Sometimes when life gets too intense and stressful, we swallow the emotions we have and turn to different things to seek…
Comfort. Relief. Escape.
Maybe it’s things that seem quite harmless on the surface…like food, sleep, TV, social life…but sometimes we turn to things that grow into something very destructive…like an eating disorder, sexual addiction, a toxic relationship…
How do you handle life when things get tough?
Maybe it’s a tough day at the office. Maybe it’s a tough conversation with your mom. Maybe it’s a tough financial situation. Something, somewhere isn’t going as you hoped…something is triggering a reaction deep inside you.
Big or small, we all have to manage stress and difficulty in our lives, on a daily basis.
But how well do you manage?
In this article, I want to outline a key concept that has been so critical to my own journey of managing stress and difficulty I would face daily: knowing the value of feelings, understanding the root of addiction, tracing back to patterns of how you were comforted growing up…
And, this impacts a lot. It impacts your daily stress level, the existence of addiction in your life, how you handle conflict with others, how you interact in any relationship…
I have personally been deeply impacted by the book How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovich that outline these concepts and I derive much of this content here from what I’ve learned from them.
What, Feelings actually matter?!
Coming from a Christian background, I grew up thinking feelings and emotions had no place of value at all. Why, we’re people who “walk in the Spirit” not in the “Flesh”!
Yes, you really shouldn’t let your feelings and emotions rule your life. They shouldn’t be the final say in big decisions you make. And yes, there’s times where they can impact your ability to obey God or live victoriously…if you’re ruled by your feelings. (Because you aren’t always going to feel like doing what God is telling you to do!)
However, what are feelings?
Feelings are the ability to perceive a physical or mental sensation.
Let’s take this example– if you touched a hot stove, what would happen if you never could feel the sheer heat of it?
You would burn your hand off!
But because…you can feel the heat of it, you retract and you are saved from harm.
Similarly, feelings act as an indicator light, warning you of harm or discomfort.
God made us with feelings for a reason!
There is an element of validity to feelings. If a friend betrayed you and you never felt the pain of it, it would basically mean that you don’t matter. Yes, that’s right…feelings show that you matter. You’re valuable and yes, it hurt. Don’t discount that.
If you were in a relationship where the other person crossed bounderies and began using you…and you never felt something was wrong, you’d end up being abused. If your parents divorced and you never felt the pain of it, then it’s as if it didn’t matter. You don’t matter.
No, we shouldn’t be ruled by our feelings but God made us with feelings for a reason. They validate our existence and value and they help us know when harm is near.
Root of Addiction
My counselor gave me this analogy once…imagine a pit. Everytime something hurt you growing up, all the emotions and feelings that you had about it (and yes, you felt something)….maybe your dad broke a promise, a bully mocked you, your parents divorced, a teacher embarassed you, or you received a disappointing grade…the anger, shame, embarassment, sadness, guilt, etc…all gets dumped into this imaginary ‘pit.’
We don’t express it. We just stuff it.
Then the problem is that it all builds up…Many adults have never actually cried and properly grieved their parents divorce. Vented the anger towards their dad. Expressed their sadness over a broken relationship. Cried when someone they loved died.
It just builds..and builds..and builds up. And then we seal the top of the ‘pit’ up and we put a nice ‘Christian hat’ on the top of it and say…
“Oh no…we, Christians, we don’t get angry! Oh no, I’m not angry, I’m just “frustrated.” ”
Do you know how toxic that can be? In a form of pride and sense of righteousness, we stuff our emotions and we don’t allow ourselves to feel them…when we don’t grieve when we should and when we don’t allow ourselves to be sad or to articulate what’s really bothering us…
Then what happens?
We turn to addictions. Big or small, because we don’t know what we’re feeling and it’s overwhelming, we turn to comfort…somewhere…something…someone. Sometimes, we don’t want to call it “addiction.” That seems too harsh but…that’s what it really is.
And, do you know what else that’s called? It’s called idolatry. (yes, turning to anything besides God for your need for comfort and solutions)
Big or small, seemingly harmless or pretty blatantly harmful– the management of feelings is critical to addiction. It’s what you do with the feelings that’s key.
Comfort Growing Up
The premise of Milan and Kay Yerkovich’s book, How We Love , is that everyone has a “love style,” a mode of “attachment” that you learn at a very young age with your parents…the way you’ve learned how to relate…that now impact you in your daily relationships– for better or for worse.
The book focuses on the marriage relationship because it is the most intimate and the most challenging but the principles apply to any relationship.
The revealing question they have their readers answer is: Can you recall being comforted as a child after a time of emotional distress?
When I first read this, I thought, “how could that be that important?” But slowly, as I read more, I realized that how conflict was handled in one’s family is extremely telling of how people deal with conflict in other relationships. Acts of comfort like touch, listening….ways people received relief growing up actually reveals a lot of why they are the way they are today…
“Answers to the comfort question also reveal why some people are so good at communicating while others have such difficulty. We are not born knowing how to understand and express what is inside our souls. That kind of knowing ourselves requires contemplation and reflection…Being fully known and understood requires we say aloud to someone else what is going on within our souls”
Many children do not have anyone to ask them how they feel about a certain situation– and to receive the comfort needed.
Noone ever asked me how I felt about my parent’s divorce when I was 14. When the divorce happened and there were times I wanted to cry in front of my dad, he’d always scold me and say, “Don’t cry. Be strong.”
What did that say to my young heart?
It said, It’s unsafe for you to expose the way you really feel. Don’t be weak. Crying is bad…it’s unnecessary. Be strong, only.
Don’t show how you really feel.
Take a moment and think about it. You may or may not handle your feelings like I did but…What did your parents say to you when you were upset or something bothered you?
