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Keeping Emotions within the Speed Limit

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When we let our emotions run way over a reasonable speed limit within relationships, we do a lot of damage to our spouse and children.

I drive a Ford Edge. OK, OK you can stop laughing now. I like my car!

It can’t exceed 80 MPH. Let me restate that to be more accurate: It will not exceed 80 MPH. In actuality, my Edge could easily exceed 120 MPH under the right conditions. But it can’t; it has a governor on it.

To a generation that’s been discouraged from tinkering under the hood of their car by the sheer sophistication of the modern automobile, you maybe have no idea what I’m talking about. Your concept of a governor has been confined to someone running your state. I didn’t say my car has a governor in it; it has one on it. Should I ever see the governor of my state hitch-hiking, I’ll stop and pick him up. Then I’d actually have a governor both on and in my car. Until then, back to the discussion of the one “on” my car.

The kind of governor I’m referring to is a device installed on the throttle of a car that limits how fast it can go. The folks at Ford know that the top speed on most freeways is 75 MPH. They know that most of the Police patrolling those highways will cut you some slack if you’re not more than 5 MPH over the posted limit. They also know that the faster you’re going when things go wrong, the worse the outcome for everyone concerned.

Thus, the governor on my car.

I can have it removed, but I choose not to.

I don’t take the governor off of the throttle of my car because I’ve seen enough of what happens when cars go out of control at high speeds.

Which illogically brings me to the issue of emotions, God love ‘em. We’re all assigned a set of them, but some people are clearly assigned a more sophisticated set of emotions than others. There are folks whose feelings can go from zero to euphoria in under six seconds. These same people can accelerate to rage, utter fear, or toxic gloom in less time than that. Some would say it’s a gift. And in certain circumstances it actually is—just like those occasional circumstances when it’s good to have a car that can go over 120 MPH.

But emotions seldom ride alone. They generally play out in close proximity to someone else—someone who usually has some kind of heart-connection to us. Unfortunately, they’re often forced to pay a huge price during those times when we drive way over the posted emotional speed limit.

If you’re the passenger in a car where the driver has suddenly accelerated to a frighteningly dangerous speed, you’re completely at their mercy. You may ask, plead, or beg them to slow down, but if they refuse, there’s little you can do but hold on and pray like mad for the best. To try to physically make them stop is to invite disaster. And when they do lose control of the vehicle, it’s not uncommon for the helpless passenger to pay the biggest price when it comes to the extent of the injuries.

It’s fairly obvious where I’m going with this. When we let our emotions run way over a reasonable speed limit within relationships, we do a lot of damage to our spouse and children. Excessive emotions are dangerous falsehoods.  They consistently tell us that things are better than they are or worse than they are. They make us angrier than what is called for, more afraid than what a threat dictates, and gloomier than what the facts say things actually are. When our over-the-top emotions are in reaction to the passenger(s) in our life at the moment, they can come off as caustic, overly critical, dehumanizing, mean-spirited, and downright nasty.

They can leave that child or spouse nursing some serious wounds for years—maybe even a lifetime—after our episode. Wounds received from someone else’s runaway emotions have a way of etching awful messages on to the hearts of these people closest to us.

If you happen to be one of those people whose emotions consistently struggle with a need for speed, God’s grace puts the responsibility on you to install a governor on your feelings. What would that look like?

  1. Acknowledge the obvious—your emotions demand too much of the people closest to you. This means admitting to yourself that you tend to let your fears, frustrations, or need for drama get the best of you. This kind of honesty isn’t hard to come by. Just say it: “I tend to be way too fearful.” “I embrace too much of a ‘scorched earth policy’ when I’m mad at someone.” “I allow my feelings to get stuck in deep holes that render me either useless or toxic to the people who depend on me the most.” “I tend to be a drama king/queen.”
  2. Confess the obvious—out-of-control emotions are ways that you practice the sin of selfishness. I know that stings, but it is what it is. The road to recovery starts with being honest with reality.
  3. Drive the speed limit. In other words, submit your emotions to the best interests of your spouse, children, and friends. Every time you talk about something deep and emotional with your spouse, it doesn’t mean you have to drag out all of the disappointments of the past or make it a huge roll-around-in-our-mess-fest. There’s no need to be competing for an Oscar every time you feel out loud. And your kids would prefer that they not spend their childhood at the foot of a volcano either. Paul made this an easy call. He said, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4).
  4. Allow the people closest to you to administer speeding tickets until you can figure out how to drive within the emotional speed limit. We had a “What’s Your Beef” meal every few weeks with our kids where they could respectfully voice any of the ways I or my wife had abused our authority, humiliated them, or caused them unnecessary angst. We wanted to show them that they have permission to speak into us if/when we step over emotional lines. And there was only one thing my wife or I were allowed to do, and that was apologize. We wanted them to know they had an outlet to be candid with us when we stepped over the line—and that they didn’t have to wait for the next “What’s Your Beef” night to voice it.  When it comes to my wife and I, we can throw up the “time out” signal with our hands when one feels the other person is putting the peddle to the metal too much emotionally. It simply means, “This is getting a bit out of hand. Let’s ratchet back the drama to a safe level.”

Of course all of these are seen as nonsense if we’re living our lives in self-absorption. But when we’ve allowed the grace that God saved us with to become the grace that leads the way in our relationships, the one thing we should want to do is steward our emotions well.

That’s why most of us would do ourselves and everyone close to us a favor if we’d install a governor on our emotions, and keep it there.

You might want to get one on your car too. If not, at least honk and wave at me the next time you pass me in my Ford Edge.

 

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