The Core of Shutdown Attachment
“I’m sorry I’m crying.”
Garrett looked down, barely choking out the words. I could see his hands were trembling slightly as the tears splashed onto his palms. Although he was in his mid-twenties, he’d inherited the stoicism of his father’s generation, which was then cemented in the culture of rural community that had descended from German immigrant farmers who had barely survived the Great Depression. I could almost feel the visceral shame in his body that came from shedding tears in front of another person. I’d asked him about what it was like when his boss told him earlier in the week that he wasn’t cutting it at work, even though I could tell he’d feel more comfortable talking about anything else. He eventually told me he felt like a failure, and that was when the tears started.
Garrett wasn’t the first person who has apologized for crying in my office. But Garrett was different. He made a sound of disgust. “I hate this,” he said quietly. I could tell there was a tornado of negative self-talk inside about not being strong enough to keep from crying.
“That makes so much sense to me,” I responded, “that showing your emotions like this would feel uncomfortable. I’m sure no one in your life has seen this, seen you crying — and been okay with it, anyway. But I’m so glad to see this part of you. I’ve known about your sadness for a long time, and to see it like this, in your tears, makes me feel more connected. It makes me like you more, actually.” He was quiet.
I continued, “I know how hard you try all the time. It’s got to be exhausting. And then when you fail, it’s like it’s all for nothing.”
He nodded, still unable to talk.
“I wonder if you could ever tell your wife about this, what it’s like to try so hard at work and feel like such a failure.” I said softly, “I know I like hearing about it. And from what you’ve told me, this is the sort of thing she says she wants to hear about.”
He shook his head, and more tears came.
I told him it was okay to cry, okay to be quiet, and that I was honored he let me see his sadness. “This is hard work. You’ve done such hard work today,” I said.
This was the start of Garrett’s healing. It would be months before his body relaxed a little when he shared his worry or sadness with me and many months later that he eventually shared some of these feelings with his wife. Eventually, he found that — unlike in the family he grew up in — showing sadness or worry brought people close. He found that not only could his wife handle these vulnerable emotions, she wanted to hear about them. And he found that sharing them led to deeper connection.
A God Who Can Handle Our Tears
Jen Wilkin writes, “We must love God with our minds, allowing our intellect to inform our emotions, rather than the other way around.”1 But if we only love God with our minds, we miss out on the spontaneity of authentic, intimate relationship with God that we see throughout the Psalms and the rest of Scripture. When we listen to our hearts and share our feelings with God, we find connection with a Divine Parent who longs to hear our emotions and help us understand them.
When we love God with our vulnerable hearts, we find that he understands that Bible verses don’t always take away the painful parts of life and who knows that doubt and anxiety and sadness are all part of life in a broken world. This is the kind of God who weeps when Lazarus dies, even though he knows about resurrection. A God who can handle our anger when the world is unfair. One who can hear that sometimes it doesn’t seem like “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”2 We need God to understand that emotions can overwhelm us and we’re not even sure how to access them. We need a parent who will help us make sense of our emotions, rather than shame us for having them in the first place.
King David talks about this kind of Divine Parent. In Psalm 139:1, he writes, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” David doesn’t show any anxiety that what’s in his basement will scare God away. Even though he asks God to find “any offensive way”3 in him, it’s clear that he believes nothing will drive God away. He knows that anywhere he goes, “your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”4
David’s emotions are woven throughout his spiritual life; it’s part of why he was known as a man after God’s heart. He tells God about his joy, his gratitude, his sadness, his anxiety, his doubt, his guilt, his grief. He brings it all to the table, expecting that God can handle it — and will respond. This is what we truly need. We need a God who doesn’t want only our best but wants all of us.
We see this same God, who sees our innermost being and accepts us, in the Gospels. Having emotions locked in the basement reminds me of when the disciples hid behind locked doors. In the wake of Jesus’s death, they were terrified and locked away in a dark room, not unlike what we do with our own fear in shutdown spirituality. Yet Jesus shows up in the dark and says,
Peace be with you! 5
He breaks into the scary parts of human experience, and rather than being offended, he simply greets us, delighted to be with us—even in the locked-up rooms within us.
Breaking Into the Basement
After a lifetime of automatically sending emotions to the basement, finding out what you’re feeling can be difficult. If you have a shutdown attachment style, my goal is not to make you someone you’re not. You don’t have to be the most emotional person in the room; the goal is balance. We want facts and feelings. But the second part can be incredibly hard.
If you’ve grown up in a home or faith tradition that forces you to choose between emotions and relationship, even dipping a toe in the world of feelings is scary. Your body will remember on a visceral level and try to hide them away. When you’re told not to feel certain emotions by those you love most, you often do so with vigor. Changing that pattern is difficult but not impossible. In fact, I find that those with a shutdown style just need to be shown the ropes, and then they find that identifying and sharing emotions was a natural ability within them all along.
Many clients I work with know they are supposed to “sit with their feelings” but have no idea how. Let’s break it down into concrete steps. Most emotions originate in the body as sensations — a tension in the chest or clenching of your gut. Those signals move up into your brain stem to be interpreted by your brain. The goal of this exercise is not to figure out your emotions but simply to take the small step of noticing the sensations in your body.
Brief Body Scan Exercise
- Sit upright in a comfortable position. Take three intentional breaths. They don’t have to be deep breaths, just comfortable and grounding.
- Notice your whole body, and see if you notice any immediate sensations. It might be pain in your neck, hunger in your stomach, or a little tension in your chest. Or maybe you feel numbness. You might notice a heaviness in your shoulders. Don’t jump to interpreting the sensation; just notice it.
- If paying attention to your whole body feels overwhelming, start with your toes, and move up along your legs, noticing each part until you reach your head.
- Rather than judging these sensations, try to notice them simply as data.
- That’s it. Great job. If you make a habit of noticing your body sensations twice a day, it’s a great foundation for knowing and engaging with your emotions.
1.Matt Chandler and Jen Wilkin, Women of the Word: Ho to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds(Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 34.
5.John 20:19, John 20:21.
Excerpted with permission from Attached to God by Krispin Mayfield, copyright Krispin Mayfield.
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Jesus wants to connect with you in your most inner heart. Don't allow any part of yourself to shut Him out or to be shut down! Open up to Him. He can handle your tears. He can handle all of your emotions. Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily