The previous article contrasted EI with EC. It takes much more than intelligence to deal with the realities of life. We defined Emotional Capacity (EC) as follows, “the ability to interpret and express inner emotional messages with unshaken assurance of personal worth and identity.” Challenging circumstances create inner emotional messages perceived as threats (real or imagined) to a safe and secure image of self. The capacity to regulate whether the emotions help or hurt (make things better or worse) is EC. A person’s quality of life is determined by EC.
When facing a challenge, EC is not dependent on whether or not the circumstances improve, but whether the reservoir of positive self-worth is improved. A person is not always in control of external events in life, but our EC can control our response to those events. You may ask, “I know increasing EC dramatically improves my health and relationships, but how is it possible to cleanse (or maintain a clean) emotional reservoir? I’m glad you asked! <smile> Hopefully something that follows is helpful.
First, and most important in emotional health, is knowing the God who designed and authored the human being (including the emotions). If you are not a God-follower, bear with me for a moment. I believe the basis for understanding identity and worthfulness for each person, is understanding the divinity and worthiness of the One who knows us better than we will ever know ourselves. The attributes of God, his relatability as a personal God, and how much He loves each person, sets Him apart as supreme authority. All humans are created in His image with a unique stamp of his likeness. Also understanding some things about his emotional qualities can help give us a glimpse of ours. Knowing God as Father (similar to how a child depends on an earthly father) provides identity and security (including assurance of value and worth) like nothing else can. This inexhaustible topic is obviously too much to give adequate attention to here. The point here is that God is the source for living from the heart and emotional capacity of the human being.
Ironically, esteeming self above God and other people, ruins our sense of worth and value. Removing self-focus from our identity is essential for emotional health. Ego-centric living destroys our true identity. For some modern day examples of how this works I recommend Ryan Holiday’s book called, Ego Is the Enemy. We must give up our “me centered” world-view, and take on a view of the world that puts God at the center of our universe and our soul. God is not only a great God in charge, but also a grand God in love with all he created. As the ancient Psalmist says, “Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise ….. the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him” (Psalm 48:1; 32:10).
Knowing God frees a person to focus on others and not self. Connection with others is what gives purpose and meaning to life. A great example of this is Viktor Frankl’s life. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he shows how he survived four concentration camps in the 1940’s at the hands of Nazi Germany horrors.
A second way to increase our emotional capacity is to allow our hurts and wounds to heal properly. A broken arm needs to be set in correct position, placed in a cast, and perhaps a sling for recovery. Similar to our bodies’ vulnerability to physical injuries, our hearts are subject to brokenness and disrepair. From the beginning of life, we pre-judge, mis-judge, and critically judge as a default tendency. Although our self-worth is secure in who God created us to be, our “sinful nature” severely handicaps our ability to accept this without self-imposed conditions. Unmet expectations create disappointments and all sorts of negative reaction (see list at end of previous article). Hurts and wounds fester and pollute our core beliefs (even without our awareness). Although our minds try to settle into adulthood, our hearts remain in the limited capacity of broken conditions of childhood. Some people turn to God and receive spiritual healing. Even as a God-follower, the process of healing the soul must continue throughout our remaining days on earth.
The greatest loss in human history was Adam and Eve’s decision to reject God’s supreme authority. This error introduced shame into the world. Shame is the root of all roots of brokenness and emotional pain. Shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown defines shame as the fear of disconnection. As mentioned before, self-worth is rooted in a sense of connection. Shame (based in our hurts and wounds) keeps us from the truth and whole-hearted (capacity-filled) living. Dr. Brene Brown has authored a number of books including one that helped me greatly called The Gifts of Imperfection. She has found vulnerability as the only way to attempt to resolve shame.
Shame keeps a person from believing they are worthy of love and belonging. As a God-follower, I believe I am worthy, not because of anything I have done (or not done), but because of what God has said and done for me. As a Christian I believe Jesus is the complete connection to resolve our fears of disconnection. You may not believe in God the same way I do, but reading on will help you grow in emotional capacity. Or, you may already believe in Jesus, but to grow in your relationship with God, you must embrace vulnerability and the reality of a shame-infected soul.
