One would think that at some point in life, hot buttons from childhood wounds and adolescent insecurities would be a thing of the past. But recently I got sucked right back in. I was called to team teach a Sunday School class of 13- and 14-year-olds. Right before my eyes in living color was a re-run of my insecure junior high school days. The teenagers in the power chairs radiated to the rest of the class: “We’re a cut above, we’re popular, we rule.” Most of the class followed their every lead, laughing at all the right times, trying to “fit in” with the leaders. The class was totally out of control.
I’ve done a lot of healing and hopefully maturing in my almost seven decades of living on this planet. But in this setting I was flooded with memories and insecure feelings. I was the new kid on the block when I started 7th grade; the others had grown up together. Somehow I was a threat. (Doesn’t make sense to put this before saying how you relived the confusion.) I remember wanting to disappear during Sunday School classes as a youth. Some school settings were even worse. I was friendly, and I was nice. I couldn’t comprehend why school mates would knock me down in the aisle of the school bus and sit on me, laughing their heads off. At that age, I also didn’t understand why they made fun of my high grades and everything I did well.
My mind flashed to a different setting, many years later. I was teaching a large class of very active Beehive girls, feeling helpless in the face of chaos. I knew a lot of the underlying problems and wished I could rescue the girls who had challenging family issues. I was in way over my head. In that same ward setting I later learned my son Brian, who left the church at age 16, had miserable experiences in Sunday School classes and was the brunt of much teasing. Could things have been different if he had been treated well?
With feelings from all these resurfacing in the light of this current classroom chaos, I was an emotional basket case by the end of the hour. I wanted nothing more than to go home and have a good cry.
Spiritual and emotional wounds from the past are rarely visible, but contribute in a major way to problems in the present. The examples I’ve given above are mild compared to experiences of horrific abuse that are all too prevalent in the world. But whatever the background, when a person over-reacts to a situation, it is almost always because something in the current situation opens an old wound or brings to the surface an old insecurity or hurt. Two basic patterns emerge. One is the desire to “run and hide.” Believe me, after observing my partner try to teach that Sunday School class, I wanted to run and hide. The other most common pattern is anger. I believe the primary emotion that triggers anger is hurt, and when the old pain takes over, the ability to think rationally is greatly diminished. (One of the “rules” in the Love and Logic parenting course is “never try to reason with a drunk.” They explain that an angry child has no more ability to think rationally than a drunken person. That applies to “children” of all ages!)
The culture in which we live compounds the difficulty. Violence in the media may “normalize” violence in anger-fueled personal behavior. Those whose pattern is “run and hide” may escape by immersing themselves in self-defeating behaviors, such as drinking, drugs, pornography, sex, gambling, etc. They are all efforts to dull the emotional pain. Those who turn to technology-based media (Even TV, movies, video games, texting, and social networking) may find that technology overload short-circuits the very condition we most need in order to be able to sort out emotional over-reactions: quiet time to reflect and ponder. The guidance of the Spirit—which is the main source of light and truth needed for spiritual insight—cannot make it through a barrage of sound and images that change so quickly there is no time to evaluate or ponder them or make value judgments. The adversary uses this dangerous scenario to his advantage.
We Live in an Emotional Minefield
Wounds we received five minutes ago, as well in the distant past can cause us problems. Our society is full of prickly possibilities for spiritual wounding. Pres. Henry B. Eyring said in a recent address, “Our comrades are being wounded in the spiritual conflict around us . . . Spiritual wounds are not easily visible, except with inspired eyes.” (“Man Down!” April 4, 2009, General Conference). I remember an additional message urging us to treat others with gentleness and kindness. The main idea was that if we treat everyone as if they are wounded, most of the time we’d be right. How true!
So many people “put on a happy face,” and never let the pain show. Others may put on a grouchy face, partly to keep people at a distance to make sure their woundedness is not found out. We know so little of what goes on in the minds and hearts of those around us—and things are so seldom as they seem. The most successful, seemingly altogether people may be hiding serious emotional wounds. The women of the “Five Browns” comes to mind. How many have envied them? Who would have guessed? No wonder the Lord has told us not to judge. He is the only One who knows each person’s heart. In 1 Samuel 16:7 we read, “The Lord seeth not as a man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
What Is the Solution?
