“When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.” (Psalm 73:21-22)
In part one of this post, I identified six emotional states that serve as triggers for “brutish and ignorant” behavior. When I consider times in my own life when I have been “out of my mind,” or when I find myself doing dumb things today that are out of step with the person I want to be, I can usually trace the threads back to moments like these. As I talk to men, I find that I am not alone. Maybe you’ll be able to identify areas of emotional vulnerability in your own life so that you can be more watchful, alert, and avoid allowing these feelings to hijack your life.
- When I feel afraid.
- When I feel alone.
- When I feel abandoned.
- When I feel ashamed.
- When I feel angry.
- When I feel anxious.
If we are not emotionally self-aware, these six feelings can instinctively drive us to protect ourselves from pain, no matter what the cost and no matter how much more pain we cause. Part of our brain’s limbic system, the amygdala, is designed to protect us from threats, whether real or perceived. In a moment of crisis, our limbic system doesn’t know if we’re afraid because we can’t pay the rent, or if we’re afraid because we don’t know how to raise teenagers, or if we’re afraid because a lion is prowling outside our hut. Our bodies are designed to respond the same way to all three scenarios. Blood rushes from our brain to our muscles. Our necks swell. Our heart races. Our muscles tense and we reach for the spear, because the body’s reaction to fear is to kill or be killed. It works with lions. It doesn’t work so well with teenagers and landlords. We’re not wired to be nice. We’re wired to survive.
If we’re not mindful, but instinctive, reactive, and brutish, we will handle unwanted feelings like fear, anxiety, and even shame in ways that are not helpful, but hurtful and destructive. While identifying areas in our lives which make us prone to stupidity is a great place to start, we must go further. We must develop strategic skills of how we plan on acting when we feel emotional pain and our beastly flight or fight impulses start to kick in.
Practicing Emotional Maturity
Emotional maturity simply means the ability to understand and manage your emotions. For example, if John is experiencing high levels of stress in his life, he may seek to manage these feelings by getting lost in video games, movies, eating, or internet browsing. This would be an example of emotional immaturity. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these activities, avoidance and fantasy are not mature ways of dealing with stress.
On the other hand, an emotionally mature person would seek to understand the cause of his stress, let’s say it’s a difficult coworker, and he would manage his emotions so that he behaves in ways that benefit himself and others. John might ask himself, “Why is Bob irritating me so much?” Through reflection, he might come to understand that his stress has nothing to do with Bob at all, but rather his own feelings of inadequacy and shame which are triggered when Bob belittles him and his accomplishments. You see, rather than numb his emotions with fantasy or indulgence, (or fight or plot against Bob), an emotionally mature John will listen to his feelings and consider their source. John will know why he feels stressed out and exhausted after an encounter with Bob which will be extremely helpful in managing his emotions. Rather than hurting Bob or hurting himself, he will look for opportunities for growth.
Instead of acting like an ignorant and mindless beast and booting up his game console as if creating a world where he is god is going to make his problems disappear, he will intelligently realize that gaming is not going to solve his problem. He will also see that getting HR to deal with Bob or his moving to another department or company is not going to solve his problem either. John must work through his issues of shame and inadequacy lest they eventually rob him of joy and incite him to do even more stupid stuff to dull the pain.
Unfortunately, usually, we’re not so mindful. Instead of understanding and managing our emotions, we just numb them. We scheme on how to get people fired. Or we push hard things from our minds, reach for the remote, a bag of potato chips, and another bottle of beer (flight reflex). We snap at the kids, kick the dog, and are rude to the wife (fight reflex). We’ve been disrespected all day and we’ll be damned if we’re going to be disrespected in our own castle. We deserve better. If God won’t give me a good life, I’ll make one for myself.
However, for all of our self-loathing and selfish behavior, we’re no better off than we were this morning when Bob scoffed at our proposal, but at least we feel a whole lot better now.
But we don’t, do we? We feel worse.
