Three Steps to Fight Big Scary Feelings

feelingsI work in an elementary school twice a week as part of my social work intern.  Most of my job description entails observing children’s emotions, talking to children about their feelings, and teaching children what to do when these emotions and feelings strike.

I help run a social skills group for special education students ranging from kindergarten to second grade.  The students in this group fall on a wide spectrum of social and emotional functioning.  Some of them have been diagnosed with autism, OCD, Down Syndrome, or Bipolar Disorder and some of them have learning disabilities or require extra academic assistance.  All of them, though, struggle with interpersonal interaction.

This week we read a book called Sometimes I Get Scared where a kid explains the many things that scare him throughout the day. The book talks about spiders, clowns, dogs and the dark.  My favorite page, though, talks about “big feelings.”  The narrator explains that we all have big feelings inside us, like anger and sadness, and sometimes these feelings build up so much that feeling them scares us.

The book continues to explain different ways children can handle being scared, like breathing, thinking positively, and asking for help.  Through these techniques, the children are suppose to learn how to control and lessen these “big feelings” to make them safe rather than scary.

As I was reading this book to the kids, I felt like I was at church. “Preach!, I thought as the book talked about “big feelings.” Being a deep feeler, this fear of feeling is all too real. Many of my days are paused by thoughts of fear, like “what happens if I’m disappointed?,  how will I react if someone misunderstands me?, what if I get my feelings hurt?, how can I hide that I’m feeling emotional right now?” Because “big feelings” don’t stop when we grow up.

While children may have “big feelings” about not getting ice cream after lunch or not being included in the popular group’s text or having to do a classroom assignment, adults have “big feelings” because they are not satisfied with their lives, their trust was betrayed, or they are stressed from work. What causes the feelings can be different, but the reactions are often the same.

The difference between adults and children, though, is that adults are expected to remain in control of these feelings while an occasional tantrum from a child is somewhat acceptable. When we reach a certain age, we are expected to be in control at all times…or at least when we are around other people, but adult tantrums happen just as often.

Has someone you love ever stopped talking to you? Shut down completely after an argument or even one comment? That’s a tantrum.  Has someone you love ever lashed out and said something hurtful to you?  That’s a tantrum.  Has someone you love ever used alcohol or other substances to block out their “big feelings”? That’s a tantrum.

So adults need to learn these lessons just as much as my students.  How do we reduce the fear we have about our “big feelings”?

  1. Allow ourselves to feel the genuine emotion.

Often when we feel big feelings, like betrayal, hurt, pain, sadness, we react without processing.  In order to shield ourselves from the pain or overwhelm that we may be feeling, we go straight to action.  Unfortunately the actions we take often lead to more hurt for ourselves or for others around us.  We shut down, we lash out, we numb.   If only we took one minute when we are flooded with a certain feeling to recognize the feeling and feel it in our physical body, then we could begin the process of control the feeling instead of reacting and letting the feeling control us.

       2. Breathe.

Emotions are physical as much as they are mental.  Chemicals are releasing and nerves are activating throughout our bodies. Therefore, when we feel “big feelings,” they feel like that are actually washing over us and coursing through us.  Our breath shortens, our heart pounds, or skin becomes hot. When we take deep breaths, we are working to reverse these automatic reactions within our body… slowing them down to a halt. We are then able to think, process, relax.

       3. Release the fear.

Feelings and emotions are important evolutionary adaptions because they warn our bodies that we may be in danger [And if your emotions are telling you that! Listen!] But many of us deep feelers tend to activate the danger signal at any slightly uncomfortable experience, therefore, these steps are crucial to surviving in adult life. After recognizing the emotion and breathing through the intense first minute of feeling, we must begin to learn to separate ourselves from the emotional experience. While the emotions are happening in our body and they are real, this does not mean they are right.  For example, I can have a strong reaction to how my girlfriend says the word “cheese” to me and the emotion that I feel could be real, but it does not mean that it is appropriate or accurate.  Therefore, it is important to think about the experience that brought about the emotion, assess whether it warrants a danger response, and if we decide it does not allow the emotion to wash away.  Like waves, emotions come intensely and crash on us but if we breathe and feel the genuine emotion instead of the primal reaction we can then allow them to retreat in a slow and methodical manner until they are needed again.  We can allow the emotions to wash away by breathing, removing ourselves, or logically explaining why we felt the way we did.

