January 15, 2003
Growing Wise
Emotionally

The Radical Difference
Self-Understanding
Makes
  
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The movie A Beautiful Mind documents John Nash’s battle with mental illness. The Princeton mathematician suffered from schizophrenia most of his adult life. The film stunningly portrays how Nash learned to question the reality of illusory persons, who appeared to him often, and seemed as real to him as the spouse who served you coffee this morning, or the friend who paid you a visit last evening. Just as important, he learned to deny their predictions of doom, and refused to accept their guidance as valid for his life.

Most impressive is that Nash lived an increasingly productive life as the years wore on. His crowning experience came in 1994 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

Nash’s odyssey with schizophrenia demonstrates that it’s possible to gain greater control over a debilitating psychological problem than we might imagine. His example gives hope to anyone suffering from serious mental illness, that there may be even brilliant light at the end of that horribly dark tunnel.

His example is deeply encouraging to the rest of us as well. Most of us don’t face the sort of psychological challenge Nash did. We don’t have to question whether the person standing in front of us, or the furnishings in the room around us, are mental holograms. We may assume that the reality our eyes see and our ears hear is reality.

Yet the reality that our mind assumes to be true--or quite possible--can be another matter altogether.

We may suffer fears that bear little relation to the truth, yet are still effective in shutting us down and holding us back from taking a step with our life that would succeed. We may be tortured by second thoughts in a decision, even though we’ve thought it through carefully and have substantial reason to move forward. Or we may be too quick to think we’ll be better off caving in to anger and expressing it unkindly to someone. And the anger we feel may spring from assumptions that are terribly inaccurate.

The perceptions we fall into in such areas can limit us just as greatly as psychotic delusions did in Nash’s case. Our challenge is also similar to his in important respects. We have to come to grips with the ways our mind is capable of misleading us, then make our best effort, at these points, to separate fact from illusion. The fact that Nash was able to gain mastery over the demons of schizophrenia is tremendously reassuring, and gives us hope that we can successfully wage our own battles of the mind--which are typically less formidable than his.

What Nash’s example shows us, more than anything else, is the value of gaining psychological self-awareness. For him, it made all the difference in finding the path to a productive and fulfilling life. Each of us will also benefit remarkably from gaining a clearer understanding of our own temperament, and of how we need to filter its impressions.

Meeting Life’s Psychological Challenges

In his excellent book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman stresses that we have a chronic need for such self-understanding.* He notes that we humans are easily led astray by our feelings, which often distort our thinking. Our emotions can take over our rational process so totally that our view of reality is drastically skewed--a problem Goleman terms “emotional hijacking.”

The driver stewing with road rage, for instance, is musing, “To maintain any integrity, I have to teach that idiot who cut me off a lesson he’ll never forget. I’ll drive so close to the side of his car that he thinks I’m going to hit it.” In a calmer moment, the offended driver would never imagine that such action would be cathartic. Yet as his anger explodes, he quickly spins into crazed logic. He now sees sideswiping the other’s car as his personal mission. In this case, his emotions have fully hijacked him.

In less extreme cases our emotions mislead us more subtly. Yet they can still be potently effective in swaying us to bad judgment. An important part of maturing, Goleman explains, is learning to manage our emotional process so that it works for us and not against us. We need a keen understanding of how we are wired, and why our feelings flow in certain ways under certain circumstances. Awareness of how we function psychologically removes the element of surprise, making it less likely our feelings will sabotage us.

We also need to make many adjustments for our particular psychological tendencies. Learning not to fan the flame of anger or nurture unhealthy fear is important. It’s essential, too, not to let ourselves get so over-stressed that we’re susceptible to emotional hijacking.

Just as crucial, we need to learn to question perceptions influenced by runaway emotions, and refuse to let them be our final take on reality. We should take our emotional state strongly into account in all our decisions, and filter out assumptions induced too readily by anger, fear, or distraught feelings.

At the same time, we greatly need the constructive energy our emotions provide. A major part of our task is learning how to best open ourselves to the influence of positive feelings, such as love, empathy, hope, and natural motivation for certain work.

These are some of the steps necessary to develop emotional intelligence. We need it every bit as much as academic knowledge, Goleman insists. Unfortunately, our educational system gives scant attention to helping us grow smarter psychologically. It turns out many people who are brilliant in their fields of knowledge, but can’t handle their feelings well.

Goleman is strongly on target. If we are to successfully move through life--to live productively, to accomplish our dreams, to make meaningful contributions to others’ lives--we need emotional intelligence as much as any other skill or personal quality. We need to become good psychological thinkers, and able to manage our own psyche well. Knowing what to expect from our emotions, how to compensate for them, and how to draw maximum strength from them, enhances our potential considerably in every area of life.