What are we doing? We’re protecting ourselves. We can’t really lash out and hurt Bob, so we lash out and hurt others. We deal with our feelings of inadequacy and shame by shaming others and making them feel inadequate and unable to live up to our expectations. Since we blame our pain on our circumstances, we think that peace will be found in creating and controlling a world in which everything and everyone revolves around us, and when they do not comply, they get punished.
Does this sound stupid? It is, but sometimes otherwise smart people do stupid things because they are being ruled by shame, fear, loneliness, anger, or anxiety. Feelings are more powerful than we give them credit for. As guys, we don’t like to talk about feelings. But more often than not, feelings fuel us. We forget that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love, discipline, and a sound mind. But when feelings like fear or shame strike, our sound mind goes out the window and the brutish and beastly behavior takes over.
Numbing Strategies Always Require More
What about people who do the really, really stupid stuff? What about people who in a moment of temptation do things they could never see themselves doing, like lie, cheat or steal? What about those who seek refuge in pornography, or who develop chemical dependencies to drugs or alcohol, or who gamble away their life’s savings, have affairs, or who act out in ways that are violent, abusive, and even illegal?
While some of these may seem extreme to you, the reality is that when we start living life according to our emotions then we have no idea where that road will lead. When we start managing our painful feelings through numbing strategies then we always require more and more.
For example, if lashing out at others is our chosen method of handling our angry emotions, then our tirades will escalate over time. They have to. You see, what worked yesterday won’t work today. My body has become conditioned to it. What numbed my painful feelings yesterday will not numb my painful feelings today. I need more. So, during a tense moment when I fear that my life is out of my control, instead of raising my voice and regaining that feeling of control like I did yesterday, I now have to raise my voice and throw something. Tomorrow I will have to raise my voice, throw something, and then hit something to gain that same “in charge” feeling. Eventually, I may feel the need to hit someone. This goes on and on until I end up very isolated and alone, either because no one wants to be around me anymore, or because the state has decided to put me away.
If sleep or avoidance is our chosen option to deal with painful anxiety, then we will require more and more. Eventually, we will lose our job and even quit going out in public. I have talked to men who won’t even get out of bed to shower because it means facing a life they hate. Numbing strategies to deal with painful emotions, be they fight or flight, do not work. They require more in terms of frequency and intensity.
We all understand how this principle works when it comes to drug and alcohol dependency. Gaming and gambling are other excellent examples of this. Our brains and our bodies are designed to develop tolerance levels. What got us here won’t get us there. We need more.
If porn and masturbation are our chosen ways to deal with feeling alone, abandoned, or ashamed, then eventually we will develop a tolerance to our porn stash and require more in terms of frequency and intensity. The crazy thing, however, is that porn makes us feel even more alone and ashamed, requiring more and more doses of more extreme porn to handle it. It’s a vicious cycle. The next thing you know the guy gets arrested for solicitation and everyone says, “How stupid is that? He must be some kind of a pervert.” No, at some point in his life, he just started numbing his pain in a different way than you numb your pain and his road took him further than he thought he would go. Your road will take you further than you want to go to.
People who have affairs are often looking for love and relationships to give them affirmation, validation, and a sense of belonging and feeling needed. No matter how much marriage counseling or how much help they get, they will never stop pursuing destructive relationships until their feelings of loneliness, shame, or abandonment are dealt with. We must treat the root rather than the fruit.
If it is the praise of others that we are after, their affirmation, their approval, and their acceptance, then we will pursue higher and higher levels of achievement in order to get it. We will work longer and longer hours and get deeper and deeper into debt so that we can prove to ourselves and others that we are enough and that we are worthy of love and approval. And when none of it works, instead of wising up and learning our lesson, we will just do dumber and dumber stuff to get their attention that may eventually include sabotaging our life and derailing our future.
Act, Don’t React
As I said earlier, we must develop strategic skills of how we plan on acting when we feel emotional pain and our beastly reactionary flight or fight impulses start to kick in. We can rescue control of our brains and bodies from the amygdala and give the reins back to the prefrontal cortex so that we can think clearly, logically, and mindfully about the situation.
