Being Human: On Having Emotions

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My life over the past few weeks has been a roller coaster of emotions – a lot of different stressors and challenges that have tested me. Nothing earth-shattering, mind you, just the usual life stuff. Life can be overwhelming sometimes, right?

For example, I’m visiting campuses with my daughter right now as she’s off to university next year. I am so happy and proud of her, but at the same time, I realize that I’m grieving the loss of this stage in my life as a parent. The letting go part is so hard. When did I go from being her favourite person in the world to the person she’s eager to leave? Any parents know what I’m talking about??

Part of my challenge in being a psychologist is I know all of the “normal” responses I’m supposed to have. I know my daughter is individuating from me and that is a good and healthy thing to happen. If I fight it, not only would I interfere with her healthy development, but I might end up with my kids living in my basement playing video games until their 30s. Uh-uh, not part of my life plan!

I know all of the “positive thinking” strategies you’re supposed to use and all of the proper responses you “should” do to navigate through the ups and downs of life with resilience. I know all of the biblical responses of “trusting God” and “leaning” on him. Listen, no one needs to preach them to me, I tell them to myself regularly.

But I realize that in my “expertise” as a psychologist and my knowledge as a Christian, I regularly talk myself out of my feelings. I don’t give myself permission to be honest with others about how I truly feel. I forget that I am human – that in my humanity, I feel. I hurt. I doubt. I fret.

And what is it that I need during those times? Grace. Encouragement. Acceptance. I don’t need to chastise myself for feeling, I don’t need to shut it all down for fear of being “sinful”, and I don’t need to judge myself for my “weakness”. Maybe I just need to accept my feelings with non-judgement, allow myself to feel them, and soothe and comfort myself – or reach out for that care from others and from God. Hmmm… Is this maybe how God has wired us to be? Emotional? Relational? Didn’t Jesus experience the gamut of intense emotions during his time on earth and yet he did not sin?

On Having Emotions

As Christians, many of us have grown up believing our emotions are the root of much evil, and so our responsibility as mature adults and committed Christians is to keep a tight control over our feelings, lest we succumb to temptation. And so the whole idea of “letting it hang out” is detestable and foreign to us. It may feel sinful and indulgent, surely not scriptural. It is with respect that I correct that thought because in fact, God has designed us live life fully in love with Him, our “heart, soul and mind.” All emotions are a gift from God — passion and delight and joy and happiness all come from facing the truth when we’re feeling their opposites. Every honest emotion has importance in any relationship, both with God and with others. Most of us simply need to learn what they really are and how to express them.

In therapy, we often teach our clients to acknowledge their emotions and accept how they feel without judgment. Our emotions aren’t “right” or “wrong,” they simply are, and when we can accept and express them, there is relief and the negative feelings lose their power to hurt our hearts and destroy others. Unacknowledged emotions always control us in one way or another – the more they are buried and ignored, the greater the power they gain to wreak damage in our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

Our emotions are signals to pay attention to what needs attending to and we must learn to respond accordingly. They are meant to alert us to what is going on and to do something about it. If I feel angry, that may be my signal to speak up for myself, to set boundaries, or put a stop to something that is harmful. Ignoring my emotions means forfeiting emotional health and resolution of problems – it means reburying my head in the sand. And unfortunately, as it gets deeper and deeper, more unresolved issues build up and it can often escalate into painful crises. Meanwhile, what could have been a molehill can become more like a mountain and ultimately create a lot of havoc in your life and everyone around you.

Emotions are incredibly powerful tools and learning to respect and use them can be at the root of amazing accomplishments. They can release us to be driven by our passions and strong beliefs, but unresolved, they are also at the root of consequences as devastating as abuse, self-harm and even murder. It’s no wonder many are taught to stuff them and ruthlessly shut down and ignore how we feel.

Yet recent studies of our brain indicate that all of our decisions and actions are motivated by our emotions, whether we feel them at a conscious level or not. No matter how “logical” we may want to be, it turns out we cannot divorce our decisions from our emotions. And if those emotions are bottled up and pressurized, eventually, they’ll have to come out. So if you’re unaware of your emotions and you don’t learn to pay attention to your inner world, you can be sabotaged by your emotions time and time again without understanding why, and more importantly without having enough self-awareness to change the way you respond to a given situation.

Remember, God isn’t repulsed by our negative feelings; but because he loves us, he wants us to come to Him to process our emotions and then seek His wisdom to choose how we respond. How we feel is simply how we feel, it isn’t “good” or “evil.” When we shame our emotions, we end up preventing the processing we need to resolve them. Finding permission to feel what we feel is the key to finally examining and responding well.

Well, I can preach it but it’s another thing to practice it! It only took me several long weeks before I finally gave myself permission to be human. To feel. It’s not weakness to acknowledge our emotions, and it’s not spiritual maturity to pretend that we don’t feel any negative emotions.

Our Inner Critics

Even worse, we are often our own worst critics – I witness this all the time in my office. There is so much unintended suffering because of what we do and say to ourselves. We would never allow anyone to speak to our children this way, yet we regularly spew vicious curses towards ourselves.

Think about it: the violent and hateful words we use on ourselves are often so malicious. You’re so stupid. What an idiot you are! Stop being such a baby. Loser. Listen to yourself sometime: how often do you use negative self-talk, self-criticism and self-judgement? How often do you beat yourself up for your perceived weaknesses and failures?

My friends, somehow I don’t think this is God’s intent for our lives. He chose to send Jesus to make the ultimate sacrifice for me and you – so now it is finished. There is no need for condemnation or judgement because Jesus took that judgement away from us (Romans 8:1). Contrary to what many of us believe, I think when God thinks of us, he takes great delights in us and he rejoices over us (Zephaniah 3:17). The Bible says that God sings over us! Picture that incredible image and believe it because it is true. He’s not standing over us like some harsh old judge, shaking his finger at us in anger. Maybe your preacher does that or your parents have – but that is not God.

Our Father – who knows all of our warts and mess-ups – thinks of us as his beloved children. He accepts us as we are and gives us the gift of grace. Because he knows that’s what we need. As I’ve often said before, change can only happen in the soil of grace. Truth takes root only when grace has prepared the soil of our hearts.

Can we offer ourselves some grace? Can we accept our humanity? And can we extend that grace and acceptance towards others? Maybe instead of trying to talk them out of their feelings, we can just sit with them and accept where they’re at emotionally.  How often in our desire to help others do we end up shutting them down with logic or trite phrases like “you’ll be okay” or “just trust in God”?  Just listen and be there with them.  Who’s hurting in your life right now who needs some grace?  Is that person you?

We won’t show the world we are Jesus followers by how good we are, or how righteous we are. That isn’t biblical and frankly, this ain’t something we can do. Jesus tells us in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Not judge, not criticize, not condemn. But love.  But here’s an important thought to end with:  as you obey him and love others, make sure you offer that same grace and acceptance to yourself.


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