By Chris Chandler, MA, LMHC, CSAT-C, Seattle Christian Counseling
References “The New Codependency” by Melody Beattie and “How We love” by Milan and Kay Yerkovich
Addicts often become acquainted with the source of their addiction because they were looking for a “pick-me-up.” They felt sad or stressed or angry, and they did not want to feel that way anymore. Rather than confront their emotions, they would get rid of them. But, like taking a pain killer when you’ve broken your leg, just because you feel better doesn’t mean you are healed.
Why is repression unhealthy?
Bottling up your feelings does not mean you have rid yourself of them. You only put them inside a bottle. They have nowhere to go. The hurt is still there; you have just trained yourself not to feel it. This is why people who repress painful emotions often have difficulty feeling pleasant emotions like enthusiasm or affection.
Many repressed people react to this numbness by assuming it is a personality trait. In their book, “How We Love” authors Milan and Kay Yerkovich argue that it’s not. They use the example of babies. Once they get some age on them, babies emote non-stop. They are either giggling or staring in awe or crying. It is not normal for people not to feel. Someone or something must condition them into numbness.
Why do people ignore their feelings?
People who struggle to acknowledge how they feel usually grew up in homes that discouraged displaying unpleasant emotions such as anger or sadness. They may have been told to go to their room until they could find a smile. They may have been told crying was weak or merely a plea for attention. “Ironically, although the goal of many Christian families in America is to become more like Jesus, the tendency is to suppress the natural expression of emotion. Despite His example, we tell our sons–directly and indirectly–that they shouldn’t have or show emotions and don’t need anyone when they are suffering.” (Yerkovich 65)
As a Christian counselor I see that sometimes they repress their emotions as a response to their surroundings. Admitting an abusive environment can be painful, so they don’t. They refuse to feel the pain their parents cause them because they do not want to accept that their loved ones will not take care of them.
You have a right to your feelings
God gave us feelings. This means, when used in a healthy way, they must be good for us. “Maybe tears seem like a waste of time because you don’t associate sadness with the need for comfort and relief. Anger causes a lot of tension in our bodies, and usually there is hurt some kind of underneath. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel that hurt or cry, there is no release for that tension.” (Yerkovich 67)
Feelings do not just crop up out of nowhere. Something has to trigger them. An inconsiderate statement. Being taken for granted. Remember– you have the right to feel hurt when someone has done something hurtful. Ignoring how you feel may make the hurt go away, but it replaces that pain with numbness. Also, it is likely the person who hurt you will continue to do so because you do not tell them otherwise.
Jesus expressed his feelings. Even though he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, he still wept at the site of his friend’s grave. His anxiety over his impending suffering and death was such that he sweated blood. He was not one to ignore what he felt. Jesus set an example for us of expressing ourselves in ways that help us communicate and relieve our pain. (65)
How to express your feelings
Re-conditioning yourself to feel is difficult. You are so used to ignoring the pain that you might not even understand what you are experiencing. For particularly staunch repressives, it can be like when a hearing-impaired person gets a cochlear implant and is able to hear for the first time. They are so overwhelmed by different sounds that it can take a while to sort them out. The Yerkovichs recommend consulting a list of words that describe emotions (stunned, lonely, angry) to help identify how you feel.
Getting in touch with a professional Christian counselor can make it easier. They can help you figure out why you repress your feelings. A professional Christian counselor will compassionately, but firmly, prod you in the direction of accepting the vulnerability required to express your emotions. They will use therapeutic techniques supported by biblical principles to help you use the feelings God gave you.
Images from Flickr Creative Commons: “Sad Couple2” Courtesy of louiscrusoe (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Some Devilish” courtesy of Bryan Rosengrant (CC BY-ND 2.0); “Happy” Courtesy of Jenny Kristina Nilsson (CC BY-ND 2.0)