It’s been a little more than eighteen months since The Wisdom Of Your Heart hit the shelves. In that time, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about the book, and how it connected for them.
Or how it didn’t.
I’ve learned a lot. I learned that we need to talk about emotional health in the church a whole lot more. I learned people are hungry for aid in this part of their lives. I even learned that my little book was really helpful for some people. That’s fantastic!
I also learned that I had left something important out. Honestly, it was my fault. It was a blind spot for me. If I were writing the book today, there would be a whole chapter about this missing piece.
So, what’s this chapter I’m bummed I overlooked?
Before I talk about this missing piece, I need to touch on two of the central ideas of the book.
First, we start with the premise that emotions are something good. Emotions aren’t dangerous. They aren’t something to run from or deny. They are a part of how God created us, part of what it means to be made in God’s image.
Second, if emotions are good and purposeful, then hiding from them or repressing them isn’t good for us. Instead, part of growing up is learning how to listen to our emotions in a mature way. This is part of growing up in Christ.
The whole book grows from these two ideas. On their own, these ideas are pretty revolutionary for some of us. I lived most of my life thinking just the opposite.
Some families, particularly many Christian families, have so much fear around emotions. Instead of learning how to handle our feelings responsibly, we become experts at numbing them, or medicating them, or distracting ourselves, so we don’t have to pay attention to them. Anything to avoid the discomfort!
In certain places and times, however, these disagreements have gone far beyond meanness. Sometimes they resulted in violence. We’re too civilized for that, we think. Well, think again.
Think about how our story impacts our emotions.
Now, we’re getting closer to the missing chapter.
One part of coming to understand our emotions is learning how our past and the story we carry has shaped the way we respond to the circumstances of our lives.
We all carry stories—these narratives of meaning we’ve given to the events our lives. These stories help shape the way we see ourselves and other people. That means these stories shape how we experience and respond to our emotions.
For example, my dad died unexpectedly and in a traumatic way when I was eleven. That event shaped the way I saw the world and myself.
I’m also adopted. In some ways, being adopted shaped my story in beneficial ways. I can genuinely relate to the Apostle Paul’s language in Galatians about being adopted into God’s family. I know the incredible grace of being chosen. That’s great stuff.
In other ways, being adopted shaped my story in painful ways. My birth mother gave me up. The person who was supposed to love me most gave me away. Now, I know the explanations. I understand how she was providing for my future in the best way she could. And yet, no matter the motivations or outcome, there’s still a faint thread of rejection in my story.
(Don’t email me, OK? I love birth moms. I know that their journey is incredibly hard. And I’m profoundly grateful to both my birth mom and my adoptive parents. Point being, it’s possible to feel multiple things at once!)
Others experienced emotional or sexual abuse as children. Those kinds of experiences form us. They impact our sense of worth. They determine whether we operate from a baseline of trust or fear. They filter how we see and relate to others.
Even if we don’t carry deep trauma, the life experiences we’ve had profoundly shape how we experience our emotions. That’s true for all of us.
One part of emotional maturity is being conscious of the way these various experiences that make up our story have shaped us. One of the most important questions you can ask yourself when you’re in the middle of an emotional reaction is “Am I reacting to what’s right in front of me? Or am I reacting to something that happened in my past?”
How did I miss this?
That leads to my missing chapter.
It turns out there is a pretty major life experience that I didn’t address.
It’s an experience every human has had—the experience of growing up in our gender.
It’s so obvious in retrospect. I’m embarrassed I didn’t have a whole chapter on this. I mentioned some of the implications of gender on emotion in passing on one place, and again in a single endnote, but that’s just not enough because this is probably one of the very first filters that shape our emotional experience.
Gender influences the chemistry that is part of your emotional response system. For example, multiple studies have shown that a higher level of testosterone increases emotional responses of anger and aggression. It also interferes with the part of the brain that processes emotion, which makes it harder to interpret your feelings, as well as the feelings of other people.
So just being a boy or being a girl influences the way you process emotions. Still, that’s not the “big experience” I heard lots of people talking about. The more significant impact was our gender enculturation.
Gender enculturation. Sorry for the fancy words! That phrase refers to the process of learning about our gender as we grew up. Think about it. Where did we learn what it means to be our gender?
We learned that in our family of origin and other early formative relationships. The people who raised us had a particular view of our gender. We learned our earliest lessons about what it means to be a boy or a girl by watching our parents. They related to us in specific ways based on their expectations for our gender—like in the kinds of toys they gave us, and the color clothes they bought for us, or the nicknames they used for us, “Princess,” or “sweetie” for girls, and “Bud” or “buddy” or “pal” for boys. It even shaped the way they played with us, and their expectations of our behavior.
