Emotions are tricky things

Photo credit: Baby emotions by almoko, on Flickr. Used via Creative Commons licensing.

Emotions are tricky things. Even in the best of times, they can be hard to name and pin down. They can easily masquerade as related emotions, and they come and go and mutate like wisps in the wind.

Ask even a strong emotion like fear what its name is, and it will tell you it’s anger. Anxiety and excitement can appear so closely intertwined that they can be hard to separate into logical buckets.

Emotions are tricky things, but they get even trickier for those of us who have been raised in systems that teach us wrong names for what we feel.

I’ve had several conversations lately that have highlighted the way that Christianity and dysfunctional families (or even worse, dysfunction that is defended with Christianity) contribute to this kind of taught confusion about emotions. This gets exponentially more challenging when this confusion about emotion is then applied to what relationships should be or should feel like.

In one conversation about a series of blog posts by Samantha of Defeating the Dragons (Iron sharpeneth iron, part one and Iron sharpeneth iron, part two) on the challenges in the way friendship is sometimes defined in Christian circles, we explored the way that some of us have been taught skewed things about what friendship should feel like. These are well worth a read! But there were a number of us in the discussion who could relate to confusion about what friendship should be because we had been taught some of these ideas.

When the focus of friendship becomes holding one another accountable and fixing what is wrong with us and calling people out when they aren’t following the rules, “friendship” becomes a strange mix of control and judgment and competition. Therefore, “friendship” is something that requires masks and pretense and hiding.

This is not to say that true friendship never calls people on their “stuff,” but when that is the primary definition of friendship, when it is all about forcing people to live within whatever rule set is being advocated, when it is all about control (often expressed as a concerned desire to fix what is wrong with the other person), it’s not really friendship. But when that’s all one has ever known and been taught, how do you know that something more is possible?

In another conversation, a group of us talked about our experience of “spiritual highs” in the past and how those (in retrospect) were often more like emotionally frenzied guilt trips about how worthless and sinful we were—or at the other end of the extreme, they were sometimes huge pools of self-righteous pride about how we had all the right answers compared to those “sinners” over there. Neither of which describes being in the presence of the Divine which loves us with a love that surpasses all others.

Of course, there are times when we do feel guilty when we have acted in ways that we regret. But when greater guilt is confused with being closer to God, it creates the grounds for people to be easily manipulated by those who can effectively stir up guilt and emotional excess.

The more I learn to simply seek the Divine and rest in that presence, the more I find that real encounters are ones that bring with them feelings of love and peace and wholeness (even in the face of recognizing my faults and mistakes), not guilt, anxiety, or shame.

As I continue to read The unspared rod blog about this author’s abusive childhood (but described in some of the most beautiful, moving, and haunting language I’ve ever read!), where the abuse is done in the name of God, I become increasingly aware of how abuse (of any kind) warps our definition of emotions, relationships, and normality. When it’s done in the name of “love” and of “God,” how much more damaging this is.

When you’re taught that punishment is love, then you begin to think that being treated badly is a good thing and that the absence of punishment means you are not loved. Can you imagine what this does to relationships? To one’s worldview? To one’s self? Abuse becomes confused with love, and kindness becomes confused with lack of it.

When you’re taught that loving someone means controlling them, freedom then feels like abandonment. Not only will someone who has been taught that keep looking for people who control them (so that they can feel loved), they will express their own love for others in the form of control and manipulation.

When you’re taught that love feels like chaos and emotional pain, you’ll spend the rest of your life creating needless emotional drama in an attempt to feel loved by others. Drama that will, over time, continue to tear relationship and relationship apart, damaging all involved.

Emotions are tricky. Our emotional responses to relationships are trickier still. But these conversations have left me more convinced than ever that these warped and confused definitions of emotions do more damage than we often recognize.

For many of us, perhaps learning to re-define and re-name and re-experience these emotions is the path to healing and greater wholeness. Emotions are meant to be used as signals that tell us what is good for us and what is not. Until it is possible to interpret these signals from our selves correctly, they will continue to lead us down wrong pathways in our confusion.

Have you ever had the experience of having something good feel uncomfortable? Or of something bad feeling comfortable because it was what you were used to? How have you re-defined emotions for yourself when you’ve discovered places where it was needed?

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