Emotions Are Everything

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It is a cliche that therapists ask the question, “How does that make you feel?” However, one thing I have learned about human motivation after 10 ½ years in the counseling field is that feelings, or rather emotions, are everything. You may be familiar with the behavioral psychology concepts of positive and negative reinforcement, but that is just surface level stuff. The internal mood states experienced by individuals are what really drive behavior and preferences.

That may sound simplistic, sentimental, perhaps even anti-intellectual. Nothing could be further from the truth. Emotions are powerful. Before the cognitive processing abilities of your frontal lobes were developed, before you were able to encode memories using language to assign meaning, you were experiencing the world emotionally, deep within the limbic system of your growing brain. Emotions were shaping your concepts of the world before you even knew you were distinct from the world.

People do things that create or result in positive mood changes. Now, a behavior itself might not be “positive” in and of itself according to certain standards or perspectives, but the individual subjectively experiences the mood change as desirable. When you listen to your favorite music, watch your favorite movie, or eat your favorite food, you experience a mood change. When I drink a cup of coffee, lay in a hammock, or hug my children, I experience positive mood change. The physical markers of this involve surges in neurotransmitters and other physiological responses.

Now, William Glasser observed that while we can directly control our thoughts (cognition) and actions (behavior), we do not have direct control over our emotions or physiology. But we do have indirect control. If somebody is experiencing a negative mood state and finds a way to experience a positive mood change, the reinforcing of that behavior will be magnified. The more powerful the mood change, the more the behavior will be reinforced. A teenager seeing their favorite band in concert and belting along with their favorite songs is experiencing a powerful mood change. A gambling addict pulling the lever of a slot machine experiences a powerful mood change. These are emotional highs.

Of course, other factors such as worldview, core beliefs, core values, temperament, and genetics mediate what we experience as “positive” or “desirable.” An identical behavior will result in “positive” mood change for one person and “negative” mood change in another. For example, somebody may light up a cigarette and feel rebellious, satisfied, cool, connected, and/or energized. If it were me, I would feel unsatisfied, contaminated, unhealthy, and seedy. People who overeat feel full, nurtured, and safe when they indulge in food. People who restrict themselves from food may feel powerful, in control, and confident.

Abandon your simple ‘mad, sad, glad, scared’ list of feeling words and go deep. If you want to start to understand your own behavior better, start to analyze the exact emotions you experience when you engage in that behavior. For example, when I listen to my favorite music, the songs that really do it for me, I tend to feel a combination of mournful, sensuous, validated, and powerful. Get a thesaurus if you need so that you can accurately identify the specific feelings involved in your mood changes.

Finding Your Niche

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In my closet is a giant bundle of purple yarn. I bought it years ago when my wife and I led a small group for High School girls. It was a visual and tactile illustration of a crucial point, and every time I open the closet and see it I am reminded of the central theme of that lesson so many nights ago…

Recently I mentioned how Abraham Maslow reflected later in life on the limitations of his famous Hierarchy of Needs and proposed a final stage of Self-Transcendence above Self-Actualization (I highly recommend reading Koltko-Rivera’s very interesting 2006 journal article on the subject). The more I think about it, Self-Transcendence represents not a further stage on a hierarchy but a jumping off point at every stage of the traditional hierarchy. Self-Transcendence represents a pyramid floating above the surface of Maslow’s original vision, if you will, beckoning pilgrims to make the leap.

From a Christian perspective, Jesus challenges us to transcend our biological needs when he repeats that “Man shall not live by bread alone” and “Do not worry then, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or “What will we wear for clothing?’” Jesus challenges us to transcend our safety needs with “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Jesus challenges us to transcend our love and belongings needs with “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus calls us to transcend our esteem needs when he says “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” And finally, Jesus calls us to transcend our self-actualization needs by “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…”

But all this is not to say that the concept of Self-Actualization is irrelevant. Back to the purple yarn. A favorite pair of characters in the Bible for me are the somewhat obscure Bezalel and Oholiab. Mentioned repeatedly from Exodus 31 through Exodus 38, these two men were created by God to be great at certain skills. They had literal God-given artistic talents, and they were summoned to use those gifts for the glory of God.

One example in Exodus 35:30-35 (NIV): “Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”

It struck me that God created and supernaturally imbued a human being with the specific skill to work masterfully with purple yarn, among many other things! Whatever the case, God wants us to do our best with the talents, resources, and opportunities that he gives us, most preferably for his glory. Colossians 3:23 (LEB) says, “Whatever you do, accomplish it from the soul, as to the Lord, and not to people.”

