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We humans are creatures of very limited choice. If we made a list of things we get to choose and things we don’t get to choose, the second list would be a whole lot longer. Where there is not choice, there is no control, and this greatly frightens us. One of the things we have no control over is the fact that we are emotional beings. We not only have emotions, we have two sets of them: earthsuit emotions and soul emotions. Earthsuit joy is when your mood perks up as you take a bite of your favorite dessert. Soul joy is that feeling that wells up inside the moment it really clicks in your brain that God really loves you—not just other people.
Now here’s the thing about emotions: they’re unruly little things. They’re like a pet dog who only listens to you some of the time, and the rest of the time he does his own thing. Sure, he’ll sit eventually when you bribe him with some dangling treat. But if he sees a squirrel in the yard, even the treat bag won’t keep him from going spastic. Emotions are hypersensitive things, and they often respond in ways that seem very illogical. Your friend offers to pay for your coffee and you burst into tears. What on earth was that about? Because our emotions can’t be trusted to behave, some of us try to pretend that we no longer have them. There are names for this: stuffing, suppression, denial, compartmentalizing. It all comes down to the same thing: you straining your brain to try not to really deal with how you feel. But here’s the thing about trying to keep your emotions stuffed down and hidden from public view: when you go down this road, you actually end up in a worse spot than you were in before.
Let’s say your father was an abusive creep who got off on tormenting you until you finally burst into tears, and then he’d beat the tar out of you for being “weak.” What is this kind of experience going to teach you? That emotions are dangerous. Emotions result in you being physically assaulted. In such a situation, the obvious defense would be to stuff your emotions and go around somber and stone faced. Your dad will still act like the jerk that he is, but at least he won’t beat you up as much because it’s your tears that really seem to set him off. Happily in life, nothing stays the same. When you’re small, your dad has the advantage. But when you’re an adult, you can put geographical distance between you and him. Now here you are: all grown up physically yet walking around with over twenty years of unprocessed emotion. This is a major problem because hurt feelings are like money that you leave in a savings account: if you don’t ever make a withdrawal, the interest keeps compounding and the account balance continues to grow. With money, compounding is a good thing. With emotions, not so much.
Grab a warm can of soda and roll it across the floor of your room. What effect did your actions have on the contents of the can? You just increased the pressure inside the can. If you had cracked open that soda right away, things would have stayed calm. But the more you agitate it without making a way for the pressure to escape, the more of a crisis you are creating inside that can. Now take the same can and start shaking the dilly out of it. This is what you’re doing to yourself when you stuff emotions for years on end. The longer you go without crying when you need to cry, the more pressure is mounting up inside of your little earthsuit. Like the can that’s starting to swell in your hand, your earthsuit is limited in how much pressure it can take without exploding. When you keep a cork in your emotions, you force your earthsuit to try and search for another way to release pressure. Here’s where the bad digestion, headaches, nightmares, and exhaustion come in.
Every earthsuit has physical ways of expressing stress. Some people stress to their guts—getting nervous knots and ulcers. Other stress to their heads—getting constant headaches. Others experience muscle spasms and muscle pain. The longer you stuff, the more desperate your earthsuit will become to release the pressure. Stress related problems aren’t limited to minor aches and pains—they can become quite severe and debilitating. Your earthsuit is a delicate machine and to function well, it needs all of its parts working together in harmony. When your emotions are all backed up, it takes its toll on your immune system, your organs, your cognitive processes, and every other function that you have. This is why it is so important to not just sit there continuously ramming those emotions back down whenever they try to surface. At some point, you need to stop being such an unreasonable tyrant and let yourself act like the human that you are.
Now we start stuffing for logical reasons. In your life, what was the original crisis situation that made you feel like it was unsafe to show emotion? Now think about how much your circumstances have changed since then. Maybe your mother was emotionally abusive. But you’re no longer the little kid living under her domination. Maybe there were vicious bullies in your class at school. But you’re no longer in that class. The problem with being traumatized is that we go on living as if we’re still in danger long after the danger has passed. Trauma victims often act like a man who has a gun held to his head. Terrified of being shot, the man closes his eyes and cringes, waiting for the worst. But at some point, his attacker changes his mind about shooting and walks away. The crisis is now over, and the threat has passed, yet the man continues to stay frozen to the spot, eyes closed and cringing. Is this a healthy response? No, it’s illogical and extreme. The longer the man stays in such a rigid posture, the more exhausted and drained he’s going to feel.
Crises are real things. Trauma is real. But these things are temporary as well—often far more temporary than we realize because we get mentally frozen in time, and then we start living as if that loaded gun is permanently aimed at our skull. Your boyfriend isn’t your father, yet you treat him like he’s a similar threat. The woman you’re dating now isn’t the woman who cheated on you and then divorced you, so what’s the point in you acting so hostile? When we stay stuck in the past and keep living as if the initial threat is still with us, we end up keeping other people at arm’s length, refusing to emotionally bond, and refusing to accept help. Then we go around acting like we’re a lot tougher than we really are and we even end up stonewalling God. It’s all such a waste of time.
