Intellectualizing Our Pain

intellectualization

We live in a world full of pain.  I work with people in pain.  As a Pastor, I deal with a variety of people’s spiritual and emotional pain – every family, without exception, has some hidden underlying pain that no one sees by looking in from the outside.  There is dark secret pain which comes from a staggering variety of sources.  There is also the more obvious physical pain.  Just the other day, I responded to a call from a social worker to visit an incorrigible woman who usually calms down when the Chaplain is around.  The woman was in pain, and the kind that isn’t going away any time soon, if ever.  Of course, she was incorrigible.  I would be, too.

Our responses to pain are as varied as we are as individual people.  The kind of reaction to pain I want to highlight is one that I am personally most familiar with: intellectualization.  That is, coping with pain by cutting it off from the emotions and putting it squarely in the arena of the rational analytical mind.  If we can split off the painful feelings (so the shadow-self says) and lay them aside, then we can avoid the hurt.

Just so you know, I just described an unhealthy way to deal with troubles.  Bifurcation of our feelings and setting them aside, like using a cleaver to separate bone from meat, doesn’t actually deal with the agony – it simply removes it so as to not have to feel any terrible effects.  In other words:

Intellectualizing a problem is a defense mechanism ingeniously designed mostly in the subconscious to block out pain, ignore emotional stress, suppress spiritual trauma, and stuff down a host of ailments residing in our bodies and our souls.

Using the intellect as a substitute for emotional work goes something like this:  If I can just distance myself from anxiety, worry, and unpleasant feelings associated with a particular condition, then I can remove the pain.  If I can get away from the pain, then all we become well.  I will hide my feelings so they can’t come out to play and wreak havoc in my personal protected emotional playground.  For example, when my grandson was diagnosed with epilepsy, I became an expert on it… and medical marijuana… and treatment options… and various diagnoses and prognoses… and on and on and on, ad infintium, ad nauseum.  Intellectualizing his condition put off the hard emotional work of facing my own painful feelings.

There is not a thing wrong with educating yourself and learning all you can about a situation or problem.  Yet:

When the reading, discovery, and exploration of a particular problem, disease, or issue becomes a way to avoid feeling the pain, anger, and onslaught of other emotions that are evoked because of the situation, then it is high time to set aside the books and the interactions on the cerebral level long enough to engage some very needed emotional work.

For me, thinking about the situation with my grandson (or my wife, or a jillion other people, events, and problems in my life!) can far too easily become an exercise in rational and clinical analysis.  Talking about it only on the level of cold and detached ways of logic and reason keeps the unwanted emotional pain associated with it at bay.  Bottom line: I am afraid to feel, because if I feel all the emotions wrapped-up in a little boy who doesn’t deserve all the challenges and pain of epilepsy, I’d be completely undone (and we can’t have that, now, can we!?).

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So, I soldier on, encouraging the emotions of others, all the while ignoring my own inner crap.  You might be wondering at this point, “So, what, then, are we supposed to do??”

Glad you asked.  The more important question is: “So, what, then, are you supposed to feel??”  When God created us in his image, He made us in His emotional likeness.  God feels all kinds of emotions, and He feels them all deeply.  I think we sometimes forget that.

Let me remind you of an instance of divine emotion in a time of terrible trouble.  The people God formed to be like Him, decided to go their own way.  As a result, the world became horribly violent, with people embracing evil to the point “that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil.”  God’s response was first and foremost, an emotional response: “The LORD regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken” (Genesis 6:5-6).

God only made a cerebral and rational plan to deal with humanity after He felt deeply about the situation.  This makes me wonder:

How much more must we ourselves get in touch with all those unwanted emotions, before we decide to plod ahead in a rational course of action?

Will we choose to allow ourselves to feel deeply about what the heck is going on?

Will we even go there?

I want you to grab hold of this thought and not let go:

We cannot go any further with a rational course of action than we have first been willing to go just as far emotionally with identifying and feeling all the stuff that’s inside us.

Jesus, the perfect embodiment of God, felt an array of emotions:  from sheer astonishment over someone’s sincere faith, to intense grief over the people not getting what he was doing; from wondering joy while telling poignant parables, to fierce anger concerning his Father’s house being used irreverently; and, from playful banter with his disciples, to deep sorrow over the stubborn lack of faith in so many.  Our Lord expressed his feelings as the ideal will of God in all kinds of situations.  In short, Jesus didn’t set aside emotions; didn’t circumvent them; and, didn’t call them bad.  Christ freely engaged his emotions as both man and God.  Feelings were not just part of the human side of him; it was actually much more the divine side.

I understand that it gets dicey with emotions.  Every person on planet earth is a bundle of contradictions, and, so, emotions get expressed in both helpful ways as well as in damaging ways.  We all have been hurt, and we’ve all hurt others.  Welcome to life in this world.  Which means it is even more important for us to acknowledge and deal with all of our emotions, whether we ascribe to them “good” or “bad” labels.

Every feeling is there for a reason, tapping you on the shoulder trying to get your attention.  To heap all those feelings together in a mental garbage dump so that you can get on to the business of living your life without pain is only going to exacerbate your trouble in the long run.

“How is your heart doing today?” and “Tell me about how that feels” are just as much viable and pertinent questions for health as a medical doctor asking you about your physical symptoms.  Keeping things solely in the physical/mental realm and diminishing the soul with its vast feeling universe might enable you to get through today, but it isn’t going to help you tomorrow.  The emotional pain will still be there, and unhealthy ways of coping with it will eventually catch up to you.

Instead, three practices can enable you to identify and express your emotions in a manner that is healthy, helpful, and downright holistic.  They are:

  1. Talking on the feeling level with a trusted friend, minister, or counselor;
  2. Writing in a journal all the details of how you are doing and feeling. In other words, create space to express what’s going on.  No one else has to see it, unless you want them to.  I personally would encourage you to write in your journal, and then simply read a portion of it to your trusted friend and talk about it.
  3. Praying to a big God with all your big emotions. You can say things to God that you would never say to another person, and that’s okay.  He’s big enough to handle all your feelings, your emotionally-charged questions, your drama, and any ostentatious displays of feeling.  God isn’t going anywhere; He is always there to listen and nothing will surprise Him, annoy Him, or befuddle Him.  The Lord operates on the currency of grace in his kingdom, so this ought to free you and me to be with Him in ways that are life-giving.

None of these practices operate solely in the world of ideas and thoughts.  Rather, they are designed to integrate the fragmented soul with the shattered mind so that true emotional wholeness, spiritual wellness, and just plain life enrichment can happen in new and healthy ways.

You are on a journey, and not a guilt trip.  Take advantage of the God who is available, and the humungous world of emotions he has provided you with.  Face each one squarely with His Spirit as your guide and His people as your support, and you will discover a kind of healing from pain that you never knew could exist.

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