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Learning To Block (Part 1)
Most of us in life learn various ways to build barriers that block out emotions we find difficult, disruptive, or overwhelming to experience. The problem is, we also block intimacy with God.
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Whether we realize it, or not, each of us ache for deeper intimacy with God.
Contrary to what we often think, the difference between those who experience uncommon intimacy with God and those who don’t, is not that God offers more of Himself to some than others. The difference is, those who experience uncommon intimacy with God learn to offer the hardest and most hurt parts of themselves to Him. Intimacy isn’t just found in getting more of God, but giving God more of you.
To this end, I’m posting a series of articles in hopes of helping us learn to integrate our emotions, specifically the hard ones, into our relationship with God. This week, I want to look at part one, of what is really a two-part article, on the topic of learning to block the emotions into which we’re meant to invite God.
Blocking as part of life.
Sports were a major part of my early life. I loved being on a team and I loved competing. I played basketball, baseball, soccer, and ran track. To be honest, I don’t think I actually cared what the sport was, so long as there were winners and losers and we got to compete.
Despite my love for all sports, football was the one where my aggression and intensity helped, rather than hurt me. I went to a small high school that somehow scraped a team together each season. Despite playing both way, running back was my position of choice. Despite the fact that our roster lacked depth, I was fortunate to play with an excellent fullback.
If you don’t know football, the fullback tends to be the larger and stronger of the two backs who line up behind the quarterback and receive handoffs. When you see them lined up vertically behind the quarterback, the full back is the one in front. He’s often like a bulldozer who blasts through the line first, in hopes of landing a big block that makes way for the smaller running back to squeeze through and hopefully gain yards.
Our fullback’s name was Jeremy Smith. He was the size of a small truck, had good hands, and even better feet. Jeremy could run and catch, but my favorite thing about him was his ability to block. I felt great security running behind this beast of a kid and watching him turn linebackers upside down with some of the most punishing blocks I’ve ever seen. He was like a one-man stampede and God help anyone who got in his way.
Now, I know that sports metaphors are lost on about 50% of the population, so here’s why I bring all this up. Most sports don’t work without some measure of blocking. In almost every sport, the defense tries to block a score and the offense has to block in order to get one. Blocking is essential. But the truth is, blocking isn’t just a part of sports. As we grow up and experience life, most of us learn various ways to build barriers that block out emotions we find difficult, disruptive, or overwhelming to experience. While these behaviors can be essential in certain seasons of life, in the long run they stunt our growth with God and others.
That means we need to understand both why and how we learn to build these barriers, so that we can take the steps necessary to move through them and grow in the intimacy for which we ache.
Before we start to wade into both why and how we build these barriers, it is worth noting that we may build them without even knowing it. So let me just say that broadly speaking, our emotional blocking falls into two categories: Intentional and unintentional. The difference is awareness. If we’re fully aware that we are avoiding particular emotions, then our blocking is intentional. If we are unaware that we are avoiding feeling certain things, then we have unintentionally blocked them. Let me break down a few of the key contributing factors for both of these.
Sometimes we make a conscious decision to not face or feel particular emotions. This decision is primarily supported by the belief that identifying, feeling, and expressing an emotion would be unhelpful for some reason.
For instance, expressing an emotion like sadness may make us feel vulnerable and exposed, triggering a feeling of being in danger. So, we learn to block that emotion as a means of self-protection. Or, maybe we fear that opening up particular emotional areas in our lives will actually cause us to fall down an even deeper hole, one that we may not come out of, putting us in a worse place than where we started. If wading into it puts us in a worse place, logically it then seems wiser to avoid it altogether. This is one fear I constantly wrestled with early in my own healing journey.
Another reason we learn to intentionally block our emotions is that we normalize psychological distress as a culture. We are chronically and increasingly overwhelmed by our pace of life and driven by achievement. As a result, our response to the stress we experience (manifested in things like anxiety, depression, distress, etc.) comes to feel so normal that it almost seems not even worth acknowledging.
The problem is, we are not animals in the wild at risk of physical danger if we show weakness. And regardless of what is “culturally normative,” living in a constant state of stress is slowly destroying us. Countless people, myself included, have taken the courageous step to face the pain of the past and come out the other side healthier and happier.
What if we’re not even aware we’ve learned this blocking behavior?
Sometimes we develop behaviors that block our emotions unconsciously, meaning we do it and we’re not aware we’re doing it.
If you grew up in an environment where the importance of expressing emotions for both psychological and spiritual health was not taught or modeled, the very concept of it may be foreign to you. As a result, you may have unintentionally learned to simply block particular emotions.
As you can see, there is a lot to this. The problem of blocking our emotions is not simple and neither is the solution. And regardless of whether these blocking behaviors are conscious or unconscious, the effects are the same: they diminish our own self-awareness and ability to grow in intimacy with God and others.
