Sarah went through emotional trauma every time her husband left home to go to work. She felt like he was leaving her permanently, even though he had always come home. They had been married for 10 years yet she wrestled with these feelings each time he left home without her.
As I talked with her about her childhood, she told me that she was a quiet, shy child who mainly had been raised in rural areas. However, when she was about to enter junior high school, her father took a job in a big city. Because she was from the country, kids at school made fun of her, and she had a hard time fitting in. This was very traumatic, and she would go home crying every day. Her parents didn’t know what to do. They tried talking to her and coaching her. Eventually they told her that she must be doing something wrong or the other kids would like her. They took her to a counselor, and again, she got the message that there was something wrong with her. Nothing changed. In fact, the situation at school got worse.
Her parents finally decided to send her to boarding school in order to give her a new start. Off she went to try to fit in someplace else. But it didn’t work. Once again she felt like she didn’t fit in. Although she made a few friends, she still felt like the “odd person out.” But this time she had no family to rely on. Because her family did not have a lot of resources, Sarah could not see or talk with them very often. Even on holidays she often could not afford to go home and had to stay with a friend. Essentially, Sarah was on her own to take care of herself, cut off from her family. She felt like they had abandoned her.
Now, many years after college and marriage, she still felt abandoned every time her husband left for work. These feelings also affected her relationship with God. She felt that He was distant and unavailable, much like her parents. These experiences led to a whole set of emotional problems that Sarah needed to find some way to deal with.
Sarah is not unique. Everyone experiences emotional pain and problems to some degree. Becoming a Christian does not automatically cause those problems to go away. In fact, they typically get worse if they are not attended to.
There are many ways a Christian’s spiritual growth can be affected by unresolved emotional problems. Some Christians are unable to grow spiritually at all. Others are only able to grow to a certain point and then growth stops. There are some who grow to a point and then begin to regress. Still others grow, but their growth is slowed by their emotional problems. Emotionally based problems do not go away and, in fact, tend to gradually get worse until the person begins to deal with them. Commonly people in their teens and twenties have strong enough coping mechanisms to survive, but their lives and families begin to fall apart in their thirties and forties because of unresolved emotional issues.
Emotional problems tend to be confusing to both the person who is suffering from them and to those in the church that are trying to help. Historically, the church has often not known how to deal with these emotional problems and has focused on the present symptoms instead of the root causes of the problems. The root cause of many emotional problems is found in childhood when a child experiences pain and does not know how to deal with it. The pain remains unresolved and sets off a chain reaction of problems.
Unresolved pain in childhood leads to some predictable problems in a child’s life.
When emotional pain builds up in a child’s life and he has no way to deal with it, the pain becomes increasingly overwhelming. The child will adapt to survive. He has no choice. He must do something with the pain. Proverbs 15:13 states, “heartache crushes the spirit.” This is why the Scriptures admonish parents not to exasperate or embitter their children (Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 3:21).
Children are tender and vulnerable, and we need to take great care in how we relate to them. Parents need to provide a safe environment where their children can talk about their feelings.
If a child is not able to process his emotions, there will be several negative results in his life. One result is that he may develop adaptations in order to survive. An adaptation a child often uses is addictions. An addiction is anything external that we focus on to avoid what is going on inside. An addiction distracts us from our pain by giving us another focus. Distracting addictions are things such as work, sports, reading, television or video games. Some addictions are mood altering. We use them to try to feel better: sex, food, drugs, spending or anything that gives us an adrenaline rush. Lastly, there are addictions that numb us like alcohol or sleep. Many people are poly-addicted and use whichever addiction is convenient at the time.
Another survival adaptation a child may use is to develop unhealthy defense mechanisms. When a child gets hurt on a regular basis, he often develops defense mechanisms to try to avoid getting hurt again. Typical defense mechanisms are denial, people-pleasing, isolating, conflict avoidance, etc.
