Tag Archives: feelings

Your Bad Habits and Your Brain

head-607480_960_720.jpgI am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.

This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.

There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.

A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.

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Frog, Toad, Cookies, and Temptation

Originally published in the Patching Cracks column in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 4/24/14. I have done some some editing and made some additions here. 
Frog-and-Toad-illustratio-007.jpgOne of my favorite stories to read my daughter at bedtime is from The Adventures of Frog and Toad. In the story, Toad bakes a batch of cookies. He and Frog discover that they cannot stop eating the cookies because they are too delicious. They begin to devise ways to prevent themselves from eating the cookies by making it more difficult to give in to temptation. Frog called it: “Building up willpower.” They quickly discovered that if they wanted to eat the cookies badly enough they would find a way around obstacles. Eventually, Frog throws away all the cookies and proclaims: “we have lots and lots of willpower.” To which Toad responds: “You may keep it all, Frog, I am going home now to bake a cake.” It’s a funny story with an interesting point. The problem wasn’t the cookies, the problem was that they wanted the cookies more than they wanted to not eat them. The book of James touches on this idea when it addresses the things that are in our lives that cause temptation. It’s easy to blame God for giving us such temptations. However, temptation starts in us and are a product of our fallenness. In Romans Paul describes how the sin living in us seizes upon the law of God as a standard to rebel against. Sin drives us to do things we hate. He describes sin and the ensuing temptation as powerful and ruling over our bodies. As a result of this powerful force within us, even if the things we want are not in front of us, if we want them badly enough, we will go looking for them. Mind you, it is not the case that desire itself is bad. Desire is natural. Desire for food, pleasure, leisure, security, relationships, being right, or anything else are simply a part of how people are designed. Desire becomes destructive when it loses all checks and begins to cause damage. It can be seen in decisions made simply based on a desire with no concern for inevitable consequences and what is right or wrong. A common example is carelessly spoken words that are regretted the moment they are spoken. Other examples include extramarital affairs, the seemingly iron grip that pornography seems to have over the lives of many men, addictions, eating disorders, spending problems, etc. These typically involve normally healthy desires that become distorted and get out of control. James describes this as being dragged away by our own lusts. Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that the source of the problem is within us.

The solution for dealing with these sorts of issues begins with recognizing that if our problem is rooted internally, the solution will need to be external to some degree. The Bible describes the solution as allowing God to intervene and aid us in overcoming that which controls us. If we aren’t strong enough to defeat a problem on our own, we need someone who can aid us in doing so. Apart from a higher power intervening, we will find ourselves stuck. Paul explains this in Romans 7 & 8. New life in Jesus through God’s Spirit is the pathway to overcoming temptation. This is achieved through intimate relationship with the savior and discipleship. The Spirit supernaturally intercedes and enables us to overcome temptation. Sometimes this means confessing our sins and seeking accountability with our brothers in Christ. It begins by acknowledging to God that you are helpless to overcome your own sins and that you need Jesus to give us new life. Shortly thereafter we need to actually come under his Lordship by obeying his teachings, joining a body of believers, reading his word, and talking to him regularly.
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Men With Stone Hearts: Becoming an Emotionally Mature Man

We may give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe only to God. Then they become gods: then they become demons. Then they will destroy us, and also destroy themselves. For natural loves that are allowed to become gods do not remain loves. They are still called so, but can become in fact complicated forms of hatred.

C.S. Lewis — the Four Loves

doodle_pro_2016-05-23t15_44_17zIn general, emotions are a difficult topic for men. This difficulty spans a broad spectrum, from emotionless stoicism on one end, to the uncontrolled passions of aggression, anger, lust, and ambition that have earned the male gender a reputation for acting as the bull in the china shop of their relationships. One of the hallmarks of a mature man is his ability to manage his emotions. This is not full repression of feeling and passionless existence. The stoic philosophers succeeded in producing incomplete men by attempting to avoid one of the fundamental strengths of man. God designed passion into men, that we might reflect his character. You cannot read the scriptures and miss God’s love, joy, sorrow, rage, and jealousy. In short, we were made in the image of a passionate God. Jesus was often angry.  He loved folks passionately.  He wept at the death of Lazarus, and he mourned over Jerusalem’s ongoing rebellion. It is important to understand that God’s passions are restrained by His will and holiness. Further, it is important to understand that these are qualities of God, they are not God himself.

C.S. Lewis explains this idea well by pointing out that “God is love”, but “love is not God.” Men can find it tempting to turn their passions into gods. It’s easy to do because in its finest state, love can resemble God. This is appropriate, being that God’s perfect love is one of His major attributes. However, when love, or any of our passions, is elevated to the level of a god to be worshipped, it quickly also becomes a demon. Lewis’ book exploring this topic focuses exclusively on love, and he is correct in asserting that love, apart from any of our passions, most tempts us to worship it as a god. However, I would argue that all of emotions and passions can quickly take control of our lives. A man who pretends that he experiences no lust is no more honest and right than a man who worships romantic love and connection, being led by the nose from romantic infatuation to infatuation. A man who follows his heart and his secretary’s short skirt away from his wife and children is not magically virtuous if he justifies it saying: “The heart wants what it wants” with the reverence of a man righteously worshipping romantic infatuation.

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We joke about men being emotionless, but it’s not really true. Watch a man jump up and down cheering on his sports team for proof of this idea.

Lewis classifies love into four categories: affection, charity, friendship, and Eros (romance). A man does well to exhibit each with zeal where appropriate; along with other emotional states, like anger, pride, sorrow, etc. The mark of a mature man is that he is not controlled by these emotions. A mature man doesn’t drop into fits of rage like a petulant child, flinging hurtful words at those around him in retribution for not getting his way. Rather, godly men control anger, using it judiciously to improve the world around them, imitating Christ in passionate pursuit of what is right and good in the creation. A righteous man strives to love his wife faithfully, devoting his romantic energies to her and investing in the relationship so as to strengthen the marriage, enjoy his wife, and model Christlike marriage to his children. This precludes his chasing after romantic trysts, allowing a momentary infatuation to ruin his family, or submitting to his lust by indulging in pornography. Maturity sees romantic love as a component of long term committed relationships. Love for life’s mission and goals is another area where passion can quickly overrule good sense and wreck a man’s good judgement and direction. This is often seen with ministers who sacrifice their marriage and family on the altar of ministry success. This is a passion that neglects the weightier things of mature, Godly manhood. A man’s pride will drive him to work tirelessly to provide for his family, but the same pride can lead him to abandon his family in favor of his work. Desire to win drives athletes to training and living lives dedicated to success, though the same desire to win can lead a man to cheat or compete dishonorably. These are only a few examples of powerful passions that can drive a man to accomplish great things or break him.

This is no easy task. It requires maturity, accountability, prayer, and learning to imitate Christ. Jesus repeatedly proclaimed that his actions were a reflection of the Father’s will and in pursuit of his earthly mission. Mature men learn to bring their passions into submission, not ruled by them. But rather harnessing them in the pursuit of life mission.

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