Archive for the ‘feelings’ 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!

Advertisements

Posted July 17, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

Tagged with , , , ,

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

Tagged with , , , ,

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

Tagged with , , , ,

Dangerous Misdiagnoses   2 comments

Monday I was hiking with my doggies in the Blue Ridge Mountains and noticed my neck cramping on one side.  To stretch out the kinks I started rolling and rotating my head, wondering what I’d done to my neck.  And then it dawned on me.  instead of pulling ahead as usual, Mazie and Mitts had fallen in behind me, and as the path was narrow, I held both leashes in one hand.  My right arm swung freely, but my left arm was pulled back by the leads, and over a couple of miles that tension worked its way up to my neck.

I spent decades paying little attention to my body, and so harming it.  I have only learned in the last few years to listen to this complex, integrated structure–I would never have guessed that a sore neck could come from an arm slightly skewed.  When an injury’s throb is felt in a separate body part, it is called “referred pain.” Those are the trickiest to self-diagnose and so misleading that the real problem often escapes us.

During those years I listened no better to my psyche than my body.  I shouted down my feelings and became emotionally deaf, unable to decipher its most rudimentary language. Emotions were to be embraced, vanquished or transmuted according to an accepted moral code.  I thought every feeling was a straightforward response to external stimuli.  My anger was incited by “stupid” drivers.  My anxiety was the result of critical bosses.  My shame was the direct product of my tardiness.  Emotional “referred pain” was not even a speck of consideration… until the conventional interpretations became so convoluted in the telling that even I recognized something was fishy.  They rang false, though I couldn’t detect the crack in the bell.  It was my indecipherable, unrelenting depression that forced me to finally admit my emotional cluelessness and rethink my psychological map.

I discovered that my pride was tangled up with fear, my affection enmeshed with insecurity, and a seeming calm and patience was simply an emotional disconnect to protect myself.  I realized that my anger ignited from inside, not outside, that it was a cover-up for shame, and my shame was grounded in a legalistic denial of grace. It was all so much more complex than I realized, but this self-reflection, softened by grace, opened me to a remarkable level of integrity and clarity and personal growth.  My whole sense of spirituality and relationships was reorganized. I finally had the tools I needed for fundamental transformation instead of the spiritual strictures of a flawed system.

I have been working for years to learn my emotional ABCs.  Slowly I untangled the knots so that patterns stood out in relief and dynamics materialized.  What is the real reason for these feelings?  What leads me to freedom and understanding rather than fear and blindness?  What does my soul need in the way of support?  What pulls it down or picks it up?  I wonder–do any cultures teach their children to be heart-interpreters rather than heart-controllers?

Posted May 4, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

Tagged with , ,

“Just” Is a 4-letter Word   Leave a comment

Assumptions, like fire, are dangerous necessities.  I assume the sun will rise, my wife will speak English, my car will start, my office will still be standing, my digestion will work, my dogs will not tear up our furniture, and I will be paid at the end of the month.  It’s not possible to live on a contingency basis, always second-guessing, third-guessing, infinity-guessing.  I need assumptions, but they can destroy me.

Some false assumptions are self-correcting, whacking me with reality till I admit I’m wrong: if it stinks don’t eat it; get it wet and it will break.  But some wrong assumptions are self-perpetuating because they’re in a groove of constant and unchallenged repetition, winning legitimacy by default, like squatter’s rights.  These free-loading assumptions can blindside a marriage undetected, and I’ve caught one of the traitors on my own lips: the condemning adverb “just“: “Can’t it just wait till tomorrow?” “I wish you’d just finish it.”  “It’s just one phone call!” That 4-letter word assumes that my expectations of Kimberly are simple and easy and so her refusal would be uncaring, irresponsible, or even contemptible.  I’m asking so little that denying me is shameful.

But what an arrogant assumption!  By what scale can I possibly measure the emotional cost to another person.  It seems simple enough–I imagine myself in her position and tally how much it would cost me: a trifling.  The obvious failure in this method is that, after walking a mile in her shoes (or rather imagining it), I still end up measuring myself, not her.  Every person reacts very differently to a given situation based on their history, perception, experience, energy level, knowledge, calculations, vulnerabilities and strengths (to name only a handful of factors).  Guessing how I would respond to a scolding from my boss or my father’s sickness has little to do with how she would respond.  In fact, my own responses change from day to day.  What is easy or hard for me is no prediction of what is easy or hard for her.  I think, “the average person would feel…” but where is this average person, this stereotypical amalgamation of median scores from across the spectrum of society?  In fact the “average” person is strikingly unique.  My imagination will always fail me.  I can only understand her as I hear and accept her self revelations.

Pushing her to ignore her inner voice in order to bend to my will is insensitive, selfish, and destructive, and those hens will come home to roost.  That “just” trigger can target me as well.  I’m equally vulnerable to the heavy sighs or raised eyebrows or the hundred other ways this attitude can leak out.  Kimberly could easily shoot down my failings to meet her expectations… only she doesn’t because she is more understanding and accepting of others’ limitations than I am. She suffers under my judgments without striking back, kind of like Jesus.

