I am thin-skinned. An easily-bruising peach with a low tolerance for pain. As my family would say, I am a “delicate flower” – small things can upset the fragile ecosystem that is me. I wish I could say my paper-thin nature is limited to my literal dermatology, but it goes deeper than that – down into my heart and soul. An unkind word, a bad piece of news, or an unmet expectation has the potential to shake me more than I’d like to admit.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a bit of a thicker skin – figuratively speaking, of course. I no longer cry when I get a wrinkle in my socks; although, if I’m being honest, that still bugs me. Like most people, my M.O. is to avoid pain and seek out comfort whenever possible. As a highly sensitive person, I experience my circumstances acutely. My surroundings, my feelings, and other people’s feelings affect me deeply. This is why I don’t watch the news, why I’m more prone to anxiety, and why you’ll never catch me watching a violent movie.
But you don’t have to be an HSP to have an aversion to pain and preference for comfort. As a society, we’re prone to self-medicating and seeking ways to eliminate things that hurt us and increase experiences of pleasure. This is evident in the overuse of prescription medications for pain, anxiety, and insomnia, among other unpleasant situations. While there are legitimate reasons for taking prescriptions, I’d venture to say that the health care industry and its patients could benefit from not being so quick to see drugs as the answer. In fact, we might be doing ourselves real harm by not allowing ourselves to experience discomfort from time to time and not getting at the root of our health issues – be they physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional.
Diagnosing and Empathizing
While diagnosing physical ailments is not an easy process – I am certainly case in point! – there are at least some known methods for understanding what’s going on beneath the surface. We order lab tests, get blood drawn, receive X-rays, and talk with our doctors – or, at least, we should – to examine where things have broken down and identify opportunities to improve our physical health.
But diagnosing issues of emotional and spiritual health is another thing altogether, and we can’t have one without the other. Emotions serve as a litmus test for what’s going on in our hearts – more on that in a bit – and emotions are simply part of the human experience. As this Psychology Today piece notes, our feeling-averse culture could ultimately dehumanize us: “Empathy is an essential part of our human heritage, and the more we move away from feeling, the more we move away from love, closeness, vitality, and fulfillment.”
Experiencing emotion, including painful emotion, benefits us by giving us insight into what’s going on beneath the surface, and it benefits people around us as it increases our capacity to empathize with others. As Dr. Brené Brown notes, empathy is a vulnerable choice because it requires recognizing someone’s pain and connecting that with something in ourselves that knows that painful feeling. It’s the difference between saying, “that sucks, but at least…” and “that sucks, and I know how you feel because I’ve been there.” Empathy is simply connecting with someone else on the basis of shared experiences and emotions.
And we all crave connection, don’t we? But when faced with the possibility of pain, the choice to be vulnerable can seem so much less appealing than the pursuit of easy, comfortable experiences. So, we pursue pleasure and we protect against pain. We run after exciting new opportunities, achievement, food, sex, affirmation, and so on. And we run away from vulnerability and the potential for hurt, rejection, and embarrassment. Or, if we don’t run, we build walls. Walls that we (falsely) think will protect us from pain and loss. In actuality, those walls keep us from being open with people and experiencing life fully.
Running into Walls
Take me, for instance. In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself feeling a bit lower than usual. Nothing in my circumstances has changed dramatically. Work is still challenging but good, my family is still wonderful, my friends are still amazing, and I’m still single. Wah wah. But, upon further examination, I realized I’d been holding back with some people – not really letting them know what was going on in my heart. And, as a result, I was feeling disconnected.
Brown talks about this a lot in her book Daring Greatly – this need to feel a sense of love, connection, and belonging. She defines connection as “the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment.” Isn’t that the best feeling? When you can be your most authentic, imperfect self without fear of rejection?
Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced the opposite – times of disconnection when we share something and are judged or rejected in response. That makes it tough to come back and be vulnerable again in the future, but it can also make us more thoughtful about who is on the receiving end of our most vulnerable moments.