To be vulnerable is to be authentic, transparent, and completely honest with oneself. Vulnerability is not weakness, but builds strength and capacity. Here are some qualities Brene Brown mentions. Vulnerability means you must allow yourself to be real and seen; deeply seen. It means you must love with your whole heart, even when there is no guarantee. It means you must practice gratitude and joy, even in the face of fear. It means you must believe you are enough, even when you feel “not enough,” not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough, not capable enough, and not so on. And vulnerability “walks into” awkwardness, uncertainty, and imperfection.
But under the cloud of shame we resist vulnerability. What does that look like? We try to be perfect (perfectionism. We expect “perfect” from others. We try to “make certain” (control). We blame (as a way to discharge our pain and discomfort). We justify ourselves (and pretend that what we do does not have an impact on other people). These are all signs of trying to numb vulnerability.
Numbing feelings may filter the bad, but it also prevents the good feelings. As Brene Brown says, “You can’t selectively numb emotion.” If you try to numb disappointment, failure, and sadness you will also be numbing happiness, gratitude, and joy. Americans are the most “numbed” society on earth as evidenced by over indulgence and addiction; food (obesity) , alcohol, (alcoholism), drugs (medications & illegal use), work (work-a-holism), shopping (“retail therapy”), busyness (filling schedule with things to do), technology, and all sorts of distractions. So we set ourselves up for dissatisfaction and emptiness (lack of emotional capacity).
Things that may trigger numbing vulnerability look like these; asking someone for help when you’re sick or injured, initiating sex with your spouse, being “turned down” (for promotion, election, team participant), waiting for the doctor to call back, getting laid off a job or having to lay off people, and practicing servant leadership. Common. ordinary experiences reveal our capacity to meet the challenges of shame and vulnerability. Other indicators may include things like whether or not we can easily admit offense when offended, accept differences (cultural, ethnic, or gender), own bad habits or addictions, take responsibility for actions that put others in peril, listen to others giving criticism, receive advice, and stop making excuses for too much eating, drinking, working, spending, sensualizing, sexualizing, hoarding, or technolizing (too much time on electronic devices).
We discussed the God factor and the shame factor. Now let’s consider a third factor for building emotional capacity. We must take clear and consistent action in the direction of building good patterns and habits. It’s not enough to clean up a polluted water source and then leave it to the elements to become dirty again. It must be maintained and treated for sustainability. Removing destructive patterns that have depleted our emotional capacity is a good start. But, we must build constructive patterns for productivity and resilience. This involves changing the things on which we focus our attention. Improving proficiency in any sport involves practice and focus on the fundamentals. Similarly, learning to play an instrument requires pattern forming drills and exercises to create habitual motion. Great effort goes into skillful playing.
You may have heard it said, “love is an action.” This certainly is true. We may think we value something, but if our actions do not move us to stronger devotion we are not demonstrating love for it. For example, you may read about shame and vulnerability and think it worthy of your consideration, but if you make no commitment to practice vulnerability, your skill of using it to increase your emotional capacity will not be developed. A great book was authored this year by James K.A. Smith to help establish spiritual life. It is called, You Are What You Love: the Spiritual Power of Habit. We live in a time when information is over-abundant, but truth is hard to find. We do well to treasure truth, and practice it over and over again to develop skill for quality emotional response.
Great commitment is required to build and maintain emotional capacity. It is tough work, but it is worth it. It is worth it because each person’s worth is “built in.” Assurance of built in worth gives a person “well power.” Well power is better than will power. Will power eventually runs out because of human frailty. For the God-follower, this is where God comes in. I believe God is willing and able to meet us in our toughest spots of vulnerability. We are wired for struggle, and our Creator wired in each of us our personal spirit as an access point to his divine power. Surrendering our power to his power is the deepest place of vulnerability, and provides for us the deepest, bottomless well (capacity) as a life-giving fountain. In fact, Jesus himself said, “… whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst ...” (John 4:14).
I believe Jesus is the ultimate solution to shame. His whole purpose for being is to restore connection to Father God. Vulnerability is the path to finding Jesus. I’m not talking about religion. Religion tries to work its way out of shame. But, a true Christ-follower yields to Jesus Christ’s identity and worthfulness as the Solution for the shame we are each born into. Our faith is related to the capacity we have to receive the love, peace, and joy he supplies.
If you want help sorting out things you are feeling or thinking about this, seek out a competent counselor or trusted friend. Have a comment? I would love to hear from you. I have one more article in this series of three. The next talks about EQ, emotional quotient and emotional quality.
by Ed Hersh, Blue Rock BnB Healing Ministry