Wounds often lead to patterns of holding back, being inhibited, and not spiritually spontaneous. I’ve thought about not being able to give my whole heart to God because my heart is fragmented, not whole. I need Christ’s healing in my heart to make it whole so I have a whole heart to give. Here are some practices I have found helpful to stop the downward emotional spiral, allowing me to regain the Spirit:
- Say STOP to my negative thoughts. Say STOP to Satan—say, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Ask the Lord to cast Satan far from me. Visualize Jesus protecting me from the fiery darts of the adversary with a shield of light.
- If an emotional interchange is escalating, I tell the other person, “I need a time out.” I know I won’t respond wisely if I’m not in the right spirit. I need time to think and pray to get my emotions in line.
- Journal about the following:
Is there something coming up from my past?
What thoughts are triggering my negative response?
I write them down if I can pinpoint them and ask myself,
“Is this true? How can I really know if it is true?”
Many forms of cognitive therapy are available online. One of the best print resources is a book by David Burns, The New Mood Therapy. I have found it essential to use writing to challenge my thoughts. I sometimes write my thoughts in one column, and then in the other column write what could be more true.
The process is so enlightening. I’m often amazed when I feel the Spirit again as light and truth floods onto the page.
- Pray for guidance and follow promptings. Prayer is such a vital link to the Spirit.
5. Repent. In regard to this whole subject, we could scarcely over-stress the importance of forgiveness and repentance. My e-mail friend, Debbie Avila, who has muscular dystrophy, is experiencing a serious decline in her health. She recently wrote a short but brilliant essay on the importance of repentance:
My mind has been considering how to be better prepared to meet God . . . what I can do with more fervor. The Lord repeatedly teaches through the Doctrine & Covenants that this gospel is the gospel of Repentance. Hugh Nibley said, “Who is righteous? Anyone who is repenting. No matter how bad he has been, if he is repenting, he is a righteous man. There is hope for him. And no matter how good he has been all his life, if he is not repenting, he is a wicked man. The difference is which way you are facing. The direction we are facing, that is repentance; and that is what determines whether we are good or bad.” How gracious our Father is to proffer us with the choice and power to repent and receive daily hope as we make necessary changes, always relying on the Lord’s merits! We all tend to be judgmental especially about ourselves (that is one of Satan’s tools of discouragement). Repentance is the bounce back principle for me! We can all rejoice in the perfect gift of repentance. We CAN be better prepared to meet God.
Emotional pain seems to be inevitable in this mortal realm, but instead of letting it control us, we can follow Debbie’s example to repent, forgive, and be transformed by it.
- Read or listen to applicable scriptures which open our minds to the guidance of the Spirit. Here are some of my favorite scriptures that I turn to when the pain of negative emotions are threatening my peace:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:10)
“I will encircle thee in the arms of my love.” (D&C 6:20)
“I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.” (D&C 84:88)
“From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” (Psalm 61:2)
“O Lord my God, I cried unto thee, and thou hast healed me.” (Psalm 30:2)
“For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.” (Psalm 91:11)
“Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee withersoever thou goest.” (Joshua 1:9)
“Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” (Isaiah 41:10)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear . . .” (Psalm 46:1-2)
“Know ye not that ye are in the hands of God? Know ye not that he hath all power?” (Mormon 5:23)
“My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions . . . O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness: . . . O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever.” (2 Nephi 4:20, 33, 34)
“Whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction.” (1 Nephi 15:24)
“He has brought them into his everlasting light, yea, into everlasting salvation; and they are encircled about with the matchless bounty of his love.” (Alma 26:15)
“As much as ye shall put your trust in God even so much ye shall be delivered out of your trials, and your troubles, and your afflictions, and ye shall be lifted up at the last day.” (Alma 38:5)
“God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)
“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)
How Our Wounds Give Us Clay Feet
I received an e-mail from a friend recently after I had confessed my struggle to apply some of the important things I’ve learned. She said my words made her feel better, and more free to be honest with me about her own struggles. She explained that she had previously thought I had it all together, had everything figured out, and wouldn’t understand her struggles. Hardly! I reminded her that I tend to write about things I’m having the hardest time with; in the process of the writing I may discover and put into words true principles, but that doesn’t mean I can automatically apply those principles in every situation.
In regard to relationships, I write and talk about many ah hahs! I’ve had over the years. Yet in the heat of a highly-charged issue that connects me with past wounds, I may dissolve into a puddle of emotion, unable to think clearly enough to remember or apply any of the wonderful things I’ve learned. I have clay feet.
