anger

Emotional Reflexes, Bees, and the Artillery of the Soul

Emotional Reflexes, Bees, and the Artillery of the Soul

As children, we build ideas about how the world and relationships work. After an injury when I was small, I was getting stitches in the emergency room. My parents tell the story that while the medical team worked on me, I was happily explaining to them about how nurses grow up to be doctors. That was how I thought the world worked. Someone eventually informed me that doctors and nurses are not developmentally related, and what I understood about doctors and nurses shifted.

A lot of times, we develop beliefs about relationship based on how relationships happen around and to us. As young children when we got into trouble, Mom or Dad might have said, “What were you thinking!? What’s wrong with you?” Being children, we don’t have the ability to challenge the notion that there might be something wrong with us. To a child, Adults define what “Normal” is. So we begin to believe that when we make a mistake, it is because we are defective somehow. If we were “normal”, we would have known better.

Fast-forward to adulthood. If nobody ever explains this scenario to us, if no one ever reshapes that belief or tells us otherwise, chances are that we still believe it on some level. We likely operate as though what we do is a direct indication of who we are. If I lie, then I must be a liar. If I fall for a trick, I must be a fool. If you don’t like me, it’s because I’ve caused you to dislike me. If you hit me, I did something to deserve it.

These defaults operate consistently and automatically. When I was small, I got stung twice in the eyelid by a yellow-jacket. It was very painful, and my eye was swelled shut by the next morning. I have never liked anything with wings and a stinger ever since. I still have a powerful physical reflex when I hear a buzz near my ear. I learned that bees are dangerous.
As an adult, I know that bee stings are not as painful as my emotional reflex tells me, but I do know that they can still hurt pretty bad. What I know, however, does not matter when I hear that buzzing sound, especially when it’s close to my head. I still have a tendency to run away while swatting at whatever was making that noise.

These defaults are powerful things. We don’t choose them, we just live by them. The trouble is that sometimes, these defaults are simply not true. They are real, and they are potent, but they are often based on faulty information. The fact is that the mom or dad mentioned above was wrong: making a mistake or doing something foolish was not matter of something being wrong with me. It was a matter of being a child and not knowing how the world works. They reacted and spoke as though the child should have had the knowledge and foresight of an adult.

When I was in the military, I was assigned to an artillery unit. My first night on a live-fire mission was pretty awful. Every time the crews fired the cannons, I nearly jumped out of my skin. After a while, I could anticipate the commands that led up to the pull of the trigger, but try as I might, I just couldn’t get my body to quit jerking around when the shot went off. My body was reflexing to the concussion as if to say, “Something is coming for you, kid. You are gonna die.” It took a while of rehearsing and experiencing the concussion and the jumping, but eventually the jump reflex passed. My body had to learn that this sudden noise and the accompanying shockwave were not actually a threat to me.

Unlearning our emotional reflexes can follow a similar pattern. We can come to understand and truly believe that mom or dad was wrong, but the emotional reflex is still there, and it is still powerful. The feeling will still kick in, and sometimes we have a hard time remembering that it is real but not true.

The unlearning happens through practice. We can eventually grow to recognize the lie and speak the truth to it: (my identity is not actually based on my performance). We will still have the reflex, and after a while, we learn that this feeling does not actually have the power to define me. I can make mistakes. I can even look like a fool, and I will still be OK. All of our efforts to avoid the feeling actually prolong it. I *have* to feel the concussion over and over again in order to learn that it doesn’t actually have the power to harm me.

I’ll say it plainly: this process sucks. It almost never happens as quickly as we want it to, and it is almost never linear in healing. We go back and forth. We continually recognize new areas where this same old thing is in play. We have to keep fighting with this painful feeling, and we often feel like the fact that we have to fight this hard with it means that we are somehow defective. Then we realize we’re doing it again.

But eventually, with work, with awareness, and with the help of trustworthy friends and lovers, we come to believe the truth, and the reflex fades in potency. We experience a freedom and confidence that we never imagined, and eventually that freedom becomes our new “Normal”.

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

(#3 is the real kicker!)

If you’re looking for a way to keep from losing your mind when big feelings happen, I’m going to suggest these 3 essential questions to ask yourself.

First let’s define “Big Feelings”. These are feelings that swell up and burst in a nanosecond. It happens as quickly as a reflex (because they usually *are* reflexes, not choices!).   A sudden, very intense feeling of anger, offense, rejection, hurt, or other similar powerful emotions.   Often you may be able to recognize that the intensity you are feeling seems out of proportion to the thing that seems to have caused it.

Avenues Counseling

 

The Big Feeling is generally accompanied by a strong reaction of some kind: you erupt in anger, you run and hide, or maybe you shut down and withdraw. Whatever you do, it seems automatic.

