelings that could otherwise peacefully coexist, not only within a group, but within a single heart.  Life is complex, people are complex, and so we should expect a complex mix of emotions.

I have many, very deep reasons for being grateful for my father and his impact on my life.  I have issues around that relationship as well, but the very fact that I am honest about those with myself and those close to me gives me the full emotional resources to set those aside for a time and simply celebrate my father, who is a good man, flawed (like all of us) but good.  It is the practice of listening to my own feelings compassionately that builds my emotional security and maturity so that my heart is able to embrace other flawed humans with compassion and understanding.

So today I celebrate with you or grieve with you, whatever your heart needs.  We are in this together, this crazy dance called life.  We often get it wrong, even with the best intentions, and that has to be okay.  Let us give grace to ourselves and to our fathers on this day and find ways to celebrate the broken beauty of who we are.

Posted June 21, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Running from My Feelings   2 comments

“Our inward winters take many forms- failure, betrayal, depression, death. But every one of them, in my experience yields to the same advice. ‘The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.’ Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them- protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or inner discipline or spiritual guidance- we can learn what they have to teach us. Then we discover once again that the cycle of the seasons is trustworthy and life-giving, even in the most dismaying season of all.” Parker J. Palmer

Truth. Running from our fears, or even our depression, is not a long term workable solution.  It keeps us trapped.  Palmer even adds the one important caveat.  We can only face fully into our fears or depression to the extent we have sufficient internal and external resources, and since our cupboards are never fully stocked, there are always limitations on what we can fully face and for how long without some reprieve.  It is far more like tacking into the wind than sailing a straight course forward, and at times we simply must let the storm blow us where it will.  Those with meager resources have the least ability to leverage their way forward.  As with our calf muscles, we can overtax and strain our psyches and end up worse off for our excess efforts–more vulnerable and weak than before.  In that sense, it is the overall direction we set that is life-giving, but we must keep close watch on our resources so as to live within our emotional means or we will run a deficit.

I so appreciate the truth Palmer expresses.  I spent most of my life fleeing depression–not in diversions as some do, but in desperately seeking for solutions, cures, answers.  Desperation rarely opens the best way forward, and so I stilted my progress, narrowed my options, scrambled down false turns.  Kimberly taught me to slowly become accepting of my depression, to embrace the feelings and be sympathetic to myself in my suffering, to wait patiently for answers to come in the slow process of deeper self-understanding.

This is not at all the same as “giving-in” to feelings–allowing them to control me and take me where they will, which is a dangerous road to travel.  We seem trapped by a false dichotomy: to either capitulate to our feelings or subdue them.  We see it as a blatant power struggle, and there is no good way for us to respond from that perspective.  Feelings are like a road map–they inform us, they do not control us–and if we fear their power, the solution still lies in understanding them more fully in a self-compassionate way, not in pushing them away in fear or shame. Feelings that are denied have far greater control over us than those which are acknowledged.  They may control us by forcing us into the opposite choice–risk rather than safety, fight rather than flight–but they still control our decisions, only now more obliquely, beyond our awareness, making us far less able to recognize and resist their impact.

We accept our feelings into our lives as friends, not as dictators… or as captives.  How would you compassionately embrace your fearful friend?  You would acknowledge her feeling, show understanding for that feeling, legitimate her feeling as a feeling.  Wise and mature counselors will not try to “fix” the feeling (judge it, correct it, change it).  Feelings are always true and right as feelings.  They tell us something important about ourselves (not necessarily about our situation).  Because emotions are complex, they are often clues rather than direct assertions about our inner world (our anger may mask fear, our pride may cover insecurity).  We must patiently listen and learn over many years to slowly gain fluency in their language, but if we do, a whole world of self-understanding and healthy responses are opened to us.

Posted June 2, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Strange Feelings   7 comments

Last night as I prepped for bed, I said to myself, “This has been a good day.”  In the last twenty years I must have felt that at times, but I can’t recall any… partly because they have been rare, partly because a depressed mind easily forgets the ups.  “Why was it good?” Kimberly asked.  Nothing exceptional.  I enjoyed my walk with the dogs… and some other incidental positives I couldn’t remember.  Incidentals don’t usually change the feel of a day for me.

