A picture of a home, teetering precariously on the edge of a large hole in the earth, flashed across my computer screen. The enormous hole looked like a giant straw ready to suck in anything within reach. What I was looking at was a sinkhole, a massive void in the soil that opens up as the strata below the surface dissolves.

Sinkholes are scary because they are deadly and can happen without warning. They are very unpredictable in the sense that it is hard to really know how big they may be. What often starts as a small sinking of the earth can grow exponentially to a huge cavernous black void descending hundreds of feet.

Similar to physical sinkholes, there are times when we are swallowed up by emotional sinkholes. You can tell when this is happening because it comes on suddenly and it feels as if things are out control.

As with a sinkhole in the earth, there are things that we can do when we encounter an emotional sinkhole to lessen the danger and overcome the hazard. One of the first things we must do is learn to identify when we are being swallowed by an emotional sinkhole, by paying attention to our thinking, getting curious about our thoughts, and engaging our emotions.

Here are some common emotional sinkholes I’ve experienced. When you find any of these happening, it’s very helpful to stop and think about what we are thinking and feeling:

  • Overreaction: Have you ever had a tender spot that you weren’t aware of until you accidentally hit it? You become aware of the previous injury because the pain is completely out of proportion to the present infliction. This can happen to us emotionally too, so when you find yourself overreacting, the odds are you may be entering a sinkhole that you need to explore.
  • Numbing: Rather than stand and face a difficult emotional situation, people oftentimes try to deny that conflict is there. We do this with drugs, alcohol, sex, and a whole host of activities, including just “numbing out” and pretending the problem isn’t there. It may make us feel safer when we deny the tiger in the corner of the room, but that doesn’t make him go away. Numbing happens when pretend that we don’t care or pretend the problem doesn’t exist.
  • Stuffing: This is similar to numbing, except in the case of stuffing we don’t deny the problem, we just refuse to engage it, and we do so repeatedly to the point that the stuffing leads to overreacting or a breakdown in our physical body. Stuffing is an avoidance-conflict sinkhole that will sooner or later swallow us up. People who stuff often tell themselves that they aren’t facing the problem because doing so won’t fix anything anyway. They fail to realize that facing issues will actually help them emotionally even if it doesn’t fix the problem at hand.
  • High-centering: A vehicle becomes high-centered when the undercarriage gets stuck on a large rock or berm. It can’t move because all the wheels come off the ground. Emotional high-centering happens when we become emotionally overwhelmed, unable to move and act. It is like the deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car. Unlike overeating, when we are emotionally high-centered we are “under-acting” because we are on an emotional overlaod.

Identifying our emotional sinkholes will go a long way toward helping us to live as the well-balanced, disciplined, whole-hearted people God wants us to be.