So the three questions are a tool you can use to get underneath the reflex and understand what is pushing you around. The end goal is to gain enough understanding and distance from the feeling that you can intelligently choose what you are going to do next, rather than letting the feeling dictate your actions.

Question #1: What is the feeling? This seems simple at first: “I’m ANGRY, you idiot!! Isn’t that obvious?!”   Not so fast. Usually with an emotion like anger or offense, there is a softer feeling that comes first. Think of a parent that sees their child playing in the street. They react in anger: “What have I told you about playing in the street??” But the first feeling is fear: “I’m afraid you are going to get hurt or killed!!”

The key to mastering Question #1 is volume: wrap *a lot* of words around the feeling. Go into as much detail as you can. What does it physically feel like? Where do I feel it in my body? Is there motion to it? Does it rise or fall? Move forward or retreat? Burst or crush? It’s probably more than just one feeling, so what else is there? How many synonyms or clarifying words can you come up with to describe this feeling? These are just some examples, but hopefully it’s enough to get started.

Question #2: Why is it there? This question moves from what’s happening inside you to your immediate surroundings. What just happened to trigger this feeling?   Again, it seems obvious at first. “I’m pissed because you’re a jerk.” This part may be true, but let’s go a bit deeper, shall we? Get into the layer of meaning. What is it about that word, that action, that tone of voice that makes it so intense? Does it tell you they think you’re worthless? That they don’t respect you? That they’re not going to hear anything you have to say no matter what? Again, get into as much detail as you can.

Question #3: Where does it come from? We’re still dealing with the feeling that you named in question #1. Answering this question can be extremely informative, as well as kind of scary. The goal of this question is to discover where in your story, as far back as you can remember, have you felt this feeling before? Often, as you think about the physical sensation of the feeling, the answer comes quickly. It may be a specific story or event. A moment that, though it happened 10 years ago or 30 years ago, is crystallized in your mind so clearly you can remember what you were wearing.

It may not be a specific moment, but rather a type of moment. The feeling might be connected to something that happened often enough that specific moments are lost in the sheer number of them. What remains is the impression of “always”. “We always had to… He always said… It was always like this… Whenever I saw/heard/felt this, I knew…”.

Discovering your answer to Question #3 can sometimes be like a bomb going off in your mind and heart. All of a sudden you realize that you are connecting two different stories together, and that the old story is what you’re really angry at (or afraid of). Maybe the two stories are similar enough that they feel the same, and it’s the kind of story you never want to be a part of ever again.

Gaining this understanding is absolutely essential to developing the capacity to thoughtfully respond to the triggering situation rather than reacting out of the power of your emotions. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting you ignore what you feel, but that you seek to understand what you feel clearly so that you can deal with it intelligently.

Big Feelings are tough to handle. They always will be. But you don’t have to blow up or disappear when they happen. The Three Questions are intended to help you be able to stand up, speak your peace, and seek resolution in a healthier way. Rather than getting lost in the fog of confusion, fear, or anger, you can engage with openness, clarity, and self-control.

-by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Fiction, Hollywood, and Real Relationship

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

SPOILER ALERT:  for those who haven’t read the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, there may be plot spoilers in the following paragraphs, though I will try hard not to reveal too much.

My wife and I were discussing some of our thoughts about how the books The Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay ended, and how they served to wrap up their respective series.  We were thoroughly disappointed in each and for similar reasons.  The core of our disappointment was the principle of “putting a bow on ugly”.

The Harry Potter series ended with an epilogue titled “19 years later”, that (we felt) too neatly and agreeably attempted to wrap up all the threads from the series.  The fact that Harry named a child after the person who most utterly despised him and treated him viciously even behind closed doors was just too much.  I can see coming to respect him, but one simply does not name a child after an abuser of this magnitude.  All the ugliness seemed to have inexplicably vanished.

The Hunger Games series tried to do the same thing, though the attempt at closure was somewhat better.  The author at least attempted to acknowledge that ugly existed in the post-story world, but it was still resolved too simplistically and without the flesh to make it believable for me.

Hollywood and fiction train us to expect that all the loose ends can be resolved, that resolution equals “happily ever after” or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.  They train us to need things to work out that way.  This is most plainly true in the (despicable and utterly useless) genre known as “Romantic Comedy”.  I cannot say more without using profanity.

Think of the sense of disappointment or unease when you watch a movie in which resolution is not clean or neat. We recently watched the movie Moneyball, which does not conclude with a “Hollywood Ending”.  I can only say that the events depicted happened within the recent lifetimes of many, and as such could not be modified to fit the pattern described above.  I feel that if they were more ancient history they would likely have been changed into something completely victorious.

This is fine, and even necessary (to a degree) for celluloid.  The unfortunate side effect is that because reality is very much different, many people are left with a sense of disappointment and even despair when real life does not work that way.  The truth is that human beings are generally a broken, selfish lot that is capable of both great goodness and great evil, often within a single breath.