So how do you melt the emotional glacier that you’ve become? The most healthy and effective way to relieve emotional pressure is by being emotional. Trying to work out those uncried tears through your digestive system simply doesn’t work. Emotions have to be processed through emotional means. This means grief needs to be vented through tears, joy needs to be vented through smiles and laughter, anger needs to be vented through harsh words and yelling. The longer you’ve been stuffing, the more extreme your reactions will be because you’ve got so much pressure built up inside. You can’t release years’ worth of pain with one good sob into your pillow. It’s going to take many sobbing sessions, and that pillow is going to get a good soaking. But the more you do this, the better you’re going to feel.
Now here’s an important thing to understand about emotions: the more you try to stifle them, the less controllable they become. Hardcore stuffers get to the point where they no longer know how to cry. When they try to sit down and cry, they feel like they go numb inside. If you’re experiencing these kinds of problems, it’s because you’ve been stuffing for so long and so hard that your emotional valve has gotten busted. It’s like trying to turn on a water faucet and having the cold knob break off in your hand. Now what? Well, happily there are ways to repair the damage that’s been done.
All of that pressure is brewing inside of you and it’s going to be looking for a way to escape. All of that pressure is making the system feel overloaded, which means it can’t take much more. Once you reach the point of not being able to cry even when you want to, you have to accept the idea that your emotions are going to suddenly spring on you at times when it makes no logical sense. You then need to decide that you’re going to make a conscious effort to encourage them to be released whenever they decide to show up. Maybe you’ll be on a call at work and the customer will say something that suddenly makes you want to burst into tears. You don’t understand why, and it doesn’t matter. The longer you stuff, the more illogical the emotional triggers will seem to you because you’re in such denial about your own issues. The best thing to do in this situation is to put the call on hold, book it to the nearest bathroom, and try to feel out anything that you can. You need to start teaching your earthsuit that it’s okay for it to feel again, because you’ve essentially been abusing it all this time by punishing it for acting rationally. Maybe you’re driving and you suddenly find yourself hit with some intense wave of emotion. Pull over as quickly as you can and then cry and/or scream for as long as you need to. Emotional outbursts like this are often very intense, but also very brief. The wave will hit you suddenly and often scare you with its intensity, but then it will suddenly pass and you won’t be able to cry any longer. Fine. Don’t push yourself. But start making opportunities for those emotions to surface.
Another thing you can do to try and make opportunities for safe venting is to watch a movie with a theme that you know is a sensitive subject for you. The longer you stuff, the more sensitive triggers you will develop. Movies can be great ways to stir up intense emotions and cause some of the pressure to vent while you’re at home and in a safe environment. Another exercise that’s often very useful is to talk to God about those initial experiences that caused you to feel the need to shut down. Stuffing is a form of avoidance, and we’re often not being very real with God in our prayers as we refuse to discuss certain subjects with Him. Writing God a letter explaining how you feel about what He put you through can be an excellent way to get those emotions to surface. Talking to God out loud is another useful method. For more ideas, see What to Do When It’s Too Hard to Talk to God. Opening up the communication lines is an important step in bringing your own internal system back into balance.
The good news about depressurizing your emotions is that the more you do it, the better you will feel. Empathy is an extremely powerful therapeutic tool. We primarily seek out professional counselors to gain empathy and advice. Don’t underestimate the power of having someone attentively listen to you and express sympathy for what you’ve gone through. When we’ve spent years trying to convince ourselves that we’re invincible, we decide that we don’t need these things. Well, yes we do. We need them desperately.
Remember that as a human, you have very little choice in life. You don’t get to decide what your core needs are—God has chosen those things for you. Every human has a deep, continuous need for love, acceptance, compassion, attention, support, encouragement, and understanding. You might find these things very threatening right now, but the fact remains that you need them. If a man is threatened by his need to eat, should he stay out of the kitchen? No, because if he tries to go without meeting such an essential need, he’ll only end up making himself ill. In the same way, the longer you push away love, acceptance, compassion, attention, support, encouragement, and understanding, the worse off you become. You desperately need these things. You might not want to need them, but these are needs that you’re stuck with. The wise man saves his energy for fighting the things he can actually change. He doesn’t waste his resources beating his head against a wall that will never move. Since God has forced the need for these things upon you, the wisest course of action is to start being more receptive towards them. Stop rejecting compliments. Stop scoffing at those who try to offer you support. Stop punishing those who try to emotionally connect with you. These people aren’t your enemies, they’re offering things that you desperately need. Receive what they’re offering and show some gratitude—that’s how you motivate people to give you even more.
We shut down emotionally to protect ourselves. It’s rather like unplugging our laptop before a power surge can come through the cord and do damage. But once the threat is over, we need to plug back in again. To keep ourselves in isolation only gives us a whole new crop of problems. God has constructed amazing machines for our souls to get around in while they’re on this earth. Our earthsuits are incredibly flexible and they can recover from severe emotional and psychological strain. Ask God to help you stop viewing your emotions as negative things. They’re not bad, they’re good. Emotions add color and depth to our experience of life. They fill our relationships with rich meaning and make our experience of living far more satisfying. When treated with respect and managed properly, your emotions will become a great asset to you. It’s never too late to change course and decide that we’re ready to start unlearning destructive habits.