Emotional Concussions

This morning while listening to the audiobook League of Denial, which is about the NFL’s attempts to downplay and deny the serious links between football and degenerative brain damage, it struck me that the athletes themselves were in an untenable position. Imagine trying to defend yourself while suffering the many problems of a dysfunctional brain, including memory loss, severe mood swings, and an inability to concentrate. And imagine doing this when you’ve been part of a macho culture that teaches everyone to just suck it up and deal with the pain.

Yet people are still playing football, and their brains are still getting permanently damaged, along with those playing many other contact sports. And they’ll continue to suffer the predictable consequences. Our brains are not battering rams.

This got me thinking about the emotional equivalent, whereby people subject themselves to doing long-term damage to their minds through emotional neglect.

For instance, people deliberately take heartless jobs to pay their bills, subjecting themselves to a form of long-term emotional abuse. They overwork themselves and refuse to make sufficient time for play and relaxation. They neglect their health. They fail to practice good stress reduction methods.

Again and again we see the pattern where emotionally concussed people put themselves in situations where they’ll clearly be subjected to further emotional concussions, like the football player who takes a hard pounding, sees stars for a moment, and goes right back out on the field again.

Deep down I think many people know this will take a toll on them, but what they don’t necessarily see is that their damaged and neglected emotions are making it worse for them. Their concussed hearts are inviting further emotional concussions to occur because the heart isn’t aware enough to say no to that.

When your emotions are functioning well, and you consider taking a heartless job, your feelings will scream at you: WTF are you doing? No way! We’re not doing that! You’ll feel the intense wrongness of an idea that isn’t heart-aligned because your emotional intelligence is working properly.

Hence, if you seriously consider taking a heartless job, consider that there may be something very wrong with your emotional intelligence. If your feelings were functioning properly, they wouldn’t steer you down a path that’s likely to invite further emotional concussions, just as a rational and fully functioning brain wouldn’t encourage you to bash your head around.

But when you subject yourself to long-term emotional neglect and abuse (or if you’ve been subjected to this by acts not of your choosing), the damage accumulates slowly over time. You can’t trust the advice your mind feeds you any more than a brain-damaged athlete can trust that drinking anti-freeze is a good idea.

Recognizing that you can’t trust your feelings is a hard realization, but if you’ve suffered the equivalent of repeated emotional concussions, then your emotional intelligence could be severely lacking.

I fell into this trap when I was younger, as my emotions kept generating passion and excitement around illegal activities. I sabotaged myself academically and got expelled from college. I got arrested 4 times in 18 months and barely avoided a prison sentence. By trusting my erratic emotions, I was led astray into major irrational behavior. The safest thing I could do at the time was bury myself in video games.

Part of my recovery process was to stop trusting my feelings and letting them run my life. Another significant part of the process was that I started cleaning up my diet and exercising regularly. That helped rebalance my feelings, and the further I went down that path, the more I was able to rebuild trust and stability with my emotions. Now I trust my feelings implicitly. They’re a tremendously valuable guide, especially in business and relationships. I naturally find my head and heart agreeing on a wide variety of decisions.

I feel more emotionally resilient these days, and my feelings naturally steer me away from situations that would predictably invite emotional concussions. But the toughest part of recovery was to admit and accept that I was doing the equivalent of concussing myself. I was ruining my own life, and I absolutely needed to stop putting myself in situations that were going to invite further self-damage.

I feel lucky that I was able to turn around and go a different direction. Not everyone is so lucky.

If there is to be any kind of recovery, facing the truth is the first step. Denial must stop for healing to be possible.

When you look at your life and the situations that you invite and accept, do you need to make some kind of admission to yourself about a pattern of emotional self-concussion? Are you repeatedly showing up to situations that will predictably lead to more emotional concussions? Do you imagine that a fully functional heart-brain alliance would advise you to do what you’re currently doing with your life?

Self-trust is wonderful, but it needs to be rooted in rationality. If you’re inviting physical or emotional concussions through your decisions, admit to yourself that this isn’t rational behavior. Accept that it’s time to embark on a journey of healing. That journey may or may not succeed, but there are countless stories of people who have recovered from great physical and emotional trauma, and a common starting point was deciding that healing must finally become a priority.

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site stevepavlina.com and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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