The things that encourage others don’t sink deep enough to change the life experience of the depressed.  We see a beautiful waterfall, earn a compliment at work, or find a love note in our lunch, but like a cold sip on a blistering day, it tantalizes without refreshing.  It is the surface waves that leave the depths unmoved.   For all of us, emotional responses are spontaneous, unchosen.  We can tweak the flow of our feelings–calm a fear or encourage gratitude to some extent–but our influence on them is limited.

It’s the unwanted emotions I’d really like to avoid, but I can’t.  We melancholics are highly sensitive to our deeper selves, so we can’t work or play or friend away our feelings.  And even if I could snub them, I wouldn’t.  I need to hear what they have to say.  Emotions are dispatches from our psyche, so killing the messenger simply cuts that line of communication to a huge, vital source of personal insight.  In fact, it is to this core place alone that real healing must come.  Good feelings are yard sticks, not hammers: you use them to measure your soul, not to fix your soul.  Like your spouse, feelings are better listened to than controlled, understood than manipulated.  Insisting on positive feelings can be a form of self abuse.

The mundane events of Saturday felt good to me, and that’s a hopeful sign.  It suggests that a much deeper good is awakening in some part of my soul.

Posted October 20, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Why Worship Scares Me   Leave a comment

It was the last straw.  Pastor Rick had already cancelled the men’s group, just because, and it was the only reason I was attending his church, the one touch of real grace.  Without that solace, I found myself struggling to survive the Sunday service, trying to keep my soul intact under a less than gentle preacher.  Then last month he cried out, “I can’t STAND negative people!  I won’t have anything to do with them!”  That flash of accidental irony pushed me out the door.  I can’t listen to a preacher who hates others, publicly, in a sermon… especially when his contempt may be directed at depressives like me.  That was not a slip of his tongue, like dropping an F-bomb, but a slip of his mindset spilling out in the open, a thought so comfortable that he didn’t flinch to hear himself say it, out loud, in the pulpit.  Perhaps I’m too sensitive… but if so, I need to stand up for that vulnerable part of myself.

This morning I sat in a different worship service and felt the singing stir my emotions, but I ducked tightly inside myself like a threatened turtle.  In the stadium or theater, my emotions splash out with abandon, so why does it feel unsafe in church? Because my feelings about basketball are incidental, but my feelings about God are deep and core and private.  In the genteel South of my upbringing, only real friends were invited from the living room into the kitchen, but God alone got into the bedroom.  Shared intimacy requires safety, because the deeper in you go, the more power you wield for good or harm.

I realize that many folks have a public persona to protect their true hearts from danger: polite banter, chumminess, faux cheerfulness and interest.  They invite you so warmly into the yard in order to divert you from the house.  But I was born with a glass facade–you can see everything from the yard.  If I don’t feel safe with you, I will give you a tight smile and a polite nod before averting my eyes because I’m no good at using politeness as a shield.  I can go for about three sentences before tripping into a genuine heart issue.

However, the real vulnerability for me comes not from reporting about my feelings, but actually showing my feelings.  I can emotionally keep folks at arms length while talking all about my feelings, but to express my feelings directly is the real risk, allowing them to react to my heart rather than my words and thoughts, which are my own protective layer against the harshness of others.  For me intellectual validity has always been an escape, but emotional validity a pitfall.  If you invalidate my ideas, I made a mistake, but if you invalidate my emotions, I AM a mistake.  Showing my feelings invites you into my heart, and once you’re inside, I’m no longer safe.  A new church is a new challenge emotionally, especially for those of us who aren’t good at shallow connections.

Posted July 13, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Subtle Power of the Subconscience   2 comments

This morning a cool breeze was blowing through the windows and the sun was bright and inviting.  I decided I’d like to walk the dogs on my favorite country road.  Kimberly asked if I wanted to use the new dog harness she bought for Mazie, and I declined, but while getting the leashes, I felt a sudden shadow settle over my soul from somewhere vague and indistinct.  As I loaded the dogs into the car, I tried to sort out the feeling.  Something about the new harness was upsetting me.  We recently got a second dog Mitts, and last week we bought him a harness that would inhibit his tugging on the leash.  They have clever designs that force a dog into a turn when they pull, and I told Kimberly that I could add the feature to Mazie’s harness so we would not need to buy her another one.  Two days ago Kimberly mentioned that I needed to do it soon because she was not able to control Mazie on walks, then yesterday she phoned to tell me that she had bought Mazie a new harness.  I kept quiet, but I was exasperated.