The fact is that intimacy, real relationship, and engaging responsibly with another human being is often like a wrestling match.  The very best relationship in the world experiences conflict and disagreement, hurt and offense, misunderstanding and tension on an ongoing basis.  The couple who tells you that “never a harsh word is spoken” is either whitewashing, outright lying, or they are not experiencing real, deep intimacy.

If you are going to really do deep, intimate relationship with another person, you’d better know how to fight.  I don’t mean knowing how to eviscerate your opponent in the shortest period of time.  I mean knowing how to hold in tension the following two truths: 1. This other person and I are on the same side,  and 2. There is pain and friction between us.

When I talk about knowing how to fight, I mean knowing how to understand and express my own feelings and thoughts in a way that does not accuse or attack the other, even when it is plainly and wholly their fault.  I mean learning how to uphold their honor and dignity while feeling the painfully powerful desire to rip their eyes out.  I mean knowing how to view conflict as a necessary part of doing relationship, and not as a threat to relationship.

It is often one of the hardest lessons to learn in relationship that resolution is not about coming to agreement, but rather it is about coming to a deeper understanding of the other person, and thereby learning how to craft a unique relationship between the two of you.  No part of that process is clean, neat, or simple.  It is ugly, and to expect or demand otherwise only leads to disappointment.  You can put a bow on it if you like, but that doesn’t make it easier to look at.  It takes patience, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love.  When you’ve come to the other side of it, it will still be ugly, but there is a beauty in what has been created by moving through it that will last a lifetime.

The Prayer from the Darkest Hour

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

God.
    I’m not really sure you’re even listening right now.  It certainly doesn’t seem like it.  I’m done.  I can’t do this any more.  If you want it done, you have to do it.  Whatever you are doing with me, get it over with because this hurts too much.
    I’m angry, and I’m pretty sure I’m angry with you.  I don’t understand.  I feel like you’ve turned your head and you don’t see me anymore, you’re not listening, and you don’t care.  Everything I’ve ever learned about you says you are kind and loving and you want the best for me, and I’d like to believe that, but I can’t seem to bring myself to risk it.  If I believe that, then it means that the hell I am living through right now is somehow for my good.  I want something else.  Not this.
    So if you are who and what you say you are, and if you really do care about me and you really do hear me, then … I don’t know … do something.  Show up.  Give me something to work with.  I’m tired of hurting, and I am utterly helpless.  You’re all I really have, and I’m scared you’re not there.  Amen.

I know a lot of people who would be scared to pray a prayer like this.  It doesn’t feel respectful.  It feels like asking for a lightning strike.  “I can’t be angry with God!  I can’t tell him I’m hopeless… Faith is always trusting him, and this isn’t trusting at all!”  Yet I think there is more faith in a prayer like this than in many that are said on Sunday morning.
    The thing that makes a prayer like this a prayer of faith is the fact that it is a prayer: it is addressed to God.  It may be said through clenched teeth, but it is a prayer, and prayer is an act of faith, especially when it expresses doubt, fear, and pain.
    God is big enough and real enough to handle our doubts.  He can handle our anger and fearful lashing out.  He is the kind father who absorbs the tearful, angry pummeling of his small child, lovingly contains the flailing fists, and soaks up the tears with his shirt. He is still present, he is still mindful, and he still loves his child.
    So when you feel your darkest hours upon you, turn to him.  Shout at the heavens if need be.  He loves you  as you are, especially when you are angry and doubtful.  He desires relationship with you: he wants to hear your heart in whatever state it happens to be at the moment.  

Do not be afraid.

It’s OK to be Angry

by Jonathan Hart, LPC
Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Psalm 4:4

The first two words here may be startling to many, especially among those who have spent their lives in church or religious circles.  The message many of us have received is “do not be angry”, or “to be angry is to be selfish”. We take the good message of peace and forgiveness to mean that confrontation and boundaries are excluded.

But the command here is to “be angry”. Anger is not of itself an evil, nor is it universally inappropriate. If it were, God himself would never become angry. But there are things that make God angry: injustice, ruthlessness, arrogance, taking advantage of the weak and powerless.  These are things that rightly inspire our own anger.

Anger is a powerful emotion, and humans are prone to abusing power. The expression and communication of anger is regulated in this verse and in other places as well.  Talking about those limitations is another post altogether.  For many, it will be enough for now to consider that to feel and express anger is sometimes a perfectly appropriate response.

Every Sorrow

By: Courtney Hollingsworth, PLPC

We work hard to evade pain and suffering. In many ways, we keep from being honest. We fool ourselves, our family, our friends, we even try to fool God. When sorrow, the uninvited visitor, knocks upon our door, we pretend not to hear it. We minimize, diminish, distance, rationalize. How often do you say or think, “It could be worse,” or “It’s not that bad?” But eventually, all the effort we put into pretending away our suffering begins to fail us; the knocking turns into pounding and the door of our denial comes crashing down.


