Having Emotions Doesn’t Make You a Terrible Person

I’ve got to admit – when I first started this blog, I had some trouble coming up with a name for it.

The first thought that came to mind was something that encapsulated where I was in life. At least right now, much of my life journey has been about settling down emotionally. Part of that is just growing up and all the challenges that come with it, but another part is colored by my experiences with the unsound theology and warped viewpoints on people and relationships to which I was exposed as a kid. I don’t say this because I want to spread a bunch of blame around, or because I want to be bitter. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just difficult when a twisted perspective permeates so much of your formative years. It’s hard to talk about it, even to your own friends, especially if they’ve never had something so insidious maintain such a pervasive presence in their lives for so long. I can honestly say that if I were in their shoes, I’d have a lot of trouble grasping what it’s like.

InsideOut54aef6a6e091f.0Last month, a movie was released that affected me in an unexpected way. Pixar’s animated film Inside Out was a fascinating, poignant look at the realm of the emotional – that abstract arena where thoughts, ideas, and feelings dance around in an awkward ballet. Without giving away too much for those who haven’t seen it, the story is about an 11-year-old girl named Riley who is moved away from her comfortable, familiar life in Minnesota when her father’s job relocates the family to San Francisco. The tale is told from the perspective of the five predominant emotions in her mind – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust – who all have a part to play in ensuring that Riley is well-adjusted and emotionally balanced. When Riley’s emotions start to get lost and out of control, she has to wrestle with unfamiliar, uncomfortable feelings and memories that no longer have the meaning they carried when she was younger. She has to adjust from one normal to another.

Warped-Wall-run-upThat’s how I’ve felt, more or less, over the past 10 or so years. Adjusting from one normal to another – hence the name “Finding Normalcy.” (Sadly, “Finding Normal” and “Finding Normality” were already taken.) Like Riley, I too once had a difficult move, only it was out of the San Francisco area and into Texas. But this recent adjustment has been about something much deeper, something on a more foundational level. It feels like the emotional equivalent of running the obstacle course on American Ninja Warrior, where your preconceptions are constantly challenged as you encounter everything for the first time. You stare up that 15-foot warped wall, build up momentum, and make a mad dash right up, only to discover that the wall was much different than you thought it was, and your strategy has to be adjusted. Okay, maybe that’s the most terrible illustration of all time, but that’s basically what it’s like to have your every assumption tested after spending so much time developing a mindset that fostered a fear of what was “on the outside.” The emotional obstacles that naturally accompany meeting another person for the first time are compounded when you have a sea of preconceptions about other people that need to be tossed to the side in the process. For a long time after passing through adolescence, I tried so hard to dive into the sorts of relationships I had missed out on as a kid – all without addressing those preconceptions and doing some very necessary heart work. And I’ve had to pay dearly for it.

11722314_1009031162460970_554514689606681561_oAs I’ve talked about in some of my other posts, a large portion of these issues have had to do less with behavior than with methodology and mindset (which do play an important role in ultimately informing one’s behavior). One of the reasons why I write so much on here about communication and understanding other people, even those who are disagreeable, is because it’s an issue that desperately needs to be addressed in our “faster, louder, dumber, angrier, screenier, alonier” world, to quote Opus the Penguin from the recent Bloom County revival. There are a lot of issues about which we as a culture are passionate, and everyone certainly has a favorite to talk about. Many of them are very important too. But I don’t see any conceivable way we can productively discuss any of them if we can’t communicate with the intention of listening, rather than responding.

Working in the world of marketing provides an interesting set of challenges. For one thing, you possess knowledge about whatever you’re promoting that your target audience may not have, and convincing them that they need what you’re offering is no easy task. You have to cut through a bunch of noise to even reach them. You have to build trust with them and ensure the relationship is in their control, not yours. On top of that, you may also have to address some preconceptions they may carry about you or what it is you do. It’s not a complete framework, but I think it can be very helpful for any persuasive effort. Understanding where another person is coming from and demonstrating some degree of empathy are vital toward finding common ground. It’s a character trait I’ve often struggled with developing for a long time. In fact, I didn’t really think about it until a point a few years ago where I had destroyed a relationship after an argument and recognized that I couldn’t go on without some heavy heart work in that area. Even today, I still have much to learn about empathy and understanding the emotional positions of others. And I get the sense that I’m not alone on this journey.