How did your gender story shape your emotions?
When I was little, my dad gave me tools, and I got to work with him while he built a deck. The same year, my younger sister got a kitchen set for Christmas. A little fake stove and sink, with small pots and pans. Those choices had very specific expectations for our gender attached to them–even if my parents weren’t aware of them.
Those expectations extended to our emotions. The standards for boys and girls were much, much different. This is slowly changing, and I’m thankful. Many of these changes are good—but the issue is still real for many of us. Both then, and now, kids are surrounded by emotional gatekeepers. Sometimes this gatekeeping comes from family. Other times it comes from the church. Often, it comes from peers.
Little boys who get hurt on the playground are supposed to shake it off, instead of crying and asking for help. Somebody might yell, “Suck it up.” If you cry, you might get called a “crybaby.” You may hear somebody say, “Be a man.”
Think about what that means. A little boy is feeling pain, or sadness, or fear, and the advice he hears is tied to his gender! “Be a Man!” What’s the lesson in those words?
“Men don’t feel fear, or pain, or sadness.” Or—if they feel those things—they certainly don’t let others see.
Little girls often get a completely different set of instructions. They are less likely to be told to stop expressing their emotions than boys. When they are crying, for instance, their peers are more likely to surround them in support, rather than telling them to “stop crying,” or to “suck it up.”
It might sound like girls are more free to feel emotions—and in some ways that’s been culturally accurate—but it comes at a cost. It’s often the case that women are considered to be “emotional,” and that’s not meant nicely — it’s a synonym for unpredictable, untrustworthy, even crazy. Our culture has decided that being “reasonable” or “rational” is masculine. And being “emotional” is feminine.
This is so unfair to both little boys and girls. It’s dehumanizing–and it sets those little humans up for confusion and grief in their adult lives.
If we want to understand our emotions, and why we relate to them the way we do, we need to understand those things in our story that shaped us—and our gender enculturation is a significant part of that.
If you ask yourself what emotions you are comfortable with and what emotions you’re uncomfortable with, there’s a good chance the gender expectations of your childhood are a part of that.
What feelings are we willing to express in public? What emotions make us feel strong? Which ones make us feel weak? Are there specific emotional reactions that other people have that make you look down on them? If so, there’s a real possibility that gender expectations from your childhood are still shaping your emotional responses.
The idea that specific emotions belong to certain genders is, of course, ridiculous. All humans have feelings. God didn’t give compassion to women and anger to men. All humans can feel compassion and express empathy.
Two things we can do.
It’s unavoidable that gender expectations have influenced our experience of emotions. And this is not something we can turn off. So what can we do?
First, pay attention.
Being aware of this influence can make a difference. Awareness allows me to evaluate my emotional responses in a new way. When I’m having a strong emotional reaction to someone else’s behavior, I can check myself. Is my reaction rooted in how I was raised regarding emotions and gender? Would I have this same reaction if the person expressing this emotion were a different gender?
Second, stop gatekeeping emotions based on gender.
This is particularly important for parents in their relationship with their children.
For instance, in our culture, it’s OK for men to express anger. That often adds to their credibility. When men express anger, they are often seen as passionate, or decisive, or powerful. But when women publically express anger, they get labeled as “crazy,” emotional,” and worse.
None of that is valid. Every person feels every emotion. That’s normal. There are no “female emotions” or “male emotions.” So, make it a point not to gatekeeper the emotional expression of the people around you—particularly your children. (I know, I know… this is really hard. It is one of my hardest challenges as a parent.)
So, that’s the chapter I missed.
We need to recognize the influence of gender expectations on our emotions and our reactions to others. Perhaps one day, if enough people find the book helpful, I’ll have the opportunity to do an update
(Similarly, it’s become clear that our experience of growing up with our particular skin color, or level of material wealth, or other kinds of privilege or lack thereof also had a profound impact on our experience of emotions. Those would be good chapters to add as well.)
Bottom line? We all have reasons why certain emotions get the best of us. For some of us our emotions, or the emotions of others, are scary. We all know what it feels like to “be triggered.”
Emotional maturity is found in that place where we can experience our emotions without being overwhelmed, understand what they mean, and then choose to express that emotion in a life-giving and constructive way.
Your emotions are a good gift from God. They exist to help you understand what is going on in your inner world and outer circumstances. That means they matter. They are worth paying attention to—and it’s worth putting in the time to understand why we react and respond the way we do.
This is an essential part of becoming a better human.
This is also part of growing up in Christ.