Developing good emotional habits can help us to get along with others much better. But how can we form good habits?
IN EVERY area of life, it seems, relationships between people are in serious trouble! Husbands and wives too often find it difficult to get along together happily. Their marriages disintegrate into continual rounds of arguing, yelling and even physical violence or divorce. Parents and children seem commonly to lack the skills to interact with each other, and thus generation gaps and juvenile delinquency replace solid families and proper child rearing. Workers and bosses too often cannot relate amicably, and so companies suffer from petty politics, unhappy working environments and labor unrest and strikes. And realize this: The problems exist not just on the personal level, but on a global scale. Nations are merely groups of people united together, and so entire nations can't get along with each other either! The result? Today's international strife and misunderstanding that threaten this world with nuclear annihilation! And yet mankind in the 20th century has achieved such astonishing progress in science, technology and industry as to make one's head spin. Why the paradox? Why is it that people can accomplish such amazing feats with material things, yet can't live at peace with each other?
A large number of the problems between people today are caused by unchecked emotion, thoughtlessness and misguided feelings in short, emotional immaturity. But emotional immaturity is often overlooked as the cause of personal problems. People blame all their difficulties on other people, life circumstances or bad luck instead. Consider: How would you react if your boss berated you for someone else's mistake? Would you explode and give him a piece of your mind? Would you take the criticism, though you didn't deserve it, and resent your boss personally from then on? Would you say nothing at work, but then take out your suppressed anger on your wife when you got home? Would you wait until you and the boss both calmed down, and then try to find a proper solution to the problem through discussion or other means? Suppose, if you're a wife, that your husband criticized something about the way you keep your home. Would you become upset and depressed about it? Would you laugh and ignore him, not taking the criticism seriously? Would you cry when you are alone? Would you consider the criticism and ask your husband why he feels that way? Why do we react to each other the way we do? How many of us have ever stopped to consciously think about why we do certain things the way we do? The answer is that we don't think about a lot of the things we do, including many of our emotional responses! Our behavior is a matter of habit automatic, unthinking patterns of action ingrained in the subconscious parts of our minds. How we react emotionally to various stimuli whether we retain our composure, laugh, cry, feel sadness or become angry and lash out — is as much a matter of habit as is smoking or lying or cursing or overeating. Yes, the habit of emotional immaturity, or lack of emotional control, is the cause of much interpersonal woe today.
What, exactly, do we mean by the term emotional maturity? The subject of emotion is much studied and much talked about but much misunderstood, especially in the Western world, today. The truth is that few people mature emotionally. Some bottle up all their feelings inside, never displaying any intensity of passion, upset or desire. Others, as the old saying goes, "wear their hearts on their sleeves" and go to pieces or boil over at the slightest provocation. Some can seemingly turn emotions — grief, excitement, anger — on and off like a water faucet. But where is the balance? What is emotional maturity — what is the proper use of emotions? Psychologists and other authorities needlessly disagree on the subject. Educator Herbert W. Armstrong writes: "The great tragedy of our generation is that nearly all people mature physically, perhaps half to two thirds mature mentally, but very few ever grow up emotionally or spiritually. One is not a fully mature man or woman, as God intended, until emotional and spiritual maturity has been reached!"
Emotional immaturity is allowing human nature free expression — seeing every circumstance through the eyes of feelings alone — letting emotions and not considered reason dominate the mind.
Moods, feelings and desires, says Mr. Armstrong, must be controlled and guided according to the sound reasoning of the mind, instead of impulsively following them without mental direction. Emotional maturity is exercising proper self-control over the psyche — the element that gives us intellect and free moral agency, as opposed to animals, which function on instinct. As the Bible says, "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city" (Prov. 16:32, RAV). This character trait of ruling one's spirit is the foundation of emotional maturity. Emotional immaturity is allowing human nature free expression — seeing every circumstance through the eyes of feelings alone — letting emotions and not considered reason dominate the mind. "Yelling, loud talking bursts of temper, rudeness — all these are lack of emotional 'growing up.' Emotional immaturity is simply letting human nature run sway without any control from a right-thinking, reasoning mind," says Mr. Armstrong. Social psychologist Carol Tarvis, speaking about uncontrolled emotion, says, "An emotion without social rules of containment and expression is like an egg without a shell: a gooey mess." Uncontrolled emotion — emotional immaturity — quickly becomes habitual.