It’s worth stating, that humans are complex. There is no one reason why we learn this blocking behavior. It would be much simpler and neater if there was, but alas, you and I are far more complicated than that. While it may not be the easiest work, we will find it more useful to address problems when we understand the motives behind them, so this week I want to highlight three basic reasons WHY we learn to build barriers that block our emotions…Next week, we’ll turn our attention to the specifics of HOW we go about it. Let’s talk about three reasons we learn to block.
#1. We block for comfort.
Don’t ever doubt our collective commitment to our own comfort. Think about the incredible lengths we’re willing to go to in order to feel “good” and avoid anything that disrupts our personal comfort. This is true in our social lives, emotional and mental lives, and is certainly true of our physical comfort.
For example, the older I get, the more I care about comfort over fashion in the clothes I wear. If it’s not comfortable, I’m not wearing it, regardless of how cool it may look. For instance, I’ve decided I’m done wearing tight clothes. I don’t know if skinny jeans are still in style, but I do know that nobody needs to see my middle-age “dad bod” shoved into a pair of jeans that make me look like a sausage squeezed into its casing. But more important than what others think, I just don’t want to be squeezed anymore. I am so committed to my comfort, that I may be mere days away from embracing full-blown, ill-fitting, but oh-so-comfortable dad jeans and a pair of ugly white Nikes you can only find on clearance at T.J. Maxx.
My point is simply this: like you, I am deeply committed to my comfort.
You and I naturally gravitate toward what makes and keeps us comfortable and we will often do whatever it takes to avoid anything that disrupts it. This is one reason we build theses barriers to block any emotions we deem “uncomfortable.” It simply doesn’t feel good to experience difficult emotions like sadness and anger. We find ways to block them, thus shielding ourselves from the discomfort of feeling them. But here’s the thing, just because an emotion is uncomfortable does not mean it is unhelpful.
We see this played out on screen in the Pixar movie, “Inside Out.” If you don’t have kids, you may not have watched it, but you really should. It is a master class on the important role all of our emotions play in life. The story centers around a young girl named Riley. She’s an upbeat, optimistic, and generally happy 11-year-old with a life she loves. The conflict comes when that life is turned upside down by an unexpected move with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. Suddenly all she’s known and loved is lost, causing the deep internal conflict common when any of us experience loss.
While the story is about the character Riley, the majority of the movie is seen through the eyes of her emotions. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust all work inside of her to help navigate the difficult transition. Joy, in particular, experiences the bulk of the difficulty. For the first time in Riley’s life, Joy must take a backseat to Sadness. Unwilling to concede, Joy immediately goes into damage control, trying everything she can to keep Sadness relegated to the background, so Riley can be “happy” again.
Together with Joy we get a front row seat from which to learn the lesson that healing and having the full human experience demand we feel the full range of emotions, even those that are not comfortable.
Furthermore, the reason we experience the full range of emotions is because we were created in the image of a God who feels the full range of emotions, and not just those we find comfortable. Much of Christian instruction has been deficient on the subject of emotion, so I want to continue to look for it in the Bible. It’s everywhere. And as we read the Scriptures in search of what our God is like, we quickly learn about His emotional side. If you missed last week’s article, go back and find it, because I gave a list of examples.
But here’s what I want you to really understand this morning. Genesis 1:26-27 reports this: “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” 2 So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.” At least one of the implications of being created in God’s image is that we feel the same array of emotions He does. Because God is holy, perfect, and only ever does and feels what is right, there is something inherently good in all emotions.
Our imperfect human nature may hijack them for our harm or the harm of others, but that doesn’t mean the emotions themselves are therefore unhelpful just because they are uncomfortable. As such, we have to learn to experience their full range. Here’s a second reason we learn to block…
#2. We block to function.
I never cease to be amazed at how the smallest amount of physical pain can consume my every waking thought. By God’s grace, I’ve not experienced many severe injuries in my life. I have broken fingers, torn a ligament, and had plenty of muscle strains, but nothing that has ever truly incapacitated me. Even still, when these smaller injuries have occurred, they have been all I can think about and focus on.
For instance, in 2020 I found out that I had a couple of small tears in my left Achilles tendon (as if I needed anything extra to make that year miserable). I could walk without much pain, but if I tried to run or jump it felt like someone had taken a blow torch to my heel. I also felt like I was 100-years-old every time I stood up and walked after sitting for a while. All that to say, if I had to give the pain a number, it probably was only a three out of ten at any given point throughout the day. Yet despite the low grade nature of that pain, I probably thought about or felt it at least 100 times a day.
In the same way, emotional pain can consume us to the degree that we lose the ability to function. Maybe you struggle with such debilitating depression and anxiety that you experience entire days when you literally can’t drag yourself out of bed. If you have experienced deep loss, like that of a loved one, or know someone who has, you are probably familiar with that vacant look someone can have in their eyes when consumed by overwhelming grief. Or maybe you’re familiar with the term “blind rage.” It speaks of an anger so consuming that a person not only loses their ability to think rationally, but can also experience tunnel vision and literally lose the ability to hear clearly as well.
