Real Men and Emotions

 I've always suspected that men were just as emotionally complex as women, and after being married to one for over 10 years and living in a home with five of my own sons around me, I am convinced. 

Turns out, neuroscience agrees with me.

 

The Significant Difference Between Emotions and Feelings

You see, emotions are actually base-level brain reactions that are coordinated and executed by the amygdala and the neocortex. Emotions can be stimulated either from an external situation OR from internal thought about a situation. Our bodies will physically respond to these emotional reactions, faster than we can cognitively acknowledge them; our pupils, skin, heart rate and facial expressions are affected.

Though we often use the term "feeling" interchangeably with the word "emotions", they are technically quite different. Emotions could be likened to reflexes of the mind, and they are impulses we share with other complex creatures. Technically "feelings" refer to the conscious recognition of our "emotions", and they make us unique in the earth. Emotions and feeling: two parts of the same process. And it is a beautiful process that bridges the two things.

 

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When that Bridge is Road-Blocked

God designed all of our brains with a phenomenal defensive system that will maintain basic functioning even in the face of serious trial or crisis. In times of high vulnerability, the "feelings" department is actually one of the first things to go. This is what numbs us out when we hear of a tragedy; we feel like we can't acknowledge the sorrow or loss.

It is what temporarily shuts off our pain censors when we face extreme physical injury. It is what allows children to stay alive and function even though they experience abuse or constant neglect.

The brain sets up (hopefully) short-term barricades between our emotions and feelings to help us not fall to pieces in the middle of the stress or intense vulnerability. It happens on a small scale all of the time. Someone says something hurtful or a situation takes us by surprise, but rather than unravel right then and there, we hold it together. Later that night, if things settle down and we have time and space to think about it, the connection between emotions and FEELINGS is re-established. Sadness or hurt resurfaces and we THEN have a chance to process it.

 

Also, it should be noted that our greatest security in life ideally comes from the closest relationships in our life. If we look in the eyes of the people we are most connected to and see that we are welcome to be there, we can get through a lot. Our people are the safe place where we process the sorrow and the pains of life. One knowing look from a friend or a gentle touch on the shoulder from someone we trust and our "brave face" falls away, we sigh, and we feel our emotions again. 

The trouble is that when there is no safe place to come back to, the brain can get stuck with defenses on.

 

If We Face a Vulnerability Too Much to Bear

Human beings are the most vulnerable of all creation. We face a continual ache to find rest in the relationships of people around us. We know we can't MAKE people want us or respect us or love us. If there is too much rejection, too much stimulation, too much danger, or too much insecurity in any environment, our brain will subconsciously react like a secret agent who drives a fast car through tight streets and tries to find the escape route down a side-alley.

No more feeling. Numb out. But the emotions continue on, unfelt. Basic functioning is more essential to life than feeling.

The brain was created to thrive, to problem solve, to invent, and to be resilient, but it was also made to protect us from a vulnerability too much to bear.

It is really good at both of those things, but unfortunately, it cannot do both simultaneously.

 

Sensitive Brains will Defend Themselves

Just like people have different pain thresholds, people also have varying levels of sensitivity to outside stimuli. In the same way that some of you just can't handle the texture of tomatoes, or the feeling of velour, or the sensation of crunching tinfoil, some people have a greater sensitivity to VULNERABILITY. They honestly feel things more intensely. Whereas one person may experience something at a level 4, those with higher sensitivities will feel the same thing at a 7. 

Thus they are also more subconsciously choosy about which environments they can unwind or let their guards down.

Now, get this:

Studies are beginning to indicate that it is actually the boys among us that are more prone to this emotional sensitivity. 

  

When Boys Live in a Hostile Land

What happens if a sensitive soul also lives in a world that belittles the expression of emotion? What if a boy doesn't find a safe place to come back to? What if his tears are constantly belittled? What if his defenses get stuck?

What if he stops feeling? Look around. Look within. You are most likely experiencing it.

Who told men they weren’t allowed to feel and still be a man?

 

The Old Testament Hero, David (a.k.a. the Emotional Warrior)

Why was David repeatedly honored by God? David was certainly not a saint, but his name alone shows up 1,105 times in the Bible. To note the significance of this, that is 124 times more than even Jesus's name. (Though in no way do I think that means we are to idolize David. The Bible is the story of God and how He redeemed us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, his Son, but we can clearly see that God gives David a lot of airtime.)

 Why?

I believe it was because David, a simple man, found a way to keep his HEART in it. In the midst of the obscurity of a shepherd's field, the glory of fame in battle, hostility from his family, disillusionment in waiting for the prophetic word of God to come to pass, betrayal of his wife, the loss of a best friend, in victory and even in moral failure - through it all, he refused to numb out.

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 He knew how to strap on the armour, get out on the battlefield and risk himself and give everything to protect his people and his nation. He also knew how to come home, wash his bloody hands in the stream, pick up his guitar and sing his feelings out. He was a man connected to God with his heart. God spoke of him to the prophet Samuel, saying, "This man's heart feels, like Mine does."

David was not emotionally unstable when he wrote those psalms. He was human.

Early on in his life, he had learned that God was his only safe place to come back to. In the presence of God, David could take that brave face off. Only after he had unloaded the weight of his heart, did he find the new strength to continue on.

  Time to Feel Again

Some of you haven't cried in years. You don't express yourself in songs or communicate your disappointments or fears; instead you medicate with pornography or the less-embarrassing addiction of video games or SportsNet. Too much time alone with your own thoughts and the tsunami would threaten to wash over you, so instead you spend your life sand-bagging.

I would also like to add that certain personalities have heightened ability to communicate their feelings, through song, poetry, dance, or story-telling. These people are a gift to the rest of us who take longer and don’t quite know how to explain ourselves. In this too, I should add here that females have traditionally been known to have greater interconnectedness between the two hemispheres of the brain, which could explain why they seem to find words for their feelings more easily. The good news is though, that the brain is a flexible structure, ready to be strengthened in whatever way we lead it to. Just because it doesn’t come as easily, doesn’t mean that it is impossible for you.

I want to tell you right now that the Lord is a sure Refuge for you and your whole heart. I can’t even tell you the number of times that I have prayed and asked God, “What is going on inside of me? Can You give me words so I can understand myself?” And, His Spirit has been consistent to guide me in that. Once I can grasp what is happening in me, then I can also more clearly and logically make decisions to bring me back to health. (Like, extending forgiveness when I’ve been hurt, or accepting my own limitations when I’ve been overwhelmed.)

Your emotions will not destroy your life, unless you continue to ignore or deny them.

 

Men and women, wherever you are right now, you can empty the contents of your heart in a pile, right there on the floor of the Throne Room of God. He knows how to help you feel again. He knows how to sort through your mess.

 

Write about it. Weep about it. Sing about it. Go for a run and sweat about it.

And commit to never again mock vulnerability. Vulnerability keeps us alive.