Emotions as Habits
A habit is a learned pattern of acting — a way of behaving that has become routine. The human brain is able to form habits to free itself from having to consciously consider mundane, everyday tasks. We don't have to think about tying a shoe, walking, chewing. With these details handled by habit, the brain can devote its attention to the more challenging, unfamiliar and potentially dangerous stimuli from among the thousands that bombard it every day. The more times we do things or react to things a certain way, the more "worn" the neural circuits and pathways in the brain and nervous system become. This is how habits develop and become deeply rooted. Thus, if a man reacts in anger every time his wife reminds him of some broken appliance that needs repair, he will develop a habit of snapping at her when she speaks to him. This poor emotional response does not foster a harmonious relationship. A parent who does everything but stand on his head to stop a child from crying, every time the child cries, is teaching the child to manipulate others by misusing emotions. Or, the child with such a parent may come to believe that any display of emotion is wrong, begin to squelch feelings inside and become a walking time bomb later in life. It follows, then, that we must develop self-control over our emotions. And we must practice that intelligent self-control until it becomes habit. Anger, for instance, is one of the strongest emotions, and one of the most dangerous, potentially. How many murders have occurred among family members because anger was not properly controlled? Today, in light of startling new evidence from psychological studies, a human debate is raging as to whether it is better to deal with anger by simply releasing it or by channeling it in different directions. Let's look at anger as an example of what we mean by emotional maturity.
Anger: Vent or Prevent?
The traditional assumption in psychotherapy is that anger should be ventilated; that is, expressed or "let out" to prevent stress and other health problems. The idea is that suppressed hostility is unhealthy and that one may "work off" hostility by hitting, breaking or throwing something. But new experimental evidence challenges this theory. Social psychologist Carol Tarvis, in her new book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, asserts that anger released, rather than anger suppressed or dealt with otherwise, causes stress and may well spawn more conflict. Says Dr. Tarvis: "People who are most prone to give vent to their rage get angrier, not less angry. I observe a lot of hurt feelings among the recipients of rage. And I can plot the stages in a typical 'ventilating' marital argument: precipitating event, angry outburst, shouted recriminations, screaming or crying, the furious peak (sometimes accompanied by physical assault), exhaustion, sullen apology, or just sullenness. The cycle is replayed the next day
Emotional maturity is exercising proper self-control over the psyche — the element that gives us intellect and free moral agency, as opposed to animals, which function on instinct.
or next week. What in this is 'cathartic' [bringing release from tension]? Screaming? Throwing a pot? Does either action cause the anger to vanish or the angry spouse to feel better? Not that I can see." Dr. Tarvis goes on to show that anger and stress are not necessarily related — people who deal with anger in more mature ways may well be healthier than those who subscribe to the "let it out" theory. Reflecting about a situation that makes you angry, deciding on a reasonable, effective, calm response and then executing the response is far more effective and healthy than erupting emotionally, increasing your blood pressure and exacerbating tensions between you and whoever else is involved in the dispute. Rethinking a provocation and deciding on appropriate, intelligent action is a more mature emotional response. This conclusion sounds much like the advice offered by the biblical book of Proverbs: "He who is slow to wrath has great understanding, but he who is impulsive exalts folly" (Prov. 14:29). "A wrathful man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger allays contention" (Prov. 15:18). "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (verse 1). The Bible offers much sound advice on building successful human relationships. The book of Proverbs in particular contains much useful information on self-control, much of it dealing with emotional maturity. You might just read through these proverbs sometime. They apply to everyday situations and are easy to understand, especially if you read in a modern translation. You may be surprised at the wisdom you'll find in them. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, we must make this statement: We are not saying there is never a time for the proper expression of anger. God created our emotions and all of them have their right uses. The Bible shows that there is a proper time to show "righteous indignation." Even Jesus himself was angry on occasion, and with good cause. But the type of anger Jesus expressed — the type we may express — is not selfish, depressing, resentful, hateful or violent toward other human beings. Righteous indignation seeks to teach people how to right wrongs. It feels stabbing sadness at the tragedies sin produces in this world. It is not destructive, but constructive.
