Have you ever yelled at a blind man for being blind? Me neither. However, I have come close to losing my cool when my husband shuts down because he’s trying to think about what he’s feeling inside. Thinking about what you are feeling is a real challenge because feelings are supposed to be felt, no? Nonetheless, as Jeff tried to think things through rather than process how he was feeling, he tended to go offline. (Although Jeff might only be “offline” for a minute, his “still face”—a blank look with no emotional engagement—can be highly unsettling for me. See what happens to babies who experience a “still face” here. ) Getting mad about this is akin to getting mad at someone for being blind: it’s not his fault. More times than not, when it comes to knowing how he feels, he either Just. Doesn’t. Know, or he simply feels mad and defensive because he can’t get to the underlying emotions bumping around. (Side note: Since learning about the unsettling effects of “still face,” Jeff rarely does this anymore.) Do any of you also struggle to identify what you are feeling? For many of you, I suspect the answer is “yes.” Not being able to identify and express what is going on inside of you is a common issue; some people stay in the numb zone—often talking about traumatic situations as if they happened to someone else—while others struggle with anxiety or depression, which masks other emotions. If you were raised in an environment where you didn’t learn how to identify and express what you were feeling, you might conclude that feelings are a waste of time at best, and scary at worst. One of my clients put it like this: “Why would I want to open myself to that kind of pain? It’s best not to go there.” The problem is “not going there” doesn’t make the feelings go away.
“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” Sigmund Freud
Although Freud’s quote may sound a bit dramatic, I’m guessing most of us can relate to being in a situation where we, or someone we were interacting with, overreacted in an ugly way without explanation. (Check out my previous posts on my own struggles in this area.) If that doesn’t ring a bell, have you ever been on the receiving end of a passive-aggressive remark or gesture 🙋🏻♀️? In those instances, you probably feel quite sure an (unacknowledged) emotion is being communicated, but the person either denies it (“I’m not mad”) or minimizes it (“I was just jokinggg!) or they shut down altogether and refuse to tell you what’s wrong…Argh. That’s the worst! Imagine how much easier life would be if that person could identify and express the emotion rather than playing what feels like a twisted game of charades, leaving you to guess what’s going on inside of them. Denying your emotions (by ignoring or suppressing them) is ultimately damaging to your health—physically and mentally— and ruinous for your relationships. (In last week’s blog, I discussed how emotional connection is a key to strong and meaningful relationships.) So if you (like Jeff and many, many others) have a difficult time figuring out what you are feeling, what can be done?
First, you must decide that learning to identify and express your feelings is important. When Jeff and I set out on this journey, he wasn’t convinced this work was needed. Although he admitted we had areas in our relationship that needed improvement, he didn’t think disconnection from his emotions had much to do with it. He felt pretty content in his little cave, thank you very much. (His former career as a fighter pilot only seemed to reinforce the idea that acknowledging emotions is dangerous. Letting your emotions get in the way can literally get you killed when you are in combat; therefore, it’s best to compartmentalize.) I, in turn, responded to his detached state by disconnecting myself. Sure, we were still getting along fine, but there was a gulf between us. Both of us felt lonely despite the fact we had lived in a very small space 365/24/7 for the last two years. Jeff’s preference to “think things through” rather than allow his heart to enter the conversation kept us stuck in a pattern of disconnection. Something had to change.
If you are sitting on the fence about whether you want to pursue this work, consider this: Jesus modeled the importance of expressing his emotions when arguably, He didn’t need to. In John 11:1-44, we are told that when Jesus was asked to come to Larazus, who was sick, he delayed his trip by two days, and therefore Lazarus died. Jesus knew Lazarus had died and told His disciples: “I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him (Lazarus)” (John 11:15). Get this: Jesus knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead (see John 11:23), YET when Jesus saw Lazarus’ sister Mary and other Jews weeping, He also wept (John 11:35). Jesus could have bypassed his emotions, rationalizing that there is no need to cry because he’s going to raise him from the dead, BUT, he didn’t. Jesus allowed his heart to be touched by what was going on in the lives of the people he loved. He opened His heart to the pain of sin, death, and grief even though he knew the end of the story. Lazarus would live! If Jesus opened His heart to feel his emotions, so should we. Feeling our feelings is what makes us human.
“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
Next week I will pick up this discussion, but I want to leave you with some homework to help you process what I’ve written so far. Take some time to sit quietly with God and ask Him the following questions. (Journal what you hear/sense Him saying.)
- In what ways am I closed off emotionally?
- What am I afraid of?
- What is your truth about me?
If you want to go further, I encourage you to speak to those closest to you about their observations about how well you identify and express your emotions. They may be able to help you identify your blind spots—journal about what they say.
Please share your comments below!