Watching the Rio Olympics has given me some key examples of people who have, for all intents and purposes, achieved Self-Actualization. Kerri Walsh-Jennings and her former Beach Volleyball partner Misty May-Treanor were undefeated champs, winning three consecutive gold medals, the best in the world at their sport. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, specializing and excelling in his sport of swimming. Usain Bolt? Fastest Man on Earth. Ashton Eaton? World’s Greatest Athlete. These are examples of people who practically could not do better in their given field. Looking outside of sports, we find artists such as Dale Chihuly or author Theodor Geisel – people who achieved the highest possible mastery and success in their niche. Of course, how much greater when Self-Actualizers can give the glory to God, as I have been humbled to see time and time again at the Rio games by competitors from around the world, all in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer.

But what about me? What is my area of expertise, my calling, my life’s mission? The skills and interests that God has given me, and the opportunities and pathways that he has led me down have brought me to this focus – psychotheology. The bridging of psychology and Christian theology is the niche that I have chosen to dedicate my life to. How will that be expressed? Certainly by writing. Probably by counseling. Maybe by teaching. I may be just a blip in the history of humanity and a speck in the magnitude of space, but I am an important blip; I am a speck known and loved by God.

And what about you? What is your niche? What is your calling? What is your message? What unique purpose has God created you for? Ask yourself this question: if you could be the undisputed expert or the absolute best in the world at one and only one thing, what would it be? If you could dedicate your life and excel in just one area, what would it be? What contribution to your family, your community, your country, or to human history will you make for the glory of God?

Maslow, Music, and Self-Transcendence

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I believe that the music of a culture or people group often corresponds to a sort of societal-level Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs stage. Indigenous groups may perform rain dances or sing songs about the harvest, reflecting basic physiological needs. Inner city rap music and some blue collar country music may often speak to concerns about personal safety and financial security (amassing wealth, fighting against those feuding against you). Pop music perpetually hovers around the themes of love and belonging (love at first sight, dating, breaking up, commitment).

Rock music, on the other hand, frequently transcends the basic or lower level needs, and moves from the “deficiency” needs to the “being” needs. Take for example the song ‘Peace of Mind’ by the band Boston. Moving into the Esteem stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy, this song explicitly addresses finding meaning and purpose beyond the rat race of everyday life. One may also point to harder edged but socially-conscious songs from bands like Rage Against the Machine.

Now, are there any songs or types of music that address the fifth and final stage, Self-Actualization? Certainly, but I’ll take it a step further. For Christians, Self-Actualization is not the end-all, be-all goal of life. Christ-Actualization (or the Imitation of Christ) is the highest possible stage of human growth, achievement, or needs-meeting. Maslow himself touched on this theme in his later years, criticizing his own theory and proposing a higher stage – Self-Transcendence. Christian music has the inherent potential of reflecting this most important stage.

‘Messiah’ by George Frideric Handel represents this, not only as one of the highest human achievements of music, but as a Self-Transcending work of art that points to Jesus Christ. Take a couple minutes and enjoy this Hallelujah Chorus performed via flashmob in a mall food court.

Mental Health Abolitionism

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I can read about a new tragedy every day in the newspaper without batting an eye. I can respond to the latest political scandal with utter nonchalance. But show me an abuse in the mental health field and my blood starts to boil. Now, I do not have personal experience nor did I have family members struggling with mental health issues growing up, but something about the way God has wired me and my ten years working in almost every facet of the mental health field makes me rage against the system when I see injustice, when I see the blind leading the blind down paths of perpetual human misery.

Anti-Psychiatry is a well-known term and a label that would not be inaccurate to affix to me. However, it is too narrow. Psych Reform is broader and more positive in connotation. Still, I consider myself first and foremost to be a Mental Health Abolitionist (abolitionism being defined as a movement to end slavery, whether formal or informal). Those suffering from so-called mental illness are not only captive to intense emotional pain, distorted thinking, spiritual malaise, and personality dysfunction, but often to the very “treatments” deemed necessary to reduce their symptoms, control their behaviors, and protect society at large from experiencing discomfort or danger.

The unifying of rigorous Christian theology with evidence-based psychology, compassionately applied to benefit the mental health population is essentially THE cause I have dedicated my life to – call it “Applied Psychotheology.” In case I ever lose sight of my mission, I carry around with me the following letter written by a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Names and identifying details have been removed for the sake of confidentiality. I can personally vouch that none of the statements in this letter are exaggerated.

To Whom It May Concern:

               This letter is to inform you of the gross mistreatment of the patients in the ___ hall in ____ Hospital. I have been a patient since ____ at 10:15am. The lack of organization & compassion by most (not all) of the staff is horrendous.

               Most of the nurses have attitudes, they will not answer medication questions, they slam the doors in your face when you have the nerve to question the medication that they are trying to give you.

