Growing up in a broken world, we each can have places inside of us that we can be afraid to go. This stems from repeated experiences of not having the resources (within ourself, and/or in our closest relationships) to grapple with certain emotions. When we encounter various forms of pain in life, and we aren’t able to healthily work through the emotions accompanying those experiences,1 then those emotions get stuck within us. And they stay in that stuck state, festering, until we encounter a relational context that can help us build the emotional muscles that we’re lacking.
Emotional muscles can only be built through relational connection–our brain requires the emotional strength of another in order to build new pathways within us. You can think of this as similar to how we learn to talk from our parents–they already have the mental muscles to form words and sentences in order to describe experiences, and we learn from them how to do the same. One consequence of this principle is that when we’re growing up we aren’t able to build emotional muscles in places that our caregivers don’t have emotional muscles. This is because the “gaps” in those places leave nothing for our brain to connect with and learn from, and thus we end up with similar “gaps” in our own abilities.
Similarly, if we try to get ourself to work on building emotional muscles in an area that a helper2 doesn’t have the emotional muscles to go, our insides instinctively will not let us go there.3 Though this can be frustrating for us when we’re wanting to resolve something difficult within us, it is actually a helpful protective mechanism. Emotions can be like high voltage electricity, and just like a house has circuit breakers that activate in order to shut off power to part of the house so as to avoid a fire, our brain will activate protections to deny us access to emotional areas within us that we can’t yet face (without getting “electrocuted”, so to speak).4 But when we do have someone with us who has the emotional muscles to stand with us as we face the unfaceable, our brain will sense that and grant us access to those sacred places.
This work of learning how to face what feels unfaceable within us can be some of the hardest, most terrifying work of our lives. We bury things within us for a reason–because every time we tried to go there before (whether intentionally, or out of necessity) we were repeatedly overwhelmed! And that reinforced the belief that we cannot bear to grapple with those emotions (and the connected experiences). But precisely because the work is so difficult, the reward of laboring to grow and heal in these ways is priceless. In my experience, both in my personal journey and in walking alongside of others, the fruit of these efforts is that we become more whole, more at peace, more our self.
The scary emotions within us that we feel we can never face (and never work through) are ultimately parts of us. And as long as we are keeping those parts locked away we will feel incomplete, disconnected, and not ourselves. But the more that we can find the courage to bring healing to those parts, ending their banishment and inviting them to the table, we get access to more and more of who we are created to be. And the more we experience that we can bring healing to long-banished parts of us, the more we experience–deep in our gut–the powerful hopefulness of change–that if we can change in those places, then the yet untouched parts of us can experience healing too! And this growing experiential knowledge sets us on a path of becoming more whole, more at peace, more our selves.
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- and we don’t have resource people in our life who can help us learn to work through them ↩
- i.e., a family member, mentor, pastor or counselor ↩
- As a side note, this one of the reasons it is critical that counselors (and other helpers, such as pastors, ministry leaders, etc.) continue to work at their own growth. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a helper must always have their own counselor (though personally I highly recommend it!), but they do need to have some kind of similar relational context where someone is walking with them, helping them grow. As human beings, if we are not continuing to grow, then we are starting to stagnate (i.e., this is a principle of momentum–we are always moving towards greater growth or greater stuckness). And for those of us in helping professions, I believe we have a responsibility to always be working to take the next step in our own journey of growth and healing–otherwise, how can we authentically encourage and invite others to do the same? ↩
- If you are working with a counselor (or other kind of helper) and it feels to you that the counselor/helper might be having difficulty going where you’re needing to go emotionally, I encourage you to bring that up with them. I realize that is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do, but if they are someone who works at their own growth they will ultimately be grateful for your feedback, and the end result for you will likely be them being able to better walk with you where you’re needing to go. It may take some dialoging back and forth for them to understand what you’re raising, but helpers who desire to grow usually are open to feedback, open to having blind spots pointed out, and open to learning that they have missed something and/or been wrong. ↩
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