If our emotional responses are to function successfully with other people, we need habitually to make mature emotional responses. Good emotional habits can be formed just as bad emotional habits can, though breaking bad habits after years of practicing them can be difficult. Here are some practical points on forming good emotional habits: • Think before you respond. Consider all the facts. If your child repeatedly asks for instructions about how to perform the same task, will it really help if you fly off the handle, raise your voice, do the job yourself or tell the child he or she 'is stupid? No. If the child is sincerely trying to understand, you need to explain the instructions in a different way or determine specifically what your son or daughter doesn't understand, and carefully explain that part. Patience is a virtue. Psychologist Tarvis explains how bus drivers who are exposed to constant provocations by passengers are helped to deal with the irritations: "New York City bus drivers ... may now see a film in which they learn that passengers who have irritating mannerisms may actually have hidden handicaps. Repeated questions ('Driver, is this 83rd Street?') may indicate severe anxiety, which the passenger cannot control; apparent drunkenness may actually be cerebral palsy; mild epileptic seizures can make a passenger seem to be deliberately ignoring a driver's orders. '(The film) makes you feel funny about the way you've treated passengers in the past,' says a bus driver from Queens. 'Before I saw this film, if a passenger rang the bell five times, I'd take him five blocks to get even. Now I'll say, "Maybe the person is sick." , " A corollary to this point of thinking before you respond is to make sure you see the situation clearly. You should act on the situation, in other words, and not on what you may incorrectly think is the situation. Perhaps you are waiting for someone to return a call from you, and are growing more upset by the minute because you are sure the person is just ignoring you. Wait a minute! The person may be innocent. Are you sure he got your message and knows you want him to call back? Work on being less impulsive — don't jump to conclusions. As Proverbs 18:13 says, "He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him." • Be more tolerant of others. . Almost everyone has foibles and flaws — you may have some yourself! Give other people the benefit of the doubt and forgive their failures as long as they are really trying to overcome them. After all, God will judge you according to how you judge others. Jesus said, "But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:15). Also, when you react in a certain, habitual way to some irritation from someone else, you are actually allowing that person to control what you do. But why should you? Maintain your self-control and don't be overcome by anger, resentment or impatience. You — not someone else or some bad emotional habit — should decide what you are going to do. • Ask for help. When you are trying to develop a good habit, just as when you are trying to break a bad one, the support and encouragement of others can be invaluable. A reassuring word or wink from a mate or friend when you have properly controlled yourself in a certain situation can spur you to greater achievement. Don't be afraid to ask for help. You are trying to improve yourself, and that's nothing to be ashamed of. • Practice the good trait. Hold your temper, but don't hold any resentment. Laugh when someone tells a good joke, and show proper sympathy when someone suffers a tragedy. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Performing the right trait enough times will ingrain it into your character as a good habit. • Replace the bad habits with good ones. For most, developing emotional habits will first require that a lifetime's worth of bad emotional habits be broken. The struggle may be difficult, but it is not impossible to win. The only way to permanently free yourself from a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. For example, merely gritting your teeth and absorbing provocation after provocation from some inconsiderate person is not going to develop a good emotional habit. You will only build up an inner rage — even hatred — toward the person, and eventually you'll probably do something you'll wish you hadn't, like explode. It's fine to learn to ignore the irritation, but at the same time you should learn to look at the situation differently, or ask the person to reconsider doing whatever he is doing, or avoid similar situations as much as possible in the future. • Base your responses on God's way of giving. In simplest terms, every effect in the world around us — broken families, wars, economic problems, poor labor relations, famine, loneliness — has a cause. Every effect is produced by following one or the other of two basic ways of life: the way of give or the way of get. God's way is the way of giving the way of love, helping others, serving, cooperating, thinking as much or more of others than you do of yourself. This is the way that produces every good result man could want. Remember Jesus' words? He said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). The way of get — the way most people in this world follow — produces strife, unhappiness, conflict, war — and emotional upset! Emotionally immature people have not learned to base their responses on God's way of giving instead of the human, carnal way of getting. They tend to be selfish and view every situation only in terms of their own needs or desires. Emotionally mature people have learned to consider the needs of others and are, in general, more outgoing, secure and broadminded. Giving, this last key to developing emotional maturity, is the most important and most far — reaching in its ramifications.
The Key: Outgoing Concern
This way of giving must be so strongly ingrained as a general habit that it is our complete motivation in every situation. Giving must be our central focus — it must, if you will, be our character. Giving in terms of emotion and every other area of life is a habit that must be learned. Right character is, for those who understand, God's character, and it is what mankind was actually created to develop. Developing perfect character, including complete emotional maturity, ultimately requires living God's way, the way the Bible teaches, perfectly. Living that way requires having God's Holy Spirit, which II Timothy 1:7 tells us is not "a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." God's Spirit, imparted to our minds, implants within us God's own mind and character. We change, through a process called conversion, from the selfish way of human nature, rejecting immature, carnal patterns of action, and begin to think the way God thinks, judge situations the way God judges them, act the way God acts. We practice God's way until it becomes our own nature — our constant habit. It is the absence of God's Spirit and the giving way of life from the world in general that has caused every bad effect we see around us! Think what a different world it could be! A world in contact with God, a world at peace — everyone happily cooperating with each other, under God's direction, to achieve ever greater progress and accomplishments. A world that knows no war, no violence, no broken homes, no mental illness, no emotional immaturity. A world built on solid families, love for fellowman and people getting along well with each other all the time. The beginning of that world the wonderful world tomorrow — is imminent. That is the message this magazine proclaims. We all need to be preparing ourselves for that coming world, and we can look forward to it with joy and excited anticipation.