I was listening to a podcast the other day and heard something about how our brains work that blew me away. As a husband, father, son, brother and friend, hearing this made me realize all the more how thirsty the loved ones in my life really are for authentic blessing from me.
First, a disclaimer. I’m not a medical doctor. Nor am I a psychologist. Or a counselor. Or a pastor. I’m a flawed man who is committed to build a legacy of surrender, simplicity and significance. To help me along the way, I honor the legacy of Jesus Christ, who I believe is the most authentic, selfless and sinless man that ever walked the earth. I also stay connected to the best community of authentic Christian men I’ve ever known – The Crucible Project. And I read and listen to lots of positive and encouraging things like podcasts. And when I hear something worth sharing, I do. So, here we go:
- When we are criticized, or feel threatened (“You disappointed me,” “You’re a failure,” “You’re never going to make it.”) our brains release a neurotransmitter into our bloodstream called cortisol. It regulates how we react to stress and stimulates the “fight or flight” response to how we perceive a harmful event, attack or threat. Corisol also manifests stress. Once released, coritsol can stay in us for 26 hours.
- On the other hand, when we’re affirmed or blessed by others (“I see gold in you,” “You have what it takes,” “You’re such a gifted XXX,”) our brains release a different neurotransmitter called Oxytocin. It helps regulate and stimulate our sense of trust, acceptance, belonging and contentment. It also helps draw out our best talents and gifts. Once released, oxytocin stays in us for only 2
2 hours versus 26. Wow! A couple of other ways to look at it:
- A word of criticism has 13 times the emotional impact as a word of blessing.
- One word of criticism can literally wipe out one month’s worth of blessings.
Just as our bodies require clean air, water and nutritious food to thrive, our souls require authentic, sincere blessing. Research shows that in order for us to feel balanced and accepted, most of us need 5-6 affirmations daily for every criticism – or perceived threat – that we receive. But, most of us are not getting it. And when we do, it doesn’t stick around very long. Conversely, many of us may not be giving blessing to our loved ones. And that’s what I really want to write about.
What This Means
This cortisol/oxytocin disparity explains a lot of things. First, it makes me think with awe and wonder of how God created us. God created our chemical makeup to know that we’d have to spend a whole lot more time giving each other affirmation and blessing than we do criticism, judgment or condemnation.
It also helps me better understand the “stickiness” factor of negative messages and stories that I play over and over in my head. Despite the extensive work have done in my faith walk, through the Crucible Project, and in other ways, I still give a lot of power to those negative messages. The cortisol lingers. My guess is that might be true for many of us.
This dynamic might help explain the results of a recent Gallup Survey. When people were asked if they would rather know about their strengths or their weaknesses, overwhelmingly (59% in the United States), people chose that they’d rather know their weaknesses. Lots of things factor into this, I believe. Our educational system (one F versus multiple As and Bs), our workplace (high performer, low performer, etc.), our culture (who’s in, who’s out).
Water For A Thirsty Boy
The cortisol/oxytocin disparity also helps me appreciate those moments when true, authentic affirmation has come my way … like a cup of cold, clear and refreshing water to a tired and desperately thirsty man who had been wandering in the desert.
There’s one time I can vividly remember. My dad was the one who extended the cup of water. And I’ve been drinking from it ever since. Like most men, as boys we’re often most hopeful for affirmation from our dad. I loved my dad. He was a good man. But, my dad had a challenging, sad and lonely childhood. Things like blessing and affirmation were not modeled for him. In his 68 years, his brain probably released a whole lot more cortisol than he did oxytocin. As a result, my dad didn’t always know – or understand — how to give blessing and affirmation to others.
But one night during my sophomore year of high school, we were sitting at the dinner table. I can remember exactly where I was. Out of the blue, my dad said something to the effect of: “You know Jeff, I believe you’re a really good writer. Maybe you should go down to the newspaper and see if they’ll give you a chance to write for them.”
I was speechless. Dad saw a unique gift and talent that he called out. PLUS … he planted a seed on what I could do with it. The next day, I walked into our town newspaper after school and asked an editor to give me a shot. He did. And, in some capacity, I’ve been writing ever since. That was 33 years ago.
Water For Our Loved Ones
I’m inconsistent about lots of things. I should spend more time in God’s word than I do. I should exercise more than I do. I should eat more vegetables. But … I’m grateful that I’ve been pretty consistent about blessing my loved ones. Namely my daughter and wife. Perhaps it comes from a longing that I felt for much of my life.
Fortunately, the men in The Crucible Project model this for me regularly. I completed my initial Crucible weekend long before I became a father. And I thank God for that. Because on that initial weekend, The Crucible Project gave me my first real taste of the impact of extending blessing to others.
I’ve had other great examples too, such as the senior pastor of my church. More than once, he’s shared a story about a bedtime blessing ritual that he did with his daughter for years. And when I first heard it, I decided to emulate it when I became a father.
Every night, he’d make it a practice to be home by bedtime so he could tuck in his little girl. And when he did, every night he’d bless her with something to the effect of this: “You know, of all the millions and millions of girls that God put on planet earth, I thank Him every day that God chose me to be your Dad.” Then my pastor would follow it with an example of something good and true he had seen in his daughter that day. Those were the last words that little girl heard every single night. He said their ritual continued into young adulthood. I’m guessing it never got old for her.
I do my own version of a bedtime blessing every night with my daughter. We’ve been at it for more than 8 years running. I’ve asked her a couple of times if she ever gets tired of it. And every time, she says “No, Dad … never.”
Recently, I’ve extended the practice of a bedtime blessing to my wife as well. You see, she grew up without a dad. And, as my wife has watched this nightly ritual unfold for my daughter and I, my wife grew increasingly thirsty for it. For me, ending my day by blessing my loved ones gives me true joy and contentment.
In Hebrews 3, God’s word says “But encourage one another daily. As long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
So … I encourage and implore you, men. Extend a cup of blessing to your loved ones. Establish a ritual of blessing in your home. Show your loved ones “the gold” that you see in them. Share with them what you love about them. Be sincere. Be authentic. Be consistent. Our loved ones are thirsty.
By Jeff Madsen
Jeff completed his initial Crucible weekend in 2008 and graduated from our two-year transformational program. His mission is to build a legacy of surrender, simplicity and significance. Jeff is the owner of Legacy Nation LLC, an independent corporate communications practice based in suburban Chicago. He is passionate about equipping men with a LifePlan so they can discover their God-given legacies.
Photo Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives via Creative Commons
Podcast Credit: Paterson Podcast (you’ll find it in iTunes)