Why Not Feeling Actually Breaks Everything

SELF | Caleb Mathis | 11 mins

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Hi. My name is Caleb, and I’m emotionally stunted. But that’s changing for me, and I believe it can for you as well.

I’ve spent most of my life trying not to feel anything. TL;DR — that’s a bad way to live. Ignoring your feelings, squashing them deep down inside yourself, it just doesn’t work. The best it can produce is the monotonous flatline of fine (Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?). The worst is something much more dangerous.

I actually thought this emotionless life was a wise choice, even biblical. Scripture gives warnings about trusting emotions, perhaps the most popular being, “The heart is deceitful above all things… who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). In my youthful zeal to please God, I was only too happy to kill those deceitful emotions.

In early high school, I discovered three things that supported my misreading (cause that’s what it was) of Scripture’s take of emotions: stoicism, Spock, and Sarah. (Full disclosure, her name was actually Amanda. But I couldn’t miss out on the alliteration.)

You see, Sarah broke my heart. She was my on-again, mostly-off-again, but on-again-for-a-little-bit-in-time-for-prom girlfriend. As you can imagine, this now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t type of relationship didn’t do wonders for my emotional health. I would be on the top of the world one day and feel buried beneath it the next. As if the teenage years weren’t rollercoaster enough.

At the same time, in English class, we learned about the Roman stoics. To a kid adrift on the angry seas of teenage relationships, they seemed like superstars. They could face anything with no emotion. They could throw off the deceitful heart and fickle feelings, and see life for what it really was.

And then I discovered Spock—a stoic with the ability to travel in space? Sign me up for that. (I know, idolizing a fictional character is kind of dumb. I can see that now. Gimme a break—I was like 15.)

One day, after watching Star Trek, I remember deciding that I was done with emotions. There was scriptural, historical, and science-fiction support for it. So, over time, that’s exactly what I did. Of course, you can’t just stop feeling feelings. But you can stop reacting to them. I adopted a clinical view of each day. There was good and bad, wins and losses, and I pretty much took each of them the same way. Unfortunately, an introverted and easy-going kid, it actually worked for me.

Of course, not even Spock himself can stop feeling everything. Despite my best efforts to turn them all off, I discovered three emotions kept growing through the cracks of my life, like persistent little weeds. They were Fine, Sad, and Volcano.

The vast majority of my life was fine. It’s as flat and unchanging as Kansas. Not amazing, but not bad either. Basically, everything in my life was fine. Going to see my favorite band in concert? It’s fine. Graduating from college? It’s fine. Going on a date with that cute girl? It’s fine. That cute girl just canceled? Still fine. She’s going to the concert with your best friend? Fine.

If “fine” ever broke, it broke downward… and became sadness. In a way, sadness was nice. At least I was feeling something other than the flatline of fine. It was so nice that sometimes I’d feed it with music (thanks, Elliot Smith). Or movies (thanks, Pan’s Labyrinth). Or books (thanks, Hemingway). When fine wore off, sadness was there to give me something to feel. And when sadness got to be too much, I’d pop back up to fine.

Every now and then, when fine or sadness couldn’t deal with the events of my life, I’d volcano. It’s exactly what you think. An outburst of anger. Blowing my top. Punching a wall. Throwing a shoe. Driving recklessly. You know, all that healthy stuff. It didn’t often happen, maybe twice a year, but when it did, you’d know. And after the fire and fury, fine would set back in.

This is basically how I lived from early high school till, well, like a year ago. Because about a year ago, after a particularly bad volcano moment, this happened.

“Caleb, if you don’t get your emotions in order, the kids and I are going to stay somewhere else until you do.”
After nearly 20 years of burying my emotions, acting like they didn’t matter, pretending that fine was healthy and good enough, those words got my attention.

My family and I had just moved to another state. We’d left behind our support systems and friends. Money was thin. Free time was still being spent on unpacking and making our new house home. Trying to prove myself at a new job, work was all-consuming. And after a weeklong bender of sad, I volcanoed, with my family in the crossfire.

As is often the case, my wife is my polar opposite. She feels things. Lots of things. Knowing my background, and wanting better for our kids (thank the Lord!), she has actively taught our children emotional health. And I’ve become one of the pupils.

I might be tempted to be embarrassed about the toddler steps I’m taking toward emotional health—if they weren’t so dang effective. They’re working wonders in my home, marriage, and soul. Yes, I’m 35, and this is a remedial course. But I’m learning to identify the emotions I’m feeling, put them into words, and share them with others. And it’s awesome.

If your emotional health feels stunted, even just off, you can change that. Don’t swing for the fences. Instead, work on these five toddler steps. They’ve worked for my kids, and they’ve been immensely helpful for me.

1) EMOTIONS AREN’T BAD

When my toddlers are having an emotional moment, one of the first things my wife says to them is that their emotions aren’t bad—even if the way they’re expressing them might be. It’s OK to feel sad that you have to go to bed, or frustrated that you have to share the toy. What’s not OK is that you’re expressing that emotion through a tantrum or hitting.

This was a big deal for me to grapple with. Emotions aren’t actually the enemy. Of course, they aren’t the end-all, be-all either. They shouldn’t control you, AND you shouldn’t ignore them.