“When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them – people with whom we’ve cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story,” Brown wisely shares. “Is there trust? Is there mutual empathy? Is there reciprocal sharing? Can we ask for what we need?”
These are critical questions that we must ask when forging the path toward greater emotional health. This journey – the one I’ll describe in more detail shortly – is not meant to be done alone; it’s meant to be done in community, with people who know you and are walking closely with you.
For me, when I identified that feeling of disconnection, I knew I needed time with some of my oldest girlfriends in the city and time at home with my family in the East Bay. These are the people who know me best because they’ve seen me at my worst, and yet they still love me. Miraculously, they may love me even more! In everything we’ve gone through – collectively and individually – we always point each other back to Christ and remind each other of what’s truest about ourselves: that we’re loved by a powerful God and that He delights in taking care of us.
I’ve learned that making time for these relationships has to be a priority – for the health of my soul. And, once I’ve connected with these soul sisters and brothers, I’m much better equipped to continue pouring into and cultivating my newer friendships – the ones that are less known and may seem a bit more risky as a result. Sometimes, though, it takes a bit of a push for me to get real in those newer relationships. I’m happy to receive people in their vulnerability, but – especially in my role as a community group leader at church – there’s a lie I tell myself that says: “You have to keep it together. You cannot show your pain.”
As a very literal example, I recently walked full-force into some metal scaffolding on my street. Texting and walking, don’t do it! I suffered some bruised knees, scuffed-up pants, banged-up hands, and a goose egg. While I’m incredibly grateful that I didn’t break my glasses, I was in quite a bit of physical pain, not to mention embarrassment.
My roommate Laura had heard the noise of my body slamming into the metal structure and asked if I was okay. While clearly startled and slightly shocked, I insisted I was fine; I shut down and kept walking. Finally, when it was clear I was in a lot of pain, she placed her hand on my shoulder and made me stop and pause.
It was in that pause that I let go and had a good cry. After a hug from Laura and some words of encouragement that my running into the scaffolding was not some cosmic penalty for my texting-and-walking or trying to do too many things at once, I was ready to move along and continue with our night. But if I hadn’t taken a moment to stop, breath, let go and pray, that pain would have just piled up on itself. Yes, it would have gone away on its own eventually. But by stopping to connect with Laura, we shared a moment that, at least for me, helped deepen our friendship and repair some untruths that had been taking root in my heart.
And that’s what experiencing pain is all about – that’s the journey we have to go on if we want to heal and grow. Our reactions to discomfort – sadness, anger, concealing, withdrawing, fighting back, numbing – reveal something deeper than just the pain in itself. They reveal what’s sitting in our hearts (Luke 6:45). And sometimes, that’s not a very pretty picture. Many times, our reaction to pain reveals the weeds that need to be uprooted, that are literally choking the life out of us.
For instance, maybe it becomes clear that we struggle with control or that we lash out at people when we’re hurting. I definitely fall into the earlier category, and I had to come face-to-face with that ugliness earlier this year in our church’s study of The Emotionally Healthy Church.
That book and our church’s series on the topic truly helped me learn to experience emotion in a more healthy way. I encourage you to pick up the book and go through it on your own or with a small group. It will truly help bring about “the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—[which] may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7). Fair warning: refinement is often a painful process, but it is worth it! Below are the key principles from the book and the ways I’m trying to put them into practice.
1) Look Beneath the Surface – For me, looking beneath the surface means opening my heart up to truth instead of viewing everything through my same faulty lenses. It means letting myself be exposed and “naked to God,” as Peter Scazzero writes in his book, so that my not-so-pretty proclivities can be brought to light.
Through this painful process, I’m ultimately liberated and brought closer to God because every time I turn to Him and let Him “un-dragon” me (read Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis – just do it), I am received by Him and fully loved. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
2) Break the Power of the Past – This step involves coming face-to-face with the major influences in my life and allowing myself to be “reparented” in God’s family. I’m grateful to have an amazing biological family and a wonderful church family. Together, we’re practicing what it means to live out a new Christlike life – to grow in love toward God and others. We have new rules, rhythms, and ways of approaching life. We deal with conflict, walk through hard things, and celebrate joys differently than we may have in our past.
