Posted on April 23, 2023 by Ruth Barz, tLMHC
Most of us, at one time or another, have run out of gas in our car. We meant to fill the tank yesterday, but we were too busy. Or we drove just a bit farther in search of the lowest gas prices, but our tank was empty before we found the best deal.
Or maybe you have experienced the physical effects of not eating or drinking enough. Suddenly you are so tired or even feel faint, and then you realize your last meal or drink of water was way too long ago.
Have you ever felt that in your life you were “operating on empty” or “running on fumes?” Perhaps you are not sure what I mean by that question. Just as your car needs gas and your body needs nutritional fuel to run properly, you also need relational fuel to be the person God created you to be.
What is relational fuel? “Acceptance, validation, comfort, encouragement, respect, hope, forgiveness, perspective, insight, challenge, feedback” are just a few examples of the relational nutrients that Dr. John Townsend describes in his book People Fuel (2019). Even though many of us have family, friends, and significant others who provide the above mentioned “fuel,” many of us are more comfortable meeting the needs of others than asking for our own needs to be met. Perhaps we grew up in families where we were taught that asking for things for ourselves was selfish, or made us look weak, or would be too much of a burden for others. Maybe we tried to be vulnerable, but it was met with rejection and hurt. At times we experience shame, thinking that something we have done or thought is so bad that if others knew about it they would judge us or leave us.
Yet the Bible is filled with passages that talk not only about our desperate need for God, but also about the fact that He created us to need one another. Amid the creation story, we read, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2: 18). This is not just talking about marriage but about relationship with other humans. Even though the world was perfect at this point, and God and Adam had a “perfect connection,” God had still made humans to need other humans. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 further emphasizes this simple truth, that God made people to need other people: “Woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up” (v. 10).
God does meet our needs — through His love, mercy, and salvation found in His Word, sacraments, and sacrifice. But God also puts us in relationship with others, and not just so we can give (which is important), but also so that we can receive “relational nutrients” from others. Relational needs affect not only our emotional health and our relationships, but our physical health as well. Much research points to how trauma (which certainly blocks relational needs being met) can eventually lead to all kinds of physical brokenness. Even our ability to be productive and successful in life is affected by our “relational nutrients.” So, if these nutrients are so important, how can we make sure we get them?
There is not one easy answer to this question. But from my training at the Townsend Institute, I learned that it has a lot to do with the process of growth in our lives. Dr. Townsend uses a tree model to illustrate this growth. In the same way that the healthiness of a tree’s fruit or leaves depends on the healthiness of its roots and trunk, Dr. Townsend explains that our relationships with people, our performance in life, and our own personal behavior, thoughts, and emotions are affected by the health of our “trunk.” The trunks of our trees consists of four areas which help us meet our daily life challenges:
There are many ways in which we can get stuck on our path to growth, unable to take in “relational nutrients.” We may need help healing from sin that was done to us. Or it may be our own sinful nature that keeps us from receiving these nutrients. In either case, Christ has died to heal this brokenness. Christ promised that He will never leave us or forsake us (Isaiah 41:10). Yet, Christ also provides people to help us on this journey. If you find yourself running on empty and realizing that you are deficient in “relational nutrients” I encourage you to reach out for counseling using our web form at https://lutheranfamilyservice.org/contact/. We were made for connection in relationship. We were not made to thrive alone, and we do not have to.
Many of the ideas in this blog and specific terms are drawn from John Townsend. (2019). People Fuel: Fill Your Tank for Life, Love, and Leadership. Zondervan.
More posts about Mental Health