What happens to the hurtful emotions that a child has but is not able to process? Do they go away? The answer is no. The child suppresses these negative emotions, another result of unresolved pain. When emotions are suppressed, they get stored in the child’s body in the form of stress. As internal stress builds up through childhood and continues to increase as an adult, it may cause problems such as physical illnesses, emotional explosions, depression, etc.
When hurtful things happen to a child and there is no one to help him make sense out of it, he will usually develop wrong thinking, again a result of unresolved pain. He may think that all people are unsafe, that the world is more dangerous than it is or that there is something wrong with him. He may develop those thoughts even further telling himself, “No one loves me”; “No one will protect me”; “I never do anything right”; “I cannot stop this.”
One common belief that children tend to develop, when enough bad things happen to them, is that there is something wrong with them. When they make a mistake, they feel like they are a mistake. They think they are broken and cannot be fixed. Once a child develops this way of thinking, it is very hard to rectify. The development of this is a shame-based identity, also a result of unresolved pain.
Sarah suffered to some degree from of all these problems. She, like any child, had to adapt to survive the pain that was building up in her life. Once she got to boarding school, she didn’t feel as if she had anyone to talk to about her life. Her earlier attempts to talk to her parents and a counselor ended with them accusing her of being the problem. So she just buried the pain on the inside and tried to manage it. She tried to stay busy. If she ever stopped, the powerful feelings she felt were uncomfortable and frightening. Her thinking about people and herself became quite distorted. She felt that there must be something wrong with her and that no one would want to be around someone like her. This led to fewer efforts to make friends and more isolation. Sarah’s life seemed to slowly become worse and worse.
Unresolved pain in childhood leads to additional problems in an adult’s life.
When children have been injured in their childhood, they carry the unhealthy behaviors, internal stress and wrong thinking into their adult life, which causes more pain. Their injuries keep them immature and lead to unhealthy behavior and thinking. We see this in Sarah’s life. The problems in her childhood led to further and deeper problems as an adult. Her life will continue to spin out of control until she begins to address these problems.
There are several typical types of problems that adults will develop when there are problems from childhood. They will often have relational problems. Damage from childhood hinders a person’s ability to relate to others in a healthy manner. For example, if there were abusive relationships in a person’s past, he may unwittingly seek out similar relationships as an adult, because these kinds of relationships feel normal. A person may also become over-controlling because he is afraid of being hurt by others or very passive because he feels powerless to change anything in his life. He may be afraid to get too close to people because he is afraid of being found to be lacking in some way and being rejected.
It is also common for a Christian with these types of problems to have a poor relationship with God as well. All relationships are affected including our relationship with God. For example, emotional issues may lead to a distorted view of God or negative feelings toward Him. Children often project onto God the feelings they have toward their parents. If they felt their parents were distant, they may feel like God is distant. If their parents were extremely critical, they may feel that God is only going to condemn them. They may be unable to feel like God loves them. This should not be very surprising since parents have a God-like presence in a child’s early life.
Another common problem in adulthood is poor decision-making. Because of a person’s distorted thinking about life and addictions, he often makes unwise decisions that are detrimental to his life. Because of a low self-image, he may think he cannot be successful in college or any other kind of school. He may be afraid to try anything challenging, even though he may be more than capable of doing it. He may make poor decisions about finances, relationships, jobs, and many other important areas of life.
Often the pain increases when a person becomes an adult, so the addictions also tend to worsen. Adults have more dangerous addictions available to them; and therefore, some addictions may become life threatening.
As stress increases both inwardly and outwardly, people often become clinically depressed because the ongoing stress depletes the brain of the chemicals it needs to function correctly. This clinical depression is different from depression caused by a known loss such as the loss of a job, death of a spouse, divorce, etc. In a clinical depression, the person usually doesn’t know why he is depressed, and usually, medication and counseling are needed to eliminate the depression.
Although Sarah had become a Christian, she suffered from many of these problems as an adult. She was having relational problems with both God and others, making poor decisions, suffering from addictions and depression. She was addicted to food. She ate to soothe herself, to try to fill the emptiness after her husband left for work. But it didn’t work. Instead, she gained weight, which made both her and her husband unhappy.
