The world we live in does a great job of teaching us to harden our hearts. It teaches us that showing emotion is a negative thing, and this teaching is likely to cause you more pain by teaching us defense mechanisms to prevent us from feeling pain. In the majority of Christian circles, we are a bit better about showing emotions, but I’d never had someone suggest to me that my defense mechanisms were not just preventing me from feeling pain, but getting me to shut down my emotions and harden my heart.
It’s not possible to block one emotion without blocking others. We can’t limit our emotions in one area, and not be limited in others. Brene Brown says “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
I’ve been on a journey of God restoring my heart’s tenderness and systematically dismantling all the self protection I had put in place. He has been stripping back all the self protection that I thought was helping me and keeping me safe. The truth is, self-protection doesn’t protect us, it isolates us, disconnects us, and prevents us from healing. Learning this has not only enabled me to be more emotionally healthy, but has helped me guide students I lead into emotional health and freedom. I want to share some of my journey with you in the hopes that it helps you personally, and that it helps you feel equipped to guide students through pain and into emotional health.
When I was young I was quite tender-hearted. I genuinely cared about other people’s pain, and would go out of my way to try and cheer people up. I found myself being bullied at school, so when I changed schools, I reinvented myself. I intentionally squished the softness, because as far as I was concerned, that softness was causing me to feel pain. Instead I became hardened in my heart.
I developed a defense mechanism that I carried through a lot of my life. It went like this: I’d feel disconnected, I’d feel some relational pain and I’d disconnect myself. I’d literally think something along the lines of “screw them, I don’t need anyone anyway.” Not only did this cut me off from community regularly, but it meant I never processed the pain, instead of feeling the pain of disconnection I hid behind this “independence.”
Since then I learnt softness of heart isn’t a bad thing, and in fact is a positive attribute. The Bible has a lot to say about love, and the kind of love described can only be displayed through a gentle and tender heart. Eph 4:32 instructs us to be kind to each other, to be tender-hearted.
Somewhere between fierceness and gentleness the love of God is accurately represented
God is love. A friend of mine says that somewhere between fierceness and gentleness the love of God is accurately represented. Unless we are able to love people with the same gentleness and fierceness, we aren’t accurately representing Him to the world. God wants to encounter us in the deepest parts of our heart, and that requires an open and tender heart.
God chose to speed up the process of softening my heart during my first year at BSSM. There was this day where friends unintentionally did something that pushed some buttons for me, and those buttons caused me to feel rejected and disconnected. I found myself going to my old coping mechanism, and choosing to not feel the pain, but instead hiding behind independence.
God interrupted this, and simply said “every time you choose to not experience the pain that you are feeling, you are limiting your capacity for joy.” Oh! So instead I had to let myself feel it,then hand it to God and move on. I didn’t stay in it, I acknowledged the pain, I felt the pain, and I handed it over. It was such a small thing anyway that I found it easy to move on from.
I continued this conversation with God over a few weeks, and then I had an odd experience at church one night. God showed me defenses I’d hidden behind, and it led me to ask Him a question. I said something along the lines of “God, I’ve spent my whole life ducking pain, and refusing to feel it when it happened. If that has all limited my capacity for joy, and limited my emotions, well, I want them back.” There were quite a few areas where I’d experienced a bit of pain before stamping it out, or I’d just refused to acknowledge the pain at all. If I prodded at these areas, I found they were still sore. It was like they’d healed over, but with the infection still inside.
Holy Spirit began to take me back to those moments, and allowing me to choose to feel the pain that I’d hidden from the first time. I cried my way through worship, experienced each painful moment Holy Spirit took me through, and then just handed the pain over to God. Afterwards, I felt lighter. Those areas no longer felt tender, instead I felt an overflow of joy. I found my capacity for joy was increased, and my sensitivity to the Holy Spirit also increased as this healing took place in my heart.
Dealing with Feelings
In the Bible, we see David experiencing all sorts of emotions, and experiencing them passionately. We can see the tenderness of his heart. David is described as a man after God’s own heart, which to me means God sees that passion, that tenderness, as positive. We often harden our hearts after experiences when we are young convince us it’s not safe to be soft and tender. We begin to believe that it’s actually our softness that is causing us to get hurt. We need to know that tenderness is not weakness; that in reality, what caused us to shut down was wrong.
Softness is not weakness
When counseling students, it is often helpful to let them know that they likely dealt with the situation as well as they could manage at the time. You don’t expect a child who has never been taught math to just naturally know how to do math. When we are young we often don’t have the tools or wisdom to deal with things healthily, and if we aren’t taught how, we just do the best we can to survive those situations.
Encourage your students to feel their feelings, and show themselves some grace. It’s easy to give others support and good advice, but treat ourselves terribly. If you were counselling, or listening to a friend tell you how they are feeling, you’d rarely tell them to just get over it, or just deal with it. Yet, that is the kind of awful advice we sometimes give ourselves. We treat others with more grace than we are often willing to extend to ourselves. Encourage your students to let themselves feel what they are feeling, to not apologise for their emotions, and to give themselves some grace.
Connecting to Compassion
Help your students connect to self-compassion. Many students have shut down tenderness by being quite harsh to themselves, and they view their previous moments of softness and vulnerability with hostility and anger. In these instances I’ll often get them to think back to those moments and have them ask Jesus how He feels about them in that moment of tenderness. I encourage them to only talk about themselves like they would talk about their closest friend.
Connecting to compassion is an important step in forgiveness, and often if we are working through emotions we have things that we need to forgive ourselves for. If you don’t actually want to forgive someone then forgiving them can be difficult, and compassion helps us see the person, or ourselves with love that allows us to forgive them.
Deal with Self Protection
Self protection can take many different forms: cynicism, independence, self-rejection, busyness, sarcasm, a victim mentality, disassociation, or anything else that helps you not experience the pain and emotions of a situation. Encourage students to ask Holy Spirit to point out when they stray into self-protection, and help them establish what it would look like to build a new normal.
God is the one who protects our hearts. When we try and protect our hearts, we protect from the wrong thing. We “protect” ourselves from emotions, but in reality we disconnect from them. Remember, self-protection doesn’t protect us, it isolates us, it disconnects us, and it prevents us from healing.
Get Help If You Need It
If you are out of your depth in helping a student process pain, then get them help. Be willing to admit when you are out of your depth. Obviously, you and Holy Spirit make an amazing team, but there is no shame in getting help if you feel like you don’t know how to help a student get emotionally healthy. Sometimes it’s going to take more time, and tools than you have to offer. Pull on your community, and find people with more skills than you.
God loves with a reckless and tender love. The world needs to encounter that type of love, and it’s our responsibility as the Church to represent that love to the world. In order to do that we need to deal with our own self-protection, process our pain, and allow God to restore our tenderness so that we can love more like Him, and live from a place of wholeness and emotional health.