As is the case with so many things in life, it’s not an either/or equation—it’s a both/and:
  • God doesn’t want you to destroy your emotional life in order to be an obedient robot AND I don’t believe he wants your life to be completely defined by how you feel.
  • It’s good to listen to your emotions since they are clues to what’s going on in your life and spirit AND we have to be willing to conform them, as you would anything else in your life, into the image of Christ.

Instead of something to be squashed, I now believe emotions are a gift from God. How else can you explain the wide range that Jesus himself expressed while on earth? He felt joy (John 15:10-11) and anger (Mark 3:5); surprise (Matthew 8:10) and anxiety (Luke 22:44). He cried (John 11:35), and I can only assume he also laughed. If Jesus, the son of God, didn’t choke out his emotions but used them to push forward God’s kingdom, it doesn’t seem a far stretch that I should do the same.

Instead of a deficit, my wife teaches our kids (and me) that our emotions are a clue to our needs (more on that later).

2) BUILD YOUR VOCABULARY

My kids have emotion flashcards. They play with them and use them to review (and learn) to pinpoint the exact feeling they are having. For someone who, for much of his life, has had three emotions, this has been a game-changer. Tools such as this chart have helped me understand the difference between emotions and the wide range available. Instead of fine, sad, or volcano, I can use words like vulnerable, content, or irritated. A more precise word means greater clarity around what I’m feeling and what it’s saying about my needs.

3) FEEL AND IDENTIFY IT

Points 1 and 2 come together here—feel your feels, and find the precise word to describe it. I’ve literally found myself stopping and asking myself, “What am I feeling right now?” in the middle of mowing the grass, doing creative work, or even playing with kids. Emotions are always with us. Learning to pause and ask the question, before a painful emotion arises, builds important emotional muscle memory that trains you not to ignore them.

Take a moment right now. What are you feeling? What’s the precise word? Use the chart above. This isn’t a quiz. There’s no shame in checking your notes.

4) IDENTIFY WHY YOU’RE FEELING THAT WAY (AND FIND OUT WHAT YOU NEED)

Once you’ve identified an emotion, it’s time to unpack why you’re feeling that way. Sometimes emotions are a defense mechanism. I feel angry because that person undervalued my work, or I feel confused because my instructions weren’t followed. Other times, your emotions arise from an unrelated need that’s going unmet. I’m cranky with my children because I haven’t slept enough the past week, or I’m short with my wife because I’d actually like to spend some alone time with her.

Follow the clues of your emotions and identify why you’re feeling that way.

  • If it’s a defense mechanism, it may be time for an honest conversation with someone else.
  • If your emotion stems from a need, don’t try to be Superman, find a way to meet it—go for a run, take a nap, eat a snack, call a friend, get a good cry in the shower. (There’s a story in the Bible about a prophet who, at the end of his rope, asks God if he can die. Instead, God sends an angel to give him food and sleep. After that, the prophet feels better. Sometimes, a nap and a snack really is the answer.)
  • If the root of your feeling is hard to identify, ask God about it. Since He created everything, he also created emotions. There’s none that are too big, too small, or too weird for him to handle.

5) FIND A TIME AND SAFE PLACE TO EXPRESS YOUR FEELINGS

Everyone needs someone who is a safe place to express and process emotions. For me, it’s my wife. But it might be a parent, a best friend, or a counselor. There is something about expressing an emotion that helps to both legitimize it and, somehow, minimize its stranglehold on my life.

For my toddlers, especially the youngest one, the phrase we keep repeating to him is “Use words.” Instead of grunting or whining or throwing a toy, use words to express yourself. As I’m learning to identify my own feelings, the “why” behind them, and what they’re saying about my needs, using words has become the most difficult step. I prefer being the strong silent type. But the more I find the courage to express myself, the closer I move to becoming the emotionally mature adult I want to be and the less volcano happens.

Hi. My name’s Caleb, and I used to be emotionally stunted. Some days, I still am. It’s hard work, but it’s getting better. In this humbling journey of learning about emotions alongside my toddlers, I’ve discovered three foundations:
1. Feeling is better than fine.
2. Sharing is better than sad.
3. Vulnerability is better than volcano.

No matter your age, it’s never too late to choose maturity and begin walking towards it. Even if it starts with toddler steps.


Written by

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

Published on May 20, 2020
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...
  1. What strikes you most about this article? Why?

  2. What are the main three feelings you experience (like Caleb listed fine, sad, and volcano)? How do those play out most often, and how is it working for you?

  3. Where do you see your patterns breaking something else in your life—a relationship, an opportunity, a wall? Take a few minutes to ask God to heal those places. A simple prayer like, “God, I want you to transform my emotions into something healthy, productive, and life-giving. Heal those broken spots, and show me whatever You want me to do.”

  4. Find a way to practice Caleb’s five toddler steps this week. Copy/paste them somewhere, make a calendar event for processing them each day, or print them out and put them somewhere you can see them. Tell a friend, or even forward this article to start a conversation with someone else who can encourage you and help hold you to it, so you’re not tackling it alone.

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