Just like my students are learning to do with their “big feelings” adults must learn to not let tantrums ruin their peace, because tantrums simply intensify and prolong emotions.  Instead learning to recognize our genuine emotions, breathe through our bodies physical reactions, and mentally watch as they emotion wave recedes can help us lessen the fear of these “big feelings” and be more in control of how we respond.

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You Are Enough

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You are enough.
Words spoken that cover the immeasurable
immensity that is human insecurity.
You are enough right now.
For one small instant you allow those words
so subtle, so pure
to free you.
To free your striving
Your perfection.
You alone are enough in every way.
Void of any conditional fragments
that one small phrase stands alone
firm
lovely
in front of all humanity.
You are enough.
But you throw off this simple phrase
struggle to grab the chains of perfection
that had finally fallen to the ground
to become your own slave master
Every minute, punishing, critical.
Every minute unworthy.
Chains of doubt and worry cling to you
painfully etching scars into your wonderfully flawed skin.
You, my love, in every single way
are not perfect because humanity’s beauty
is found in our many unworthy imperfections
But you, my darling, are in this moment
and in every way
As you sit alone, smiling but struggling beneath these heavy chains
you are completely and utterly enough.

“Get Over It Already” and Other Harmful Christian Messages

As a painfully awkward and overly sensitive child, I was no stranger to irrational fears, worries and anxiety. In fact, I often carried with me a long list of the many social situations to avoid for they were all sure to be ways that I would die a slow painful death by humiliation. Don’t worry this list was entirely comprehensive including everything from slipping dramatically on a poorly placed banana peel to calling my second grade teacher “mom” in front an entire class lacking the psychological development of the empathic response [and yes both of which have happened to me]. Although in some ways it may be obvious, being this type of child was only made more difficult by my parent’s choice to attend one of the largest mega churches in Orange County. Therefore, I not only had to deal with negotiating a vast social obstacle course during the week at school, but my only time of refuge, the weekends, ended in a near panic attack inducing obligation to not only socialize for one’s own good but also by doing so show that somehow one was a ‘good’ Christian.

Like most quiet children, I learned to cope by clinging to the few friends that I knew at a church of thousands and sitting in the far back corner praying the whole time that I would somehow be ignored by the overly-aggressive ‘church welcoming crew.’ I’m sure if you have been in a church at least twice in your life you have encountered this posse. Well I had gained a myriad of techniques to avoid the social advances of this well-meaning, but terrifying group. I had found my own way of still enjoying my time at church without having to cross off anything on my ever-growing humiliation list. That is, I avoided this until around 6th grade.

Not only had puberty reared its ugly head escalating my awkwardness to dangerous proportions, but also my church decided that this was the right time for children to publicly declare their “relationship” with Christ. Seems a little fishy since most of us could barely form relationships with our peers, but you know the God of the universe…cakewalk. Anyway, being a good evangelical teenager, but mostly being one that wanted desperately to avoid standing out from the crowd obviously my only choice was to get baptized. [Yes, funny how the way to fit in during junior high was to attend church as much as possible. Trust me, this is why I will continue to have years of therapy.] But, sounds easy enough, right? Well, if wearing an oversized shirt and standing in a kiddie pool in front of all your friends and family while being dunked forcefully in not-so-warm water wasn’t enough social torture, try giving a speech beforehand.

Yes, you read that right. A speech.

Sorry, had to pause for a second to do my breathing exercises because just thinking of this moment gives me all-too-familiar panic symptoms. As if the baptism was not enough, my church required that every teenager that wanted to be baptized give a five-minute speech outlining their ‘testimony,’ which for those of you that are not familiar with Christian-ese means telling your life story of how you “got saved” essentially. Alright, this must be some cruel joke, I thought! Not only do I have to get dunked in water in front of everyone but I also have to pour out my whole life story for a crowd of a couple hundred junior high students.   Looking back on this decision, I must have been having an out of body experience because there is no way that I would have willingly agreed to something like this, but two weeks later I found myself anxiously awaiting my turn at the mic with my typed speech in one hand and my list of humiliation in the other, which now had the words testimony starred and circled in red ink at the top.