I’ve had the blessing of associating with and working with some of the finest people in this generation. And they all have clay feet. Not one of them is perfect. Every person lives this life as best they can, given their limitations and early programming. Even Joseph Smith, with all his brilliance and spiritual strength, was the first to admit he was only a man, subject to weakness, prone to make mistakes. Only our Savior Jesus Christ walked this earth with perfect measured steps, yet He is the One who gives us the greatest comfort in our weakness, and offers the best direction in regard to how we should treat each other.
How Can We Be Instruments of Peace and Healing?
Nothing in life should make us more humble, less inclined to judge than the realization of humanity’s widespread woundedness. Nothing should motivate greater compassion or kindness. Nothing should spur us on more vigorously to accept Jesus’ invitation to “Come unto me” for rest and healing.
What can we do to help others who over-react when their hot buttons are pushed, bringing up past pain? In a near-death experience, a woman witnessed a couple in a heart-wrenching interchange.
Both of them were wounded, both were counter-attacking, but she was shown what was in their hearts. They were both saying in their minds, “I love you. How could this be happening? I want to hold you. I want to work things out.” Yet their words attacked and counter-attacked, and the downward spiral of anger and hurt drove them farther and farther apart.
How can we help bring the Spirit back when a situation has spiraled out of control? Just last week I was plunged into such a situation where feelings between two people I love were raw and intense. The most important thing is to turn to the Lord with our whole hearts and ask His help to say words that will soften hearts and open them once more to the Spirit.
We might say to them, “I feel your pain. I care that you are hurting. Let me hold you.” We can cry with them and say, “Let me pray for you. Only the Lord knows the solution here. Only the Lord knows both of your hearts.” Only when we pray to see each other as the Lord sees us can we get even a glimmer of what is real and true. Hurts are almost always based on misunderstandings, not knowing the real intent of the other person, not knowing what is in their heart. Last week I saw the miracle of loving feelings restored when the Spirit of the Lord was invited to be present.
From the beginning people have questioned why God set things up the way he did. Why so much emotional pain, so much weakness? Why do so few children receive optimal nurturing or opportunities to learn what functional relationships really look like? But what is really optimal? How little we understand from our limited vision, being stuck in the second act of a three-act play. We know so little about act one and act three—but God knows it all! If there had been a less painful way to structure our mortal experience for optimal growth He would have known about it and implemented it!
What I see in my own life is that my woundedness motivates me to kneel at the feet of the Savior and plead for relief. Only a broken heart is likely to be open to His guidance and aware of the need for His healing. I’m currently editing a book by a man named Stan whose childhood history of abuse would curl your hair. It took years, but by turning to the Lord, Stan was released from the emotional pain of his past and was able to forgive. We always have that option to turn to Christ and let Him make a beautiful design out of the shattered pieces of our lives. He did that for Stan, who now bears the most beautiful witness of the healing power of Christ’s love through the Atonement
If we don’t turn to the Lord, however, the pain of past wounds is kept going because of false assumptions we make in emotionally-charged moments. Those negative thoughts barrage us when a current situation pulls off the scab and the wound starts bleeding again. False negative thoughts always bring miserable feelings because they come from the father of lies whose very purpose is to make us miserable. (See 2 Nephi 2:18.) I try to remember that any thought that makes me miserable is NOT communication from the Holy Ghost and is not true (although it may contain a small smattering of truth so that Satan can get me to believe it). So much pain comes from believing Satan’s lies, such as “You are a failure. You should have done better; you are hopelessly flawed. There is no hope for you.”
As we reject the lies and turn to the Lord, it is so important to allow Him to lead us in the paths He would have us go. As we move forward, and continually trust the Lord, the pain is taken away. This usually happens bit by bit, as we open our minds to the truth, and the Holy Ghost reprograms our belief systems. (The truths the Holy Ghost may use for this reprogramming may come from many sources, such as answers to prayer, scriptures, words from inspired church leaders and/or mental health professionals.) The scriptures tell us, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Whether in this life or the next, we will know the truth. All misunderstandings and false assumptions will be cleared up. We will know the hearts of others. We will forgive and be forgiven. Our childhood wounds will be healed. Our clay feet will be exchanged for glorious resurrected ones. The Lord has promised, “I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee” (2 Kings: 20:5).
Note: To learn more about Darla and her books, Trust God No Matter What! and After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go On, visit her website: darlaisackson.com