Sarah also tried to distract herself from the pain by keeping herself constantly busy while her husband was away. But as time passed she became increasingly depressed and isolated. Her workaholism declined and she spent more and more time in bed. She couldn’t concentrate and lost motivation to do anything. Everything became drudgery. As her problems escalated Sarah felt increasingly out-of-control. Her problems were not going to go away without some help. When she was in her thirties, she finally became desperate enough to seek help.
These types of problems tend to get worse and often become overwhelming when the person enters his 30’s and 40’s. But the tendency is to see the adult behaviors as the problem when they are really only symptoms of the root problems that began in childhood. In order to begin to heal and to make healthy changes, the person needs to deal with the root problems. It is important to understand how emotional problems develop so that we can focus on the root problems (suppressed emotions, false belief systems, unhealthy defense mechanisms, addictions) that began in childhood and not just the symptoms we see in adult life.
Emotionally based problems are major stumbling blocks in many people’s lives, and they must be addressed for a person to reach the kind of spiritual maturity that God has called us to. Traditional approaches to spiritual growth have proved ineffective in bringing about emotional healing. In the next Pocket Principle (“Healing from Emotional Problems“) we will discuss what approaches do lead to emotional healing.
Meditate on Ephesians 4:17-23. What are some of the solutions to these root problems that God suggests in this passage?
• Think about the adult symptoms discussed in this lesson. Write down any evidences of these problems that you see in your life.
• Think about how these problems may be connected to root problems in your childhood. If thinking about these problems causes you distress, talk with a trusted friend about it.
Understanding Emotional Issues:
Root Causes of Emotional Problems (in childhood)
Addictions—An addiction is an external focus that enables a person to avoid the pain inside. A child can be addicted to anything: drugs, TV, computer games, sports, food, etc. Addictions can alter a mood (make a person feel better), dull pain or distract from the pain.
Unhealthy coping (defense) mechanisms—A child develops defense mechanisms to protect himself from getting hurt again. Typical defense mechanisms include: denial, people pleasing, isolation, conflict avoidance, etc.
Suppressed negative emotions—If a child is unable to process negative emotions and thereby resolve them, the emotions are stored inside in the form of stress. This internal stress may cause problems such as physical illness, emotional explosions, depression, etc. Some signs of suppression are lack of emotion, super-sensitivity, over-reaction, etc.
False belief system—As a child tries to make sense of things happening to him, he usually draws wrong conclusions about himself and the world such as “No one loves me”; “No one will protect me”; “I never do anything right”; “I cannot stop this.”
Shame-based identity (a common false belief)—If enough bad things happen to a child, without resolution or explanation, he begins to believe that there is something wrong with him. He believes that he is “broken and cannot be fixed”; he didn’t just make a mistake, he is a mistake.
Adult Symptoms of Emotional Problems
Relational problems—Damage from childhood hinders a person’s ability to relate to others in a healthy manner. For example, if there were abusive relationships in a person’s past, he may unwittingly seek out similar relationships as an adult because these kinds of relationships feel normal.
Poor relationship with God—Just as relationships with others can be affected, a person’s relationship with God can also be affected. For example, emotional issues may lead to a distorted view of God or negative feelings toward Him. As a result, a person may stop growing spiritually or even regress.
Poor decisions—Because of a person’s distorted thinking about life, he often makes unwise decisions that are detrimental to his life: financially, relationally, professionally, etc.
More serious addictions—Emotions that began in childhood usually intensify in adulthood as the pain worsens. In addition to possible childhood addictions, a person may be addicted to work, spending, shopping, sex, ministry, drugs, alcohol, etc. Some addictions may actually become life threatening.
Depression—As problems intensify, stress increases sometimes causing a chemical imbalance in the brain leading to a clinical depression. (This is not the same as a depression caused by a known loss such as the death of a spouse, loss of a job, divorce, etc.)