5 Emotional Lessons I Learned From a Relational Train Wreck

8 min. to read.

If you’re paying attention, you might have wondered where I wandered off to.

No blog posts in nearly a month. No shared resources on my Author page. Even the Question of the Day and Evening Quote disappeared for a few days. A friend asked me if I’d resigned from Facebook. What’s been going on?

Well, truth be told, I’ve been busy crawling through the wreckage of an emotional train wreck.

I thought I’d share a little of my story, and some of the emotional lessons I’ve learned.  It’s as good a way as any I can think of to get back on track.

Caution. Accident Ahead.

The event that derailed me happened almost four weeks ago. In the course of a normal gathering, something went terribly awry. Emotions exploded. Things got personal. Relationships frayed. Unexpectedly I was suddenly trying to keep all the cars on the track, desperate to negotiate the situation so that everyone would just be OK.

But that didn’t happen. My intentions were to help, but my actions just made things worse. It was a disaster.

But that’s not the story I want to tell. I want to share with you what happened for me afterwards and a few of the things I’ve been learning as I crawled through the aftermath.

The initial wreckage spilled out of that meeting and into my life (as I’m sure it did for the others there.) My gut was constantly churning with anxiety. Unless submerged in a book or the TV, my mind was a sinkhole into the “What if?” and “What next?” mire. The things I do for health and growth—working out, personal reflection, spiritual exercises, taking vitamins, getting a decent sleep — were just more cars buckling off the track as the train derailed.

I found myself awash in despair, anxiety, and anger. My attitude turned dour and harsh. My motivation evaporated.

Try Not to Waste a Disaster, OK?

Things are just starting to turn the corner. As I write this post I can feel the motivation starting to creep in.

In reflecting on the last weeks, a number of important things have emerged for me. So, without further delay, here are some lessons I learned from an emotional train wreck.

1. I was not feeling my emotions for a reason!

I’ve been in a process of emotional recovery for the last three years, with great support from a counselor and good friends. I’ve become much more aware of my emotions. I spent most of my life profoundly disconnected from them. I guess there’s a reason for that. Some emotions suck! These weeks anxiety and grief have been overwhelming.

As painful as it’s been, I’m glad that I felt so much these past weeks. In the past all I would have felt was anger and a ball of twisting intensity and nausea in my gut. This time I could identify fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, loss, confusion, and pain around my identity. That’s not a fun list, but I’m glad to know I can feel and name them.

Not feeling was a way to avoid these painful things. Only you don’t really avoid them. Burying painful emotion hurts your heart, your relationships and your capacity to hear from God. So, I’m thankful for a month of painful emotions.

2. Feeling emotions takes energy.

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been beating myself up over not moving forward. Before this happened, it was on the schedule for someone else to speaking at Bridge City for two weeks. I was excited to take that time and really move my online course project forward. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have it in me. I could hardly get out of bed.

At first I was really frustrated with myself over this. But I wasn’t attending to how much energy it takes to process so much emotion. I had grieving to do. I had deep thinking to do. That takes time and energy. As I’ve worked these things through, I’ve begun to find more energy.

If you have an emotional trauma in your life, make sure to give yourself the time necessary to process, heal and reflect. It may look like you’re not doing much, but the truth is you’re doing very hard internal work.

Everyone has experiences.  The people who grow stop and pay attention.  Photo Credit:  Patrick Makhoul
Everyone has experiences. The people who grow stop and pay attention. Photo Credit: Patrick Makhoul

3. Creativity takes emotional energy.

There were several times when I’d turn on my computer, open to a blank page, and just sit staring. There was nothing. Then I got frustrated with myself because I was trying to meet my self-imposed imaginary deadline.

In the first week or so, I just flogged myself. My internal dialogue was so demanding! “Get the next blog post done. Come on. My page views are going to drop! Get the Facebook page set up for the next few days. Come on. You made a commitment!”

It took a while for me to just let all of that go admitting that I needed the rest and space and healing.  If you’re trying to be creative, make sure you’re preparing the soil of your heart. Being creative is an act of vulnerability. It takes emotional energy. Like me, you may need to give yourself time to process grief and loss, so that you have something to offer again later.

4. I still (unrealistically) expect myself to get it right.

One of the most difficult parts of the last few weeks was how painful it felt for me to feel like I had failed relationally. I spent hours thinking through what I could have done differently, and how each little change in word or action would have affected everyone in the room.