               Sometimes when the doctor comes on the unit, he either wakes you up @ 5:30am when you are half asleep, groggy off of medication, and asks you a series of questions, which is hard to even remember what you have been waiting to ask him all day/night. Other times, he pulls you into the hallway in a 3 min interview (if that) at the nurses station in front of other patients which is a direction violation of HIPAA privacy laws.

               The weekend doctors make promises of discharge and then the weekday doctors immediately come in and dash all hopes of leaving. How is that supposed to NOT cause agitation in a patient with an already fragile mental state.

               Some of the technicians (mostly on afternoons & evenings) look down on the patients as if we are sub-par human beings. We have a disease! Just like someone with diabetes or cancer, it is a constant battle everyday. These people are here to TREAT US, not leave us in a room trapped like caged animals. Since I have been here, there have been maybe 4-5 groups ran. Nothing at all dealing with coping skills or how to deal with our illness, just karaoke, coloring & arts & crafts.

               We are GROWN WOMEN! Some of us here voluntary for treatment & some involuntary, but all here for the same thing: to get medicine, therapy & to get healthy. What goes on in this ward can be considered GROSS NEGLIGENCE and abuse.

               I hope that someone actually takes the time & reads this letter, so the higher-ups know what goes on in the day-to-day activities in ___ hall … we have girls sleeping in the HALLWAYS! Women have psychiatric breakdowns every 3 hours and staff ignoring her! Nurses who refuse to explain medication & when we ask questions, noting we “refused” medication. As I write this the evening medication nurse just scolded me for refusing the very same medication that I “overdosed” on 3 days ago. Stating that I should know what I’m taking and to tell her what I want. Why should I tell you what medications I am prescribed especially when you have my chart? I AM NOT AN R.N.!! and this was done with 4 patients standing behind me hearing the entire thing, and I still had to remind her about a medication. Then she proceeded to slam drawers & throw down pills and slam water in what I can only describe as a tantrum.

               So, in conclusion, I hope that this letter brings these issues to your attention. We all feel that that this an environment not conducive to our recovery. We actually feel that this program is hindering our recovery.

               It may be too late for me to see a change but hopefully helps the next set of females that pass through ___ hall.

               Thanks in advance for reading, _____________________.

The Angel of the Gap

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As my years of being a professional crisis interventionist came to a close, I checked back through my agency’s electronic database to see how many ‘crisis intervention’ notes I had written. Each note would represent one “event” or “interaction” with a person in crisis. Some of those notes would have been dispatch phone calls. Others would have been “follow up” visits to persons who had been in crisis. A few would be “repeat” customers, so to speak. However, the majority would be one-time events in the community with strangers in crisis – homicidal, suicidal, psychotic, addicted, or otherwise overwhelmed.

I had approximately 780 crisis notes recorded in the system.

Adding on three additional months of crisis intervention work I did later, and two years working for a suicide hotline, I have had a lot of interactions with persons in crisis. Now, many of those people thinking of ending their lives may not have gone through with it, or would have been unsuccessful, or could have sought help elsewhere, or somebody besides me might have intervened. How many did I actually “save?” Although I will never know the actual number, I could conservatively estimate that a bare minimum of ten people would be dead right now if it were not for my personal actions. Those were the very high risk ones, impulsive and with no will to live. It is for at least those few that I knew then and now beyond the shadow of a doubt that I had saved a life. The number could be significantly higher, but I just could not say with certainty.

Donald “Don” Richie was an Australian who came to be known as the ‘Angel of the Gap.’ He was a naval veteran and retired insurance salesman who happened to live across the street from a cliff in Sydney that is a notorious suicide hotspot. Don would watch from his window, and when he saw someone lingering near the cliff he would calmly approach them and ask if there was anything he could do to help them, often inviting them back to his house for a cup of tea.

Over forty-five years, Don was officially confirmed to have prevented 164 suicides, but perhaps as many as 400. For this service, this otherwise “ordinary man” was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006. Don reportedly did not seek fame, recognition, or reward for what was essentially a solo volunteer effort that stretched five decades and certainly involved a measure of personal risk.

I have frequently wondered what kind of impact I can make on the world. What change, what lasting mark can be my contribution? How will I go down in history? Or, if not that grandiose, how will I be remembered and by whom? Starting to do crisis intervention in a small corner of America did not seem to be the grand destiny I had in mind. However, I have come to realize that saving lives, even if nobody else ever knows or cares, is truly priceless. I could build a “body of work” over my lifetime that I would never regret, even if I were to die in obscurity.

Don Richie completed his masterpiece… his magnum opus. His great life’s work was sculpted with the rescued souls of men and women standing at the edge of the precipice. In the art of saving lives, he was one of the greats. He may have been an “angel” to many, but to me he is a muse.