The Christian and Emotional Intelligence

The goal of growing wiser emotionally is an important one for us as Christians, and would seem to fit naturally with our need to become more Christ-like. Unfortunately, many Christians fall into a perspective about emotional life that hinders them. They assume that Christ expects them to give him control of their temperament, and that this is the end of the matter. This assumption is noble and well intentioned. But what does it mean? That we should let Christ manage our emotions as though we were robots in his hands?

This is the sort of outcome we too often have in mind when we speak about having a “Christ-controlled temperament.” We assume that he will simply take over the whole emotional process for us, and relieve us of all struggle. Our role is to disregard negative emotions we experience and “give them up to him.” We shouldn’t give much attention to our desires and longings, either, which are likely to lead us down the primrose path; we should yield them to him, and assume that his will is probably different from what we naturally want.

God, though, is looking for a quite different response of obedience from us. His concern is that we learn to take responsibility, on all levels, for the life he has entrusted to us. This means becoming a good manager of our own emotional process. We should draw on his help and insight constantly as we do so; in that sense, we are giving him control. But if we expect him to do the work for us, we’ve missed the point. He wants us to take the same responsibility for growing emotionally that we do for growing intellectually.

We need, on the one hand, to develop a deep appreciation for the positive role our emotions play. Scripture stresses that they are a gift of God, providing the life-energy he uses to propel us in directions that reflect his will. When Paul declares that God is “working” in us (Phil 2:13), the term he uses literally means “energizing.” Paul is saying that God is stimulating us to take certain steps with our life. As we come to grips with what we are most motivated to do, we gain a treasured insight into how God has created us as individuals, and into what he wants us to do. Developing this self-understanding is the most thrilling part of emotional growth.

Our feelings may just as readily have a detrimental effect, and Scripture gives considerable attention to this side of it as well. Our emotions are an extraordinary force, like the wind, capable of driving us in both productive and unfortunate directions. Just as a sailor must respond to the wind by adjusting the sail properly, we need to interact with our emotions in a way that allows their energy to be life-giving and not destructive. The most challenging part of emotional growth is learning to deal with our emotions’ contrary side.

The most difficult part of that challenge, moreover, is learning to think clearly at those times when our emotions have the potential to cloud our judgment. We need a healthy skepticism for the conclusions we reach then, and the astuteness to see reality for what it actually is. Knowing our vulnerable points, and being ready to make reality checks at such times, is vital.

Let’s look more closely at what these instances typically are. There are at least six occasions when we need to regularly question our conclusions, and refuse to let our emotions throw us off course.

1. Mood swings in decision-making. Those of us with analytical temperaments usually find decision-making difficult. A woman recently described to me her dilemma in deciding whether to marry her boyfriend: “When I’m up, I see all the reasons I should do it; when I’m down, I see all the reasons I shouldn’t.” Her emotional state affects her outlook so strongly that on one occasion she sees marrying this man as the opportunity of a lifetime, on another as the mistake of her life.

Those of us who suffer mood swings like this need to override the tendency, if we’re to make firm commitments and realize God’s best for our life. We should base our choices more on our pattern of feelings over time than on our emotions of the moment, and give more weight to the way we think when we’re encouraged than when distressed or fatigued. Once we’ve diligently worked through a decision, we should stick with it--unless we encounter clear new information that gives us a strong reason not to proceed. Barring such new insight, we should regard doubts that surface when we’re down as normal ruminations of our temperament, and not a valid take on reality.

“Don’t doubt in the darkness what God has shown you in the light,” as it’s said. The adage is sometimes applied superficially to the Christian life. Yet it’s sage wisdom when we’ve made a decision carefully and prayerfully, then are dogged with second thoughts.

2. Major losses and setbacks. Emotional pain, like physical pain, has the sense of forever to it. The most common reason teenagers commit suicide is heartbreak stemming from romantic rejection, and the belief they will never get over it and find it possible to love again.

Personal loss poses us two challenges. We have to believe that in time we’ll have the opportunity to make a fresh start--that failure once doesn’t mean failure forever. We also must believe we’ll be emotionally able to let go of our hurt feelings and find a new outlet for our affection.

It’s the latter conviction that’s often the hardest to realize when we’re reeling from a major loss. Yet in truth, God has made us remarkably resilient as humans. We can take the love we’ve felt for one person and redirect it toward another. We can take the passion we’ve devoted to one dream and reinvest it in another. Part of growing wise emotionally is learning that such refocusing of affection is possible, and bringing that fact to mind often when we’re mourning an unhappy ending.

We usually need to allow ourselves some reasonable time to grieve a significant loss. Yet grief can become chronic. We need to make it a practice to question the perpetual sense of heartbreak we feel, and to remind ourselves constantly that it will pass--if we allow it to. And we need to open ourselves as fully as possible to the new beginnings Christ makes possible for us.

3. Managing anger. No emotion colors our perception and clouds our judgment more quickly than anger. Our musings in the midst of it--about the person who has perturbed us, and about what action we suppose would be cathartic to take--are often gross distortions of the truth.

The most tragic assumption we fall into is that we will injure ourselves if we don’t express the anger we feel. Ventilationist theories of the past century have stressed that we store anger. If not expressed, it builds up inside us and can cause us serious emotional or physical harm. In reality, though, we don’t store anger any more than we store positive emotions. And expressing it just as often nurtures it as relieves it. Satisfaction comes not from expressing anger, but from resolving the problem that caused it.

We are rarely capable of addressing a problem constructively when our anger is at its height. It’s a good rule of thumb to remember that our view of reality, in a state of high anger, is bound to be flawed. A valuable benchmark of our readiness to tackle a matter of contention is that we’re finding ourself able to see things from the other person’s viewpoint.

Reaching that point of empathy usually requires holding our tongue for the moment, taking some deep breaths, giving it some time, and perhaps a game of racquetball. We haven’t grown fully wise emotionally until we instinctively question our assumptions of reality when we’re angry, along with our need to immediately confront the other person. One of the surest signs of strong character is that we naturally put the brakes on the inclination to express anger unkindly. Gaining the ability to manage our anger this effectively should be a chief goal of emotional growth.

4. Guarding our heart. In this regard, we face an interesting dichotomy as Christians. Our desires provide us critical insight into how God has fashioned us, and thus into his will for our life. At the same time, our emotions lack discernment in themselves, and can fixate on objects of attraction that are anything but right for us. This leaves us with the ongoing challenge of distinguishing healthy desires from unhealthy ones.

Over time, our subconscious usually handles this task well, especially when we are in a growing relationship with Christ. Desires that have been with us for a long period and have stood the test of time are often excellent indications of God’s guidance. Less seasoned desires have a greater potential to mislead us, and to prove Jeremiah’s claim that the heart can be “desperately deceitful” (Jer 17:9).

An important part of growing wise emotionally is developing good judgment about our desires. We need clear perspective for determining which ones are constructive and which are not. Most important, we need to exercise this judgment often--choosing to nurture certain desires, and not others. The married man who finds himself attracted to another woman, for instance, needs to avoid stoking that infatuation, as well as doing everything possible to rekindle his affection for his spouse.

The good news is that we do have considerable control over the long-term direction of our affections. With the right time and attention, our desires can become the life-giving motivational force God intends them to be.

5. Paranoid assumptions. Most of us invest untold energy into worrying about what others think about us. When we look back on such ruminations, we so often find that they’ve hit wide of the mark of reality. It can be embarrassing to admit just how misplaced these concerns usually have been.

Most of us don’t suffer from psychotic paranoia. Yet we do experience it often at a less extreme, but still stifling level. Our worries about what others think are inaccurate so much of the time, that we should assume by default they are wrong unless proven otherwise (especially since others are usually much less concerned about us than their own problems). We ought to make it a habit, whenever such suspicions set in, to tell ourselves there’s high probability we’re not thinking clearly.

We should see questioning our paranoid musings as part of our work in growing wise emotionally. This practice can relieve our anxieties significantly, and will likely improve our relationships with others as well.

6. The need to rescue. There’s another point where our emotions can mislead us, and, if we’re not wary, beguile us considerably. Christ works within us who follow him to deepen our compassion for others. He builds into us a longing for our life to accomplish something of value to people, and calls us to do nothing less than give our life wholeheartedly to meeting others’ needs.

Yet he calls us to focus in what we do for others as well, and to base our choices on the unique gifts, motivational pattern, and energy level he has given us. Each of us can only do so much, and none of us can be all things to all people (Paul’s claim that he had become so referred to his adopting customs of people he evangelized, not to his meeting every need presented him*).

Each of us faces many opportunities to help others, or to assist worthy causes, where responding would stretch us beyond reasonable limits, and deplete the energy we need for commitments we’ve already made. Emergencies do occur, when we must draw on reserve energy and do our best to respond. But we cannot function effectively at the crisis level for long periods. Normally, God expects us to make careful choices about what we do to serve others, based on the capabilities he has given us. He wants us to live energetically, yet within our physical and psychological limits--to be good stewards of our life.

We are likely at times to feel the inclination to help--even a strong instinct to rescue--when it’s not wise to respond. We should never assume that the impulse to help, in itself, is God’s call to get involved, until we’ve carefully weighed all the relevant factors. We need, in short, to be big-hearted yet cautious in responding to others’ needs, and the many opportunities to serve that come our way. Decisions to commit ourselves should be made as much with our mind as with our heart.

And that’s the bottom line in growing wise emotionally--finding that magic blend of heart and mind, as we navigate the life Christ has called us to live.

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