Monday, March 10, 2008

This Could Change Your Life! ...And Save Your Marriage

Things have faded now, but I still remember the arguing. I remember the hurt; the lonely nights when I couldn't seem stop my emotions from spilling into an empty abyss of pain and the long days that would follow. Sometimes we would make things right, we would talk it through and things would be fine. But over time, the constant frustrations and conflicts began to stain even the most peaceful moments. By the end, it was tough to look back on my marriage without my body twitching and tensing as if sensing another battle on the horizon. As much as we tried to forgive one another, as much as we tried to let it all go, even when the memories faded, the emotional scars were too great, and whatever we had once felt and known was lost and our relationship sketched a painful trail through a divorce.

It's been many years since those days, and while I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I'd known than what I know now, there's no question that one of the things I have struggled so greatly with over my life has been learning to manage my emotions.

I passed by a young couple last week as I was walking into work. They were standing outside my store arguing loudly, their voices taut and clipped, and from the little I heard, using forceful and destructive language with one another. It made me think. As much as I'd love to have a partner in life again, I wasn't interested in going back to THAT place. Much better, I thought, to be single and alone than entangled in a complicated and emotionally draining relationship.

Unfortunately, many people find themselves entangled within their relationships. As much as they care for the other person, nothing seems to work. An argument arises, a few 'hot buttons' are pressed, and suddenly the evening, the day, or the week is ruined. When it happens often enough, the relationship becomes a place of pain. And from that point, unless drastic steps are taken, the relationship will most likely die. The key then is to figure out what we can do to minimize these types of damaging conflict. This applies not only to romantic relationships, but to our friends, our family, and our colleagues as well.

The latest offering from the field of psychology and neurology, strangely enough, may offer some help. Emotional Intelligence is a concept that has been around for a while, but has only hit the mainstream this past decade. (If you want to know more than the brief description here, I'd encourage you to look at Daniel Goleman's work) What it means, in short, is “the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions.” Back when I was married, I had no idea about emotional self-management. It sounded like a pile of gobblygook nonsense to me from some airhead professor who had no idea about real life and real relationships. I had no interest in this 'secular notion' of relationships.

(Yes. I was, ummmm, sort of closed to new ideas... an idiot, in other words.)

I didn't know for instance, that whenever our emotions are triggered in a negative fashion -- someone cuts us off when we're driving, we have a bad situation at work, the kids do something silly or get hurt, our partner acts selfishly -- that there is an actual physical response in our body. A chemical called cortisol shoots into our cortex. (The part near our brain stem that is directly connected to the other important parts of the brain that help us make decisions.) Cortisol has the effect of essentially numbing those functions to help us focus. (For example, if you're driving and someone cuts you off, and you swerve to another lane to avoid being hit, Cortisol has flooded your cortex (and adrenaline) allowing you to respond without thinking. It's a physical survival instinct and very important. ("Hmmmm, should I change lanes now?") However, you can see how this can be more than an inconvenience. If you get into conflict, the trigger in your brain releases cortisol, and suddenly the key parts to making good relational decisions are eliminated.

Have you ever felt that? Of course you have. In the heat of an argument, it's either fight or flight, usually fight. And all you can think about is winning the argument or getting your point across. It may even occur to you that you are being silly or stupid BUT YOU JUST CAN"T STOP. Things are said and done, and no matter what happens the next day, the emotional stain of that conflict is left behind.

So what does this all mean?

What it means is that if you understand your emotional disposition, like your personality, you have a better chance at self-management, a better chance to put yourself in position to avoid these types of heavy emotional conflicts. (If I know I've had a bad day, I can tell my partner or my friends that I need time to cool off, heck, tell them you need to flush the cortisol out of your cortex... that will impress them!)

Most of us operate on a daily basis setting off these minor emotional triggers without ever allowing the cortex to flush the cortisol from our system. The end result is that we're operating our important relationships without full control.

Here's the thing, when we set off these emotional triggers, it takes a full 18 minutes for our cortex to flush the cortisol from our system. (Here's to a new generation of Flushers!)
Look, there's no miracle to managing your emotions, but understanding that it's a chemical reaction in your body helps. It reminds us that we are not horrible people and can help us from getting discouraged about our lack of control. Our task then, is to figure off what sets off our triggers, and do what we can to alter the situation.

I spent the past six years working in the school board, and while I loved the students and enjoyed many of my colleagues, I wasn't as patient, or as kind, or as willing to "walk the extra mile" as I am now. What I've learned is that my personality didn't fit within the hierarchical system at my job, and that there were a few people, especially those in leadership, who set off my emotional triggers all day, so that by the time I got home I was thoroughly tired and discouraged. I now work for nearly a third of what I once made, and I've never been this happy. I had to sacrifice of course, with parts of my lifestyle, but somehow, that fits now too.

The better we learn who we are, the better chance we have to find God's plan for our life, and when we find that, we will find a life that fits more comfortably with our dreams as a kid. If you're in a relationship, understanding each other's emotional triggers, and coincidentally, the things that encourage one another, can be the difference between a fragile marriage and an exciting one. And for those of you in leadership, be aware of those beneath you. If one of your people seem 'off' don't be afraid to send them on a twenty minute break, or even better, sit down and let them vent for a bit.

Knowing your body, understanding your emotions, however, won't help us if we forget that we're in this together. We must learn to pay attention to people around us. Our partners, our kids, our colleagues... and even when we're out shopping or having dinner. Look at the people next to you. The more we pay attention to those around us, the better chance we have to offer the love and mercy the way Jesus did.

Life is hard, and there are no quick answers, but my prayer this week is that you'll start to look at the things in your life that set off your emotional triggers. If you're working at a job you hate, if every night you come home and your family feels your agitation, perhaps it is time to re-examine what really matters.

God loves you, my friends. Some of you have beaten yourselves up for too long. Maybe people have verbally chastised you repeatedly because of your 'emotional weakness'... be that anger, or impatience, or sadness. And maybe it is time to let that go. The tools are there if you're ready to journey into a new way of living.

I hope you all understand what a wonderful gift God has given us! He has neurologically wired us to our passions and calling so we may better know ourselves. And the more we learn about who we are and what we need, the better opportunity we have to live the abundant life.


P.S. I have been madly searching for a free EQ (Emotional Quotient) test to attach to this website. I took one on, but it cost me $6.95. If I do find one, I'll be sure to post it immediately. If you have the opportunity to take one, I definitely encourage it. Blessings, all.