Vulnerability: Are you Mad or Sad?

I’m continuing working out my thoughts for a teaching on the healthy emotional life. Regular readers, please be patient as church topics will return when this series is complete.

Everyone of us goes through hurt and pain in our lives. Some more than others, but it is impossible to live this life without it. What amazes me is how differently similar circumstances affect different people. There are many ways this is true, but today I want to discuss just one:  the vulnerability spectrum.

When someone attacks you, how do you feel? Do you feel angry at them? Or do you feel hurt by them? Many people do not realize that these emotions are often the same emotion with a different directional emphasis. Anger is something that points outwards. You are lashing out at someone or something else because it has done you wrong. You are pushing back against others and the world. Sadness happens when someone has attacked you and you take it on yourself. You internalize it and it hurts.

Something negative happens it goes into you and the question becomes how does it look when it comes back out of you?

What I have learned over the years is that some people have almost no capacity for what I would call sadness. If they are hurt, if you attack them, they will almost never experience or express sadness. They will almost always get angry with you and attack. This is not healthy. If you do this, you are missing part of the spectrum of emotions that is very important to human communication. I believe in psychology they have a term for when almost every emotion gets converted into anger. When this happens it’s almost like your humanity has been taken over. Your heart is stony instead of being made of flesh.

There are several reasons why may not express sadness.

  • Sadness implies vulnerability. It puts you in a position of weakness. Your life experience has taught you that if you express weakness it will be punished, so you learn to express none. You delete this from your spectrum of emotions.
  • You may lack compassion. You see life through an edgy lens. People may have been hard on you and therefore you are hard on others. You may not even realize how hard you are on other people. Love in your world may have more to do with aggressive confrontation than it does with mercy.
  • You don’t believe in emotional expression. You don’t really like emotional people being around you. It s like they have no control. So you must control your emotions. It is inappropriate to show a big emotional display, so you don’t do it.

Inside of loving relationships, the posture of sadness is the posture of vulnerability and weakness, and ultimately humility. Out in the world, there are times to be tough, but inside your closest relationships, sadness cues other people to show you mercy. Anger, on the other hand, cues them to fight back. Sadness tells people to love you. Anger tells them to resist you. Which one do you want to happen to you? Are you more likely to have compassion on your crying child or one that is screaming at you? Put that way, it seems more obvious. And the lesson here is: you actually have some control over it by the signal you send.

When Jaime and I have a bad argument — thankfully very rare these days, sometimes we get caught in this trap. I press her on something and she is defensive. Therefore I press harder. She resists more, and I press more, thinking that I’m not getting through to her. What is really going on, however, is that inside she is becoming deeply hurt. However, I get no signals that this is what is happening. Instead I’m getting signals that she thinks I’m wrong and want to put it back on me. What eventually happens is that she cracks and goes into shut down mode. She cries and I immediately feel compassion and want to do something to fix it. The argument disappears in light of the fact that I hurt her. But by the point she expresses it, it’s at the point where she does express it, she is so overwhelmed that there is nothing I will be able to do to reach her for hours, may be even days. It all comes out at once when the dam breaks. Meanwhile I think we’ve been having an argument, not that I am deeply wounding her. Expression of sadness and vulnerability is what sends the proper cue. (Let’s not pretend I’m a saint in these arguments. Just showing how this plays out IRL)

Learning to express vulnerability is not easy if you are not used to it and being rewarded for it. If you have lived your life that way crying probably seems stupid to you. You’ve got to first repent of that. But the second layer is taking responsibility for how your failure to express emotions is creating the situation around and impacting those that want to love you. You’ve got to develop a /range/ of emotions which go between brokenhearted and angry. A lot of things that people process as anger really should just come out as “you hurt my feelings.” No big emotional display, but enough of a display that gives the other person the opportunity to be kind to you. If you start with anger, or if you never cue them that your feelings are hurt, they will naturally escalate, and then you will probably be mad that they hurt your feelings even more, but you never expressed that! See how you can promote a cycle of kindness by simply expressing this kind of emotional vulnerability? Sure if they stomp on you after you are vulnerable, then you have to say “You are hurting my feelings even more now by escalating” and then the window for a vulnerable resolution will close. They are now the ones missing an opportunity. But you see the key? Relationships of deep intimacy are not full of anger.  When there is relationship tension for any reason, it is is express as hurt and sadness, for the other person to show love and mercy, and then life moves on. I have found this to work in all relationships.  With someone who loves you vulnerability is always the key to deeper intimacy.

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