brain1I’m no expert on emotions, but I often get discouraged whenever I see them being stigmatized in our culture. I can’t honestly say that I completely know why we do this. But I think a large part of it has to do with the way modern culture has conditioned us to compartmentalize. From separation of church and state to the scientific classification of plants and animals, or even the division of the Christian life into the steps of justification, sanctification, and glorification, we’ve developed so many ideas since the advent of modernism that have been marked by compartmentalization. In many respects, breaking complex concepts into manageable chunks can be really helpful for many people. And there are certainly many other positives that come out of this approach. But I can’t help but wonder if it can do us more harm than good when we apply this same methodology to people.

breakfastclubpPeople are, by nature, complex creatures. It’s difficult to define everything about a person, so our natural inclination is simply to run with what stands out to us and conflate that to represent their entire being. Much of our high school experiences involved cliques based on externally visible qualities. Sadly, I don’t think the world gets too much better as an adult. Instead of jocks, geeks, and hipsters, we generalize on terms that seem to be within our control. If a person mentions that she holds the disagreeable Position A on Topic X, we immediately do some cross-referencing in the backs of our minds. Gasp! Position A?! That must mean she also holds…let’s see…Position B on Topic Y, and – oh man – Position D on Topic Z! I’ve got her figured out! The unfortunate irony is that we end up in a position where we think we know more about someone than we really do.

dc9e09107250cd3b11a453172873f3255ceddc2bI think the same sort of mindset can easily take over whenever we see what looks like emotionally charged behavior. Responses like “oh, he’s just acting on his emotions,” or “she’s just letting her feelings take over” are based on a couple of incomplete assumptions that make us feel like we know people when we really don’t. First, we implicitly divide people into logical and emotional components warring with each other and assume that if emotional behavior is being exhibited, then the emotional component must be “winning.” To a certain extent, we do feel a push-and-pull between logic and emotion. But these parts of us are not meant to be separated, nor are they all that define our minds. They are meant to work symbiotically. Second, there’s an unspoken, underlying assumption that because logic is more grounded, and emotions are more abstract, logic must be “good” and trustworthy, while emotion must be – well, we wouldn’t say “bad,” but perhaps “dangerous.” Shoving emotion to the side can ignore two very real possibilities: our dedication to the logic we value may be more informed by emotion than we realize, and the emotional acting out from others that we so often decry may be the result of emotional suppression, a lack of attention to one’s emotional health, or perhaps even a mental health issue that needs to be met with grace instead of a handwave.

darmok-hd-359Why is it so easy to do this? Perhaps it’s because we’ve grown accustomed to dealing with the tangible, the quantifiable, and the concrete in our world – all in a very immediate sense. We can jump on Google to look up the capital of Lesotho. We can hop on YouTube to check out how to build a makeshift video studio with supplies from The Home Depot for under $100. Even when we’re dealing with something more abstract, we’ve got resources that reinforce our biases and further convince us that we’ve got it all figured out. But truly understanding another person or even ourselves, messy emotions and all, is a process. It can be grueling, time-consuming, and often frustrating – but it’s a necessary part of being human. That’s why I get discouraged when I see people practically viewed as nothing more than machines in a world of convenience.

It’s especially discouraging to see many of my fellow Christians flowing right along with the culture in this regard. Some congregations even go as far as to denounce emotions as evil whenever someone acts impulsively or exhibits an emotional outburst, in some cases sending the person into a downward spiral of self-doubt. Even if something so blatant isn’t declared, it’s our mindset that can often go unchecked. I just can’t help but notice how much we have bought into the “people as machines that need to be programmed” mentality, only with a Christianese sheen: throwing Bible verses like spells from a magic book, spouting off platitudes and memes, and simplifying processes like repentance, reconciliation, and redemption to the point where they feel like turning a switch on and off or fixing the alternator in one’s car. It’s no wonder that we also see so many scandals in the church being swept under the rug, especially when the focus is on external appearance.

Like I said earlier, I’m certainly no expert on emotional health. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in not paying attention to my own – and not being attentive to that of others when necessary. But I’d like to learn. I’d like to be more empathetic. And I’d like to invite you to join me as I continue to stumble through on this journey. Much like Riley and her uprooting from Minnesota, we may have to wrestle with uncomfortable feelings as we take a step out from the realm of the familiar and into uncharted territory we don’t initially understand. But I think it’s worth it. It strips our minds of all the assumptions we build up when we remain within the confines of the familiar and strengthens our convictions that pass through the fire. And in the process, we abandon our urges to figure others out and instead gain a more holistic understanding of what makes them who they are. So next time we see people struggling emotionally…

Can we resist the urge to view them as problems to be fixed?

Can we take the time to listen and validate their struggles?

Can we extend grace and view them as more than the struggles they face?

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