As pain and healing were married at the cross, Jesus cried out in lament. When we refuse to lament in the midst of our pain, we ignore the cross. We ignore the pain inherent in it and the healing conferred by it. Dan Allender says that a life lived “in the mire of denial is not life at all. If the Lord Jesus came to give life, and life abundant, then a life of pretense involves a clear denial of the gospel, no matter how moral, virtuous, or appealing that life may seem.”


Despite our heart’s inclination to hide and deny, it is a gift that God not only already knows about our disappointment, fear, sadness, and thirst, but that he is big enough for us to approach him with it.  And he desires that we do so.  He calls us to offer everything to him.  Every joy and every sorrow.  We can attempt to avoid our suffering, but we will thereby forsake the intimacy with God, and with others, afforded in it.


We work so hard to isolate all of our painful and angry emotions in the dark corners of our hearts. In doing so, we isolate ourselves. No one invited in. No warmth. No light. Restorative living requires us to visit these places of darkness in honesty, to ask others to accompany us there, and to cry out over what we find there. Where do you need to look with honest eyes and cry out for your own suffering? Where in your life and story do you need to remember that your God is big enough for your pain?

The Characteristics of Abuse and Control

by Jonathan Hart, LPC
I recently spoke at the Women’s Safe House on the subject of identifying and avoiding potentially abusive relationships.  The presentation was called “How Not to Go Back:  Finding a Different Kind of Mate”.   What follows are a few of the ideas presented at that meeting.
Very often, as people move from relationship to relationship, they find themselves attracted to the same kind of person.  They leave one relationship for whatever reason, and find themselves in a relationship with another person who looks, acts, thinks, and speaks in similar ways. The problems of the previous relationship happen all over again in the current one.  This is especially troublesome when the other person is abusive or controlling. 
Often “number one” on the list of criteria used to judge the suitability of a mate is their appearance, but what needs to be considered most carefully is what is on the inside.  Charming behavior and kinds words all too often give way to harshness, belittling, demands, and even physical altercations. 
While there is no single characteristic that guarantees that a person is an abuser, I have assembled a list of characteristics that are common among abusive or controlling partners.  What follows is not exhaustive: I have tried to assemble a representative list of suggestions on how to see into a person’s character regarding how they will likely view and relate to a mate or partner.  
I use the male pronoun because unfortunately, the vast majority of abusers are male.  I do not in any way seek to suggest that “all men behave this way”. There are indeed men “out there” who are good, honorable, respectful, kind, and loving. 
Warning signs:
  • Easy frustration or quick temper
  • Jealousy or possessiveness (indicates a sense of ownership rather than partnership)
  • Getting “carried away”, even in little or positive things (lack of control over impulses)
  • Lies, excuses, cover-ups: “I didn’t mean it! I was drunk: it wasn’t me! It was the alcohol.”
  • What happens when you say “No.”?  If it is disregarded or discounted, take warning!
  • Parent/Child relationship (you have rules and consequences for breaking them)
  • History: Has he abused before?  Does he use force to solve his problems?
  • Pushing blame/lack of responsibility:  “I wouldn’t have had to do that if you hadn’t…” “You brought this on yourself. You made me mad.”
  • Giving orders/making demands versus making requests or seeking your opinion. 
  • “I’m sorry, but…”  The “but” undoes whatever came before it!
Areas to look at:
  • Church/Faith/Religion: how is the language of  “headship & submission” used? If being the “head” means “I get my way over yours” there is a potential problem!
  • Family Patterns: What is his parents’ relationship like?  How do his siblings relate to their significant others and children?  How does he treat his mother?
  • F.O.G.: Does he use Fear, Obligation, or Guilt to get his way? (‘You owe me! Look at all I do/provide for you!”)
  • H.A.L.T.: Who is he when he is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?  These are not valid excuses for lashing out!

Two Laws of Relationship:

  1. You ALWAYS have the right to say what happens to your body. Nobody can tell you that “You have to take it”.
  2. You are ALWAYS responsible for how you use your body. “You made me do it” is a lie.
I hope some of these ideas are useful as you think about your relationships or as you consider new ones.  As I said before, no single characteristic or idea listed above guarantees that a person is abusive or controlling (or not so!).  These are ideas to help you see what is on the inside of the person you are attracted to, and to hopefully help you choose someone who will treat you with the dignity and honor that every human being deserves.
Some reading this post may come to understand for the first time that you have experienced a relationship like that which is described above.  Some already know it and feel it deeply.  Some may realize that these are ways in which you habitually relate.  Please understand that hope is real and change is possible.  If you would like to discuss this post with me in a confidential manner, please contact me at [email protected] so we can arrange a time to talk.