In these most extreme situations, the emotions are so overpowering in our lives that they steal our ability to function normally. Apart from an immense amount of work and care, we will tend to build barriers that block us from feeling, dwelling on, and processing these difficult emotions we experience. It’s not just a desire to feel better or to be more comfortable. Sometimes it’s motivated (consciously or unconsciously) by our need to function in life. We have families to raise, jobs to perform, and ministry to do. We can’t afford to be incapacitated by our pain; we have to be able to function. But rather than process that pain in a healthy manner, we block it out.
The problem is, pain does not go away just because we choose not to face it. It is always there inside of us, building like water behind a dam. More likely than not, a day will come when that dam breaks and all that sadness, anger, shame, and fear start to leak out.
Even if we’ve learned to function at a high level, it does not necessarily mean we are faithfully stewarding our inner lives, which brings us to our final point.
#3. We block to survive.
In certain seasons of our lives, especially when we are children, this emotional blocking is actually necessary. It’s a coping — even a survival — mechanism. When we feel emotions we don’t have the cognition to process in a healthy manner, we have to learn to block them in some way, or we simply will not make it.
Like many of you, I grew up in a home that could at times be emotionally volatile. That’s not super surprising, when you consider that our story involved divorce, remarriage, a blended family, my grandfather’s suicide, and the presence of ongoing mental illness. As a child this was all very confusing for me. So I learned to survive by building my own barriers to block the disruptive emotions this volatility caused in me.
I slowly learned to sever myself from the need for emotional support from others in general.
I also learned to take on far too much responsibility for the emotions of those around me in an attempt to create peace in my own life.
Again, I didn’t do any of this consciously, but unconsciously I knew I could not survive if I allowed myself to continue living inside this emotional pinball machine. The good news is, these barriers helped me survive my unpredictable early years. The bad news is, they also severely limited my ability to feel safe and loved by God and others.
You too may have walked through a season of life that necessitated blocking certain feelings. But the key — and much neglected — word in that last sentence, is “season.” Survival may demand blocking for a season, but long term health requires working past it. You can’t be a healthy person who experiences flourishing with God and others if there are entire parts of the emotional spectrum you do not feel.
Remember, I’m contending that our personal health and, more specifically, our intimacy with God demands we learn to face, rather than block, these experiences and the emotions that go with them. But I also think it’s worth noting again what a necessary gift from God this ability to block is in fact.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven.” The reality is, in certain seasons of life, the conditions are not right for us to work through these barriers. We may not be aware enough, we may lack the maturity, or life may simply be too overwhelming. This makes these barriers essential to our ability to function and even survive. Just as an aside, if you are beginning to recognize a tendency in your life to block certain emotions, it isn’t productive for you to carry shame. It doesn't mean you are broken, or bad. It actually means that God has helped you survive some truly difficult experiences in life.
Each of these reasons for building emotional barriers - whether it be about comfort, functioning, or even surviving - have at their core a common belief: It is better not to feel the full range of emotions. While this may make us more comfortable, help us continue to function in a limited way, and for seasons even be essential for our survival, it is also a sure fire way to limit intimacy in our relationships with others; most important, in our relationship with God. In John 10:10 Jesus tells us that He came so that we could experience the fullness of life we were created for. Answering this invitation requires ordering our emotions rightly.
Here’s what I know: A growing number of people in our culture are showing signs of emotional exhaustion due to the unbelievable range of stressful circumstances we face. Because of this, some of us may be prone to think, “You know what? Now isn’t the time for this. I’m too worn out. I don’t have the energy to wade into all this, right now.” I get that and to be honest, I feel that. I have to fight so hard to not just bury my head in anything that will distract me from so much of what makes up life.
But what if, despite our exhaustion, maybe even due to our emotional exhaustion, we have a unique opportunity to grow deeper in God?
I very much believe that in every season, situation and circumstance, God is always doing about a million things at once. It’s never just what we see. Because of that, you have to think that one thing God is doing in this draining season, is bringing us to the end of ourselves, so that we can experience His presence and strength in a fresh way.
We still have a long way to go in this journey together, but we don’t need to go quickly. So I want to invite you again this week, to try praying more honest prayers. Rather than block everything, let’s take even one step toward facing and inviting God into whatever we’re feeling. Next week we’ll talk about specific ways we do this work of blocking, but I think we’ve covered enough for this week. So…
I pray the Holy Spirit would give you a growing awareness of emotions you may be blocking.
I pray that He gives you the courage to sit with them, rather than block them.
I pray that you would experience His comforting presence more deeply than you knew possible, even in the most disruptive of emotions.