Looking back on this event, I’m always struck by this unusual phenomenon that I’ve experienced in churches long after this one moment in junior high. Something about hearing a ‘testimony’ of a person that has struggled, despaired, screwed up BUT, by the ‘grace of God,’ made it through the storm and now lives a cookie cutter, joyful life is intoxicating to many Christians. We ask people to stand in front of a crowd of people, mostly strangers with the exception of a cordial smile each Sunday, in hopes that their story will be a Hollywood-type of redemption narrative. A story that truly proves to any doubters in the crowd that no matter what type of despair you are muddled in now, only with a few prayers and some sort of eternal hope in God your life will be a fairy tale. And if it does not turn into this fairy tale ending, if you find yourself lost in despair without a way out, then that just means that you must trust God more and we would rather you wait until you get out of that despair to tell your story, for there is bound to be a happy ending in their somewhere.

I’m sorry if this is sounding rather cynical, because that is certainly not my intent. I also do not want to make light of the many rather miraculous testimonies of redemption and healing that I’ve heard over the years. But, returning to my junior high self preparing my testimony, I was convinced that I had to somehow wrap up my story in a nice bow in order to show that God was somehow present in my daily life, which honestly, in my actual experience, was pretty miserable. God forbid I would admit that in front of my church-going friends, though, in order to face the barrage of answers about finding the deeper meaning or the silver lining in my own struggles. No I didn’t want that, so I got through my testimony ending it with a rather trite statement that was probably something like “and now I can find joy in my relationship with Christ,” whatever that means. When on the inside I had to find a way to deal with my own years of depression, doubt, and self-hatred.

My struggle with depression did not end in junior high; in fact, it is still a constant presence in my adult life. Years of counseling and medication have helped, yes, but I am not naïve in thinking that I have seen the last of this familiar foe. I did not know how to talk about my depression when I was younger, because so much of my life at school, at church and with my friends was about putting on a happy face so that I could move past my troubles, because the only way to move on is to ignore any negativity right? I couldn’t give my real testimony when I was in junior high because it would have included my anger, despair and doubt in God without a perfect resolution or feel-good ending. Luckily I’m not in junior high anymore and my faith has changed and grown along with my understanding of myself.

Moving beyond depression is not the end goal for me anymore, because when I’m honest with myself I know that will probably not be possible for me. My purpose isn’t to find the light at the end of the tunnel, because in my experience I have found peace and connection with my understanding of God in the darkness of the tunnel, not the light. Hope and depression are not opposing forces. Hope for me looks like accepting my own darkness and living there with the realization that in despair redemption is a constant reality.   I believe, though, that redemption does not mean overcoming depression in order to be made new, but instead redemption means embracing my fragile state and reaching out to those stumbling along with me in the darkness. Depression is isolating, I mean, it’s not exactly something people like talking about in casual conversation. In my most depressed states, the last thing I want to do is build some sort of community. I want to yell at the world to get out of my face and be alone in my pain. And trust me that is definitely necessary sometimes; I’m not always the most loving person to be around those days.   But in those times when the people closest to me, often those that have also experienced these days of darkness, force me to be my most real and honest self with them—even if that just means giving me coffee and sitting in an understanding silence—I find hope and redemption through community. If I were to simply ‘move past’ my depression or pretend like it’s not a constant reality in my life, then I would miss this opportunity for raw human connection. That is God to me.

I write this as a plea to churches obsessed with proclaiming and exalting the next encouraging testimony. While showing people that there is a way out is often helpful and uplifting, you might be doing a disservice to many people in your congregation or even in your life that know deep down there is no end to their suffering. That does not mean hope is not present in their stories, but it means that they are seeking deeper, more meaningful answers than ‘well, at least you know that when you go to heaven there will be no more suffering’ or ‘have joy because you know God has a purpose for you.’   They are waiting to hear the church tell them that despair is a normal reaction to this screwed up world in which we live. They are waiting to be welcomed into community that doesn’t force them to have everything together prior to membership. They are waiting for someone to sit with them in their despair with no anticipation that they will move past it soon. They are waiting for the gospel message that even in darkness redemption is happening. They are waiting for the church to truly embrace the messiness of life, mental illness, and doubt without the hopes that sooner or later they will catch the good news fever and never have to bother with any of these temporal struggles again. They are waiting for the beauty and pain of their suffering to be honored without only seeing it as a means to an end or a temporary state to rise above. They are waiting for it to be okay for a confused, nervous, and awkward teenage girl to be able to give an honest testimony that is allowed to end in the unknown, but persistent hope of the gospel. For I know that: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” and that being saved is so much more than a happy ending, but instead a hope that embraces a brokenheart without forcing it to heal in the same swift way in which it was broken.