3) Live in Brokenness and Vulnerability – This is the crux of the journey toward emotional health, and it’s what I strive to embody in every piece of my life – in my leadership at church, in my writing, at home, and at work. I don’t always succeed, but it’s my goal to lead out of failure and pain, questions and struggles instead of buying the lie that I have to have everything figured out. Because, none of us really do.
When an upsetting situation comes my way, I’m learning to ask God why I’m upset, where my anger or sadness is coming from. And then I work through it with someone I’m close to. Because when we empathize with one another, when we admit our brokenness with safe people, we’re inviting more of God’s power and grace into lives. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)
4) Receive the Gift of Limits – This is a tough one. No one wants to admit they have limits. And yet, that’s a key part of a life of contentment and joy. When I push against my limits, I end up frazzled, covetous, and exhausted. Even now, I’m writing this from my bed since I pushed myself too hard to keep up at work and in my social life, even though I was sick. Now, I’m receiving the gift of my physical limitations and appreciating this time of rest and reflection. Although, in all honesty, I also wish I was 100% well. It’s a fight against my human flesh to let myself rest and be cared for.
Discerning limits requires looking at your personality, season of life, physical capacities, emotional capabilities, and even your wounds from your past. In my experience, knowing my limits has helped me become more dependent on God and more sensitive. Next up? Learning to not have such unrealistic expectations for myself and others. Yeah, this is a really difficult one.
5) Embracing Grieving and Loss – Loss takes many forms. Sometimes it shows up as significant suffering, and sometimes it’s more of a “natural loss,” like getting older or moving away from close friends. Regardless of its nature, we have a choice when faced with loss – to allow ourselves to grieve it or ignore it. And this is where the rubber meets the road in the journey toward emotional health. By embracing pain and grieving loss, we are transformed. When we let go of control and allow ourselves to feel depression, anger, sadness, or doubts, we let God in beneath the surface to do his work when we’re in a more vulnerable and, therefore, malleable state.
Our natural inclination is to maintain the status quo and put our efforts toward getting our own way. But what if we put our efforts toward engaging life fully – instead of only engaging the fun parts? Christ is our example of a perfect life, and he embraced suffering and grieved well. He showed how surrendering to death could open the door to new life. Through grief there are many gifts we can embrace: the breaking of our self-will, softer hearts, liberation from having to impress others, and being more comfortable with the unknowns of life. Now that sounds like the contentment and peace I long for.
6) Make Incarnation Your Model for Loving Well – Once we learn who we are in Christ and how to let Him transform us beneath the surface, we’re better able to love others well. We can enter into people’s worlds and understand the full spectrum of emotions they’re experiencing. When we ask people, “What is it like to be you?” we are changed. “We learn to die to the ugly parts of ourselves,” as Scazzero notes, because loving well is a harder process than just “fixing” people “or arranging the world into something we consider God-glorifying.” It’s costly, but it’s the path toward experiencing more of heaven on earth.
7) Slow Down to Lead with Integrity – I’ve learned a lot about silence and solitude in the past few years, but it’s still a hard thing for me to put into practice. As I mentioned earlier, sickness is often one of the ways I feel like God forces me to slow down. Thankfully, it doesn’t always come to that. When I take the time to rest and slow down, I’m a more capable leader, I love others better, and I can manage my work more easily. When I don’t, my soul becomes dis-integrated. I get fractured into a million different pieces, addicted to “activity” and “doing,” and I lose myself.
It’s only when I turn my eyes to Jesus and “look full upon his wonderful face” that I’m re-centered and the things of this earth become “strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” I’m learning that journeying through the desert and enjoying the quiet, still waters are both valuable places to be. Because in every state, I can slow down and seek God not just for answers to my questions, but simply for Him alone. In the desert and in green pastures, I’m fully reliant upon Him. He brings me water that will never leave me thirsty, and He cultivates our relationship as I learn to recognize Him beside me. But I have to slow down enough to see Him there.