“Just do it” is the motto of those who wish to simply override objections rather than understand our hesitations and accommodate our limitations, usually assuming that finishing the job is more important than hearing the heart.  But in Jesus’ mind, the person always comes first, the task can wait.  Sometimes we must choose to act in spite of conflicted, unresolved, or resistant feelings, but we do so while we acknowledge, validate, and support those feelings, not by belittling and ignoring them.  “This is hard, this is really hard, but I am going to do it anyway” is a sentiment that refuses the insinuations of “just.”  Such acts are brave and selfless and should be acknowledged as such, they should be admired and appreciated, not dismissed and forgotten.  If I could just remember that!

Posted February 11, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

Tagged with , , , ,

Facing My Fears   Leave a comment

“GIT YER DOG OFF MY MAILBOX!”  The angry shout came from 100 yards up the hill, from the shadows of the house, and it slapped me back into awareness from my mental meanderings.  He was pissed that my dog had peed on the wooden pole of his mailbox by the gravel road we were traipsing.  “Sorry!” I called back, but he was not mollified.  “YER LUCKY MY PIT AIN’T LOOSE!” he hollered, a veiled threat to sic his pitbull on us if it happened again.  His anger seemed excessive to me.  Dogs pee on everything, especially anything vertical, and I’m quite certain the neighborhood dogs, all of which run loose, regularly mark every roadside post within miles.  Since my dog Mitts had been piddling for the last 5 miles, his tank was empty, so his lifted leg was entirely for show, but that made no difference to the hothead up the hill.

That was yesterday, and even as I write, the feelings seep back in–fear and defensiveness towards a world where even pastoral, peaceful spots now feel unsafe–and other nameless feelings flow through, shadows that settle in from being unfairly misunderstood, misjudged, belittled, chased off.

Moments before I had been reflecting on my spiritual journey, and many thought streams had unexpectedly merged into a sense of direction for 2015, summed up in the word “courage.”  My 2014 focus was “gentleness,” first to myself and then as an overflow to others, and though the visible changes are small, my outlook has started to shift fundamentally.  Being gentle with myself has given me some emotional resources for choosing courage.

In our culture, courage is a force marshaled against fears, taking a beachhead at first and then slowly conquering more territory.  You bravely take the stage to speak or you ask your overbearing boss for a raise, and gradually you become less fearful and more in control of your life.  But I’ve discovered a very different take on bravery–my real fears are not out in the world so much as in my own soul, and I need courage not to conquer my fears but to embrace them.  In other words, instead of trying to override my fears and silence them, I try to understand them compassionately.  Fears are my friends, not my enemies–they are clamoring to tell me something important about myself which I ignore to my own peril.  My journey has been completely in reverse of the norm–starting out fearless as a young man (because I was in denial), then learning to recognize my fears, and finally growing to welcome those fears as helps along the way.  We are most controlled by the fears we least recognize.

As I trudged, I pondered.  I have been dodging certain fears, leaving them unaddressed until I had enough emotional resources to open myself to feel their punches without crashing my heart, a truce of sorts instead of a lasting peace of mind.  I am finally ready, I thought, to address some of those dark shadows within.

Then that loud, angry shout yanked me back to the present and opened a psychological fork in the road–how should I respond to these feelings?  As I turned out of sight around the bend, I wondered how to pick my way through the mental debris.  Should I try to brush aside his words by changing the subject or argue with him to prove my innocence or castigate myself and resolve to do better?  What internal dialogue will protect my heart when it feels under attack?  And this odd solution came to me: rather than defend myself, I open myself to feel the sting and understand it with self-compassion.  That is the courage I am choosing this year as I support myself with gentleness.

This is the next leg of my journey: to sit with painful and scary feelings, to let them course through my veins and pound in my heart, to let them tell me all they wish to say about my own struggles and wounds and skewed perspectives, about my subconscious self-judgments, crazy expectations, and harsh demands, and to lovingly listen and feel sympathy for a boy that has always tried so desperately hard to find the right way and walk it against all obstacles. I need to gently open myself to feel and understand how this world’s edges cut my soul, to follow the contours of each gash with my fingers and trace its origins from the tender vulnerabilities of my early years.  Wounds need the gentle touch of sun and air to heal.

Posted January 21, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with , , , ,

“I Know I’m Right!”   2 comments

The intensity of my feeling does not prove the truth of my viewpoint. It says more about me than the reality around me.  But even should I look more closely into my own heart, I may still misunderstand my emotions. If the culture and family in which we are raised do not train us to accept and understand our feelings, if they in fact encourage us to ignore and misread them, then we have a long, tortuous, and dimly lit path ahead of us as we seek to understand ourselves. Don’t give up. That search yields some of life’s richest treasures in yourself and in your relationships.

Strong feelings seem to legitimate our positions in our own minds, and if we link those to our spiritual beliefs, we end up assuming that God feels the same way we do. But the intensity of our feelings is more likely to signal a personal issue than a theological one, even in cases where our moral judgment is accurate. If those strong feelings push us to speak or act without adequate personal reflection, we can make things worse in our unbalanced response, and those who recognize our emotional entanglement will either be dismissive or reactive.

When I feel much more strongly about a matter than others do, it makes me stop and consider why and invites me to draw conclusions about myself rather than others. Differences and conflicts always call us deeper into our own hearts, and if we begin with that discovery, we are more likely to also understand others more fully.

Posted January 11, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

Tagged with , , ,