The writers of Scripture had much to say about controlling the mind. Here are just a few:
- Renew your mind (Romans 12:2)
- Think about whatever is true (Philippians 4:8)
- Take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)
- Be renewed in the spirit of your minds and put on the new man (Ephesians 4:22-24)
- Set your minds on things that are above (Colossians 3:2-5)
You have to decide how you are going to act beforehand. In the moment of emotional and spiritual crisis, God will feel distant, truth will feel irrelevant, and your beliefs will be the last thing on your mind. If you’re not mentally prepared and emotionally self-aware, painful feelings like shame, fear, anger, and loneliness will become so important to you that you will be willing to crash through moral and ethical boundaries to escape.
I know that when I am feeling overwhelmed with these painful emotions, I feel compelled to do anything to find relief–even things that cause greater pain. And so, here are five truths that I try to remember when my feelings make me want to throw in the towel. I use the acrostic FIBER as a memory aid: Faith, Influence, Brain, Engagement, Results.
- Faith over Feelings
It is when I am tempted to run away from God that I need Him the most. No matter what I may be feeling at the moment, I must trust in my faith, not in my feelings. I have faith that God is real and that he is in control of all things, including the thing that has me most bothered at the moment. I have faith that he is loving and that he has designed all things for my good and His glory. I have faith that there is always a way of escape and that he will never lay any burden on me that he will not also give the grace for me to handle. As much as I may want to change my present reality, I must acknowledge that he wants to be glorified in my present reality.
- Influencer over Islander
No man is an island unto himself. Everything we do influences and impacts those around us. My actions will directly influence the people who are closest to me and who love me the most. If I act like a brutish and ignorant beast, then it will impact others in ways that I’ll never be able to take back. Even if I come back to my senses, they will continue to bear the bites and the scars of my foolishness.
This is something that I have forgotten in the past. My ignorant behavior ended up impacting and hurting lots and lots of people. I did not sin on an island. My sin did not just effect me and a few sea turtles. My sin influenced a lot of people. Whether we like it or not, we are all influencers. We are either a good influence or a bad influence.
- Brain over Body
I do not need to be ruled by reptilian survival mode. By mind renewal and by putting on the new man, I can rescue control of my life back from the limbic amygdala and give control back to a spirit led prefrontal cortex where it belongs. I can think and act logically and intelligently, no matter how much fear and anxiety I feel. When my blood pressure starts to rise, and my neck starts to swell, and my muscles start to tense, I will say it out loud if I have to: “Brain over body, brain over body.” When my coworker or my daughter is making me angry, the situation does not need swollen biceps, it needs a sound mind.
- Engagement over Estrangement
When I am feeling shame or fear, I want to run away and be separated from everyone. However, what I need most is to call someone. One of my favorite numbing strategies is isolation. What I need more than isolation is community. Engaging with other friends will help bring me back to my senses and prevent me from ruining my life, marriage, and testimony.
- Results over Relief
God is not always interested in providing immediate relief. God wants to see results. He often uses the process of pain to bring about the righteousness that he desires. In tense moments when all I want is to get relief from pain, I have to remind myself that God wants the result of Christlikeness in me. God wants to sharpen me, and fashion me, and chisel me into a better man. He wants results in my life like character, maturity, faithfulness, patience, and perseverance. Mature, patient, persevering people are not born that way. They are made that way through a process of suffering. Even steel is hardened through the fire. I must not care about relief, but the results of trials in my life.
In Psalm 9, David writes,
“The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you”
During times of fear, anxiety, anger, or loneliness, God wants to be our stronghold. He does not want us to take matters into our own hands and play God. Nor does he want us to turn to other gods like money, affairs, drugs, porn, isolation, or whatever your drug of choice might be.
Ultimately, the stupidest thing of all is when we try to come up with our own strongholds to rescue us from our trouble instead of going directly to the stronghold of strongholds. Let us put our minds above and not on things of earth. It will not only help us to make better decisions in the moment, but it will develop us into the men that God wants us to be. Instead of hurting those around us, we will be men who help those around us and influence others with tremendous blessing.