Learning Who Is In Control
With all that I’ve learned about journeying toward greater emotional health, I still have a long way to go. But I do feel like I’m getting better at recognizing my pain and being honest about it with people who I consider to be “safe.” Learning to experience pain has been critical to my emotional and spiritual development. Through breakups and health issues, I’ve been learning a lot about the control I really don’t have and the God who is in control. As Peter says, we shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer (1 Peter 4:12). In fact, suffering can be good if we let ourselves experience the pain and be changed by it. And, in suffering, we’re able to show that any power in our lives is only from God. When we embrace grieving and loss with God’s help, we won’t be destroyed – we’ll be changed.
As Paul writes, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-12, 16-17)
This mindset is extremely counter-cultural because it is, in fact, other-wordly. My brother-in-law put it exactly right when he said, “In our Western culture, we place a high value on comfort; I would dare to say, we have made it into a right.” He hit the nail on the head. We think we have a right to the “pursuit of happiness” – thanks founding fathers – and we often elevate comfort and success as the highest priorities in our lives. As a culture, we love to win, but we hate to lose. And we tell ourselves that protecting ourselves against pain by closing ourselves off from emotion will keep us from losing the things and people we hold dear. We tell ourselves that there can be no value in loss – only in winning. But that’s just not the truth.
These are False Imperative Narratives, as James Bryan Smith puts it in his excellent book The Good and Beautiful Life. These are the un-truths that we buy into, the fears that feed our anger, controlling, bitterness, and self-pity. And it’s through experiencing emotion, especially pain resulting from suffering, that these un-truths are brought to the surface for us to deal with by God’s help. Do you recognize any of these false narratives in your life? I certainly do.
Thankfully, these false narratives can be countered by Truth. The Truth of God’s Kingdom which has an entirely different order and way of doing things. This is the life where we don’t have to wrestle for control, strive for perfection, or keep up appearances of having it all together. This is the life of rest and true transformation.
|False Imperative Narratives||Kingdom Narratives|
|I am alone.||You are never alone. Jesus is with you always.|
|I must be in control all of the time.||Jesus is in control.|
|Something terrible will happen if I make a mistake.||Mistakes happen all of the time, and things usually work out fine.|
|Life must always be fair and just.||Life is not always fair and just, but God gets the last word.|
|I need to be perfect all of the time.||Jesus accepts me – even though I am not perfect.|
When faced with false narratives – when I recognize these un-truths seeping into my consciousness – I’m learning to quickly fight them with Truth. “Taking captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” and His way of Life (2 Corinthians 10:5).
God With Us
So, to recap, how do we experience emotion in a healthy way? This involves acknowledging our feelings and uncovering whatever is driving them, so that we can address the underlying issues. This may sound touchy-feely. And, I suppose, it is. It starts with getting in touch with how and why we’ve experienced hurt in the past. This helps us break the power of the past. If we no longer fear the pain, we’ll be less likely to close ourselves off to emotion in the future.
And that’s the next step, letting ourselves experience the full spectrum of emotion – like Jesus did. Grieving loss, celebrating joys, getting angry over injustices, partying at weddings. Can you imagine Jesus’ life and ministry without those elements? No, because he was fully human – fully like us.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14–16)
And there’s the point. Through Jesus, we have an example of what it means to live this life well. And through His Spirit, we have the promise that he is always with us. Even when we’re walking “through the valley of the shadow of death,” we don’t have to fear. That means we can approach Him confidently, not timidly, asking for his comfort and strength. It’s okay (and good!) too cry out to God in pain, sadness, joy. All of those things and more. Because then he can meet you where you’re at. And that’s the best reward of all – God with us.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18)
God experienced the deepest loss and pain of all in order to be with us. The least we can do is live by his example – letting pain refine us and burn away the impurities so we can be closer to Him and live life in abundance. I’ll leave you with this hymn that’s been on my heart all week. May it remind you of the truth: how greatly the Father loves you, and what lengths he’ll go to in order to bring you into close connection to Himself.
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory
Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished
I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom
“How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” Stuart Townsend