All my old patterns — personal value rooted in competency, identity based in people being pleased with me — surged with power. This is especially painful because this is one area that I’ve tackled with great care in my counseling. I had thought I was being much more gracious with myself, thought I’d come to a place where I was able to unhook my personal value from these external things. Ha! All it took was a good storm to bring it fresh to the surface.

If you’re like me, then performance is a big deal. My story and temperament had made my performance a key part of my sense of value. Trust me — this is a terrible place to build your value. It is truly a foundation of sand.

5. It’s not my job to make sure everyone is OK.

I jumped into this mess to begin with because people I cared about were not OK. They were hurting and were hurting each other. I wanted to protect, to shield, to drag the group to a place where everyone would hear each other. But then stepping in, I hurt people too.

In part I charged into that space because my value was on the line. I needed everyone to be OK — not for them, but for me. That was a critical mistake. My value can’t be based on whether the people around me are doing OK. My value can’t be based on whether people approve and affirm of me.

I am called to love, to act out of compassion. I am called to treat the people around me the way I’d like to be treated, even better, to engage them with grace, forgiveness, and a gentle invitation to grow. But whether they choose that path or not is not up to me, and I can’t let their choice dictate how I will act.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey

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I’m sure more will emerge as I do more reflecting, but I had to get started somewhere. Maybe this post is too personal, or too raw. I don’t know. But I knew that in order to get back on the horse, I needed to just get something written and shared. So here you go.  (And, if by chance, you’re one of the small circle of community that experienced this train wreck yourself, I’d ask that you limit any comments you share here to your own lessons. This was an attempt to process my own experience in a way that doesn’t throw anyone under the bus.  I’d appreciate your help in that.)

If you’re in an emotional whirlwind, know you’re not alone. I can relate. And never forget, even the most painful moments are an opportunity for us to grow. John Dewey, a philosopher and teacher, put it this way: “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

6 thoughts on “5 Emotional Lessons I Learned From a Relational Train Wreck

  1. I’m so glad I stopped to read your blog post. I’ve been in a state of grief since…oh, mid-August, over a friendship (same sex, completely platonic) that I thought ran deeper that she did. I’m getting over it, yes, but your points #2 & #3 helped me out a lot. It’s OK for me to not feel guilty about only getting myself dressed & walking the dogs on some days because I really didn’t have the energy.
    Number 3 was especially important for me as I have 2 live veins of creativity. I sculpt and write, and found myself aggravated because I couldn’t get a blog post written(besides having files of notes), and I couldn’t bring myself to complete any art projects, even though I have some started.
    Thank you for taking the risk to be so transparent with your processes.
    I’ve been rearranging my office ( a bit at a time 🙂 ) so I have encouragement from fellow writers & artists all around me; their words or pictures are very comforting places for my eyes to wander as I seek my muses.
    Please know I will keep you in my prayers. I don’t need to know any specifics–you know, and God knows, and that’s enough.

    1. Cyn, thanks for leaving your comment. That really encourages me. I’m so sorry for the loss you’ve had. The waves of grief and the process of understanding just takes the time it takes. Thanks for the prayers, too!

      I love the idea of surrounding yourself with the art and words of others. It becomes a “cloud of witnesses” that can encourage you forward.

  2. Marc, I kept nodding my head as I read this. I felt every word in my heart. I, too, tend to swallow my emotions, under the false notion that I need to be the strong one when things fall apart.

    After going through three rapid-fire crises, I couldn’t go on and I collapsed in physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t get dressed, I hardly ate.

    But, I did sit with my Bible. A lot of times I didn’t read, I just held it. It took weeks for me to feel God’s presence again. Slowly, he lifted me up. And lifted me up time and time again because I kept withdrawing.

    Eventually, I began to write down on scrapes of paper what I was feeling and what he was saying to me, They were strung all over the house. It was a long time before I made any connections between all he was teaching me. I don’t journal on any consistent basis but, when a scripture or a devotion or a blog like yours touches me, I write about it.

    Some days that’s the only writing I do. I do manage to keep up with my M/Th blogging but it’s an effort. It does require me to focus my thoughts in some orderly fashion and I need that!

    I’ve babbled on, but I wanted you to know that your post blessed me, and to tell you that you’re not alone. You will be in my prayers.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think one of the weirdest struggles is the idea so many of us get that we are the *only ones* who have been through what we’ve been through. It’s helpful to hear other folks share similar experiences. Blessings on your healing and recovery, and thanks for leaving a comment.

  3. I was just thinking a week or two ago about you and wondering why you dropped off the map. But my own life has been, um, busy – emotionally, chronistically, relationally, and spiritually.

    Good job sharing this step Marc!

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