Did they say “Don’t come out of your room until you have a smile on your face”? Did they scold you for feeling hurt? Did they ignore you?
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how unhealthy it is to stuff your feelings.
I’ve cried tears that have been bottled up for 14 years! Tears that never came when I first heard about the divorce because I wouldn’t validate my feelings at the time. I stuffed it.
This is very unhealthy not only on an emotional level, but it can be physically. Bottled up sadness or anger…we call it “stress” but it may be something much much deeper.
It’s how you handled your feelings growing up that leaves a deep imprint on how you operate today.
The Dance You Dance Now
1. The Avoider
Private, self-sufficient, you like your “space”. You are usually “fine”, have few emotions, and avoid being needy. Most likely, others want more connection and affection than you want to give and you may try to comply with their wishes, but ask for little in return. You are probably task oriented and a high achiever and show your love by doing more than by connecting. Over time, you may resent others because you feel they always want something, while you want very little. Others may tell you that you are distant and don’t seem to need them.
One of your most important growth goals will be to learn to receive and give on an emotional level by becoming more aware of your feelings and needs.
2. The Pleaser
Growing up, you were probably known as the “good kid” and tried your best to please others and avoid rejection or criticism. As an adult, you form connections by seeking to meet the needs of others with little consideration or awareness of your own needs. You have difficulty tolerating space, separation, and conflict in relationships and emotional or physical distance from others may cause feelings of anxiety, insecurity or jealousy to surface. When others are upset with you, pursuing and giving help to sooth the anxiety and stress you feel. You avoid conflict and it’s difficult for you to be honest. Anger, if felt, is expressed indirectly or not at all.
Your most important growth goal is to learn to say “No”, and tolerate the conflict that may result from being more honest. Expressing your own feelings and needs will help your relationships be more reciprocal.
3. The Vacillator
You are keenly aware of your desire for connection. You prefer intense experiences of bonding in relationships because passion makes you feel close. This initial, intense connection causes you to idealize others early in relationships, believing you have found a person capable of devoted, passionate, and enduring connection. You are sensitive and easily feel disappointed, rejected, or unwanted as the relationship progresses, and you eventually become angry when your expectations are not met. Over time, you feel betrayed, abandoned and made to wait for others to be available. Your anger causes you to vacillate between wanting attention and feeling too angry to receive. This is confusing to you as well as to others. The message you give is, “Come here”. “No, go away”. Others may tell you they feel like they are walking on eggshells and cannot make you happy.
One of your biggest growth challenges will be to admit your part in your marriage problems by recognizing no spouse can be as wonderful as you would like. Learn to accept the weaknesses of others express sadness rather than anger. Be willing to reengage with others rather than letting anger block progress.
4. The Controller and the Victim
As kids, your parents did not relieve stress; they created it, so chaos was “normal.” You may have learned to defend yourself by becoming controlling and aggressive, discovering anger is a preferable emotion to any tender feelings. feelings of humiliation, shame, fear, or grief. As an adult you control others believing your must take what you want by using threats, intimidation and sometimes even violence. Any flicker of vulnerable emotion like insecurity, fear or grief is quickly banished with anger. You must acknowledge and deal with the pain from your past in order to grow and change because there is a lot of grief under all that anger.
If you survived the chaos of childhood by trying to be compliant, passive, and invisible, as an adult you still feel unable to assert yourself and will tend to marry someone controlling, who will dominate you. Your low self-esteem keeps you believing problems are somehow your fault, so you try even harder to subdue anger in your spouse.
You will need to find a safe place to gain some confidence and support.
5. The Secure Connector
Secure attachment was described in chapter four when we looked at what kind of home guides a child toward a secure imprint as an adult. If you are a secure connector you are comfortable with reciprocity and balance giving and receiving in your relationships. You can describe strengths and weakness in yourself and others without idealizing or devaluating. You are good at self-reflection and know what is inside you, which makes it easy to clearly communicate your feelings and needs. Resolving conflict was modeled for you growing up, so in your relationships, it is natural for you address problems, accept advice, see alternative perspectives, and negotiate and compromise to resolve problems. You know you are not perfect and can apologize when you are wrong. You also can set boundaries and say “no.” You are comfortable with new situations, can take risks, and delay gratification. When upset, you go to others for help and comfort. You may have some of these qualities and need to improve some of the others.
Articulating is Half the Battle
Lastly, in the book, they teach how to use “Soul Words” to help people identify and clarify their fears, frustrations and feelings.
It’s basically just a simple list of different emotions but wow, does it work!
‘Stress’ is actually just a pile of emotions that aren’t articulated or distinguished…to actually learn what exactly you feel…just knowing if you feel frustrated, angry, betrayed, sad…instead of just saying you’re ‘stressed’…actually helps bring much relief!
If you actually know what you’re feeling then you can do something about it. Do you feel betrayed? Ok, maybe you should go talk to that person that betrayed you.
Do you feel sad? Maybe you should find some relief by having a good cry. (instead of numbing yourself with addiction)
Do you feel frustrated? Maybe you can find the root of that frustration. Maybe that person that was extremely late to meet you reminds you of when your dad did the same thing growing up.
Feelings are important. Learn how to clarify what’s really going on so you can get the relief you need in a healthy way…instead of running to other things. This self-awareness can do wonders for your relationships too.
1. How were you explicitly or implicitly taught to handle your feelings growing up?
2. What is your “love style”? Are you an avoider, a pleaser, a vacillator, a controller or victim or a secure connector? Feel free to take the online test to find out.
3. Do you see any negative consequences in your current relationships by how you handle your feelings and your “love style”? What can you do to bring improvement and change in that area?
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