Neither of us spends much money (we don’t have much to spend), but I am more austere than she is, so minor conflicts like this come up on occasion, especially when I feel I can solve the problem for free.  Of course, that means she has to wait, especially if my emotions are dragging their feet.  She is pretty patient, but eventually she asks me to either finish the project or agree to spend the money.  This time there was little waiting, no discussion, and a unilateral decision. Naturally, she had every right since by agreement only large purchases require joint decisions. In fact, if we hadn’t discussed it at all, I would have been only slightly and briefly irritated because the bottom line was loss of money, not loss of self worth as it now felt.

As a child, I was highly sensitive, believing that others did not care about my feelings and latching onto anything that might be construed as evidence.  As kids do, I blamed myself, sure that I was unloved because I did not deserve to be loved.  I assumed my own inadequacy until it shaped my heart into a subconscious outlook, easily flaring up into depression as it bypasses any conscious thought process.  I don’t stop to make a rational conclusion: “He was impatient with me because I’m too slow… I shouldn’t be this slow… it proves that I am a failure as a human being.”   I  just feel bad without knowing why.  Sometimes even my emotions take time to settle in–my initial reaction may be a self-defensive anger covering over the sense of shame that gradually seeps in unrecognized to color my days.

As I walked, I started pulling loose the tangled threads of subconscious assumptions that triggered this current sense of worthlessness.  Simply identifying the source released a good deal of its hidden power to subvert my heart.  The next step was to validate my own worth independently of how Kimberly thought of me or treated me.  My value cannot rest on another person, even on one so vital.  My worth is anchored in the infinite and unconditional love with which God values me.  Then having found some level of security, I took another look at what Kimberly’s behavior meant… and decided that objectively it had nothing to do with her opinion of me.  She may have been acting from a sense of urgency or expedience or need for resolution.  Buying a dog harness was not a telltale sign that she didn’t care about me.  It was a sign that she wanted a dog harness.

MITTS

MITTS

Feeling Black   2 comments

This morning I came back from washing the breakfast dishes and crumpled onto the floor, burying my face in the sofa cushions.  Kimberly simply said, “Why don’t you take a nap.”  So I did, curling up next to her, and it helped.  Moved me up the scale from minus bad to “it doesn’t hurt as long as I don’t move.”

Sadness comes in shades so different they seem like contrasting emotions.  There is a sadness, like today’s, which is desolate and drains the heart of life and knots up the words.  It feels bottomless and endless and inescapable.  It isolates, so that even fellow mourners bring no more companionship or connection than fellow prisoners in solitary confinement.

In contrast is the sadness which fills the heart and cascades down the cheeks.  It creates bonds of camaraderie and sympathy and understanding.  It makes me feel more connected and in tune with my soul, harmony in the minor scale.  It feels pregnant with meaning, pain that carries purpose and life, a deepening of my being that opens me up to others.  A healthy, hearty grieving.

In the first sadness, the music of melancholy scalds me and the sympathetic presence of others suffocates.  In the second, shared melancholy gives me the comfort of allies, of support and hope, even with strangers like Leonard Cohen.  Were I a drinker, the first would be a half-empty bottle in a darkened room, the second, a circle of folding chairs at an AA meeting.

The first blocks all means of resolution; nothing I do matters.  It stops without warning and starts up again without reason.  The second sadness has potential movement, a sense that time and effort will eventually lead to greater peace and maturity.  It makes me a better and more whole person.  But the first melancholy unmans me.  Why?

~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~           ~

I read this to Kimberly so we could toss it around looking for answers–what makes the difference?  At least the relational element seemed to come into focus–if there is some disconnect in the empathy of others, then their presence is painful instead of comforting.  If they are unsafe or just seem to me to be unsafe, the empathetic connection shorts out.  Perhaps they don’t understand or care or don’t have time or can’t be trusted or have too much of their own baggage or too little energy to give.  Unfortunately, even a compassionate presence seems to give little relief to a sadness which is indecipherable.

I share my life this way, dark as it is, not because I have answers, but to offer some identification of feeling to those who struggle as I do.

Posted March 24, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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