By TJ Poon
- How were emotions (especially “negative” ones like sadness or anger) handled in your home?
- How does that influence what you feel or do when you experience negative emotions today? For example, have you noticed that you classify some emotions as “good” and some as “bad” and try to avoid the “bad” ones?
Picture your emotions as a stream running through your life. Naturally, we will experience a variety of emotions over the course of an hour or a day, and when they are allowed to move freely, they will keep flowing through and then out of us. Denying that our feelings exist, or judging them as bad, is like building a dam in our emotional stream. The feelings can no longer move on, and they begin to build up. As an alternative metaphor, writer and researcher Emily Nagoski compares processing emotions to going through a tunnel. It may be dark and scary at times, but processing the negative emotions will help you to get through it and see the light again. Not moving through or processing the emotion just means that you stay in the tunnel longer.
- Have you ever experienced this?
- Is it intuitive or counterintuitive to you to consider that facing your emotions allows you to move on from them?
Psalm 139 and other scriptures remind us that there is nothing within us that takes God by surprise, including our emotions. While our emotions don’t surprise God, they often surprise us! Most of us have absorbed unhelpful messages about emotions from our family, our culture, or even our religious upbringing. Consciously or unconsciously, we believe that some emotions (like happiness, gratitude, optimism, joy) are good and that some (like anger, sadness, melancholy, frustration) are bad. Believing that certain emotions are bad keeps us disconnected from our true emotional self, since we become invested in avoiding “badness.” The result is that we often live in complete unawareness of how we are really feeling on the inside.
The first step of embracing ourselves as emotional beings is to learn to acknowledge our inner feelings. Jesus knew the power of inner identification – not only did Jesus admit his own hunger, tiredness, grief, and anger, but in his interactions with people, he also often asked people to identify what was in their hearts.
- Why are you terrified? (Matt 8:26)
- Why do you ask me about what is good? (Matt 19:16)
- What do you want me to do for you? (Matt 20:32)
- Even if Jesus could perceive some of these things on his own, why do you think it was important for him to ask these questions of others?
- What do you experience when you’re asked a question about your internal feelings or motivations?
The writer James Baldwin famously said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” That wisdom applies to our emotional selves as well. No feeling will shift or pass through us until it is faced. We can define facing our feelings as first acknowledging and then accepting them.
Once we are aware of a feeling, we may apply a judgment to it. For example, you may notice that you feel jealous of a friend’s success, and because jealousy is an emotion that is often labeled “bad,” you may do everything you can to ignore or dismiss that feeling. Feelings that we don’t acknowledge, or feel like we can’t acknowledge because they are “bad” ironically have more control over us than feelings we accept.
Accepting your feelings means accepting that they are. Maybe you think it isn’t great that you’re jealous of your friend’s success, but whether you think it’s great or not doesn’t change the fact that your jealousy is present. Acknowledging that it is there and accepting that it is part of your experience opens you up to curiosity: “Wow, I really feel jealous about that. I wonder where that’s coming from? I wonder what messages I’m believing about success?” Curiosity and compassion will take us much further than judgment or shame ever could.
- How long does it usually take you to be in touch with how you’re feeling or what your desires are?
- How comfortable are you expressing when you’re upset or angry?
- What steps can you take this week to acknowledge and accept your emotions?
As Christians, we are well-conditioned to look at modifying our behavior, but successful behavioral change doesn’t occur until the heart changes. And in order for the heart to change, we must understand and acknowledge what is going on inside.
David Benner, author of The Gift of Being Yourself, clearly articulates this concept. He says, “There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self, and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.” Therefore, if we do not accept our full range of emotions (especially the ones we’ve deemed negative), then we do not fully know ourselves, and thereby we limit our knowledge of God.
Our emotions are a gift to us, revealing who we are and how we’re doing in life and in our relationships. They communicate what we need. If we are willing to do the work of acknowledging, accepting, and becoming curious about our feelings, they can open up new pathways of intimacy and connection with God, ourselves, and others.
- The spiritual practice of Examen can help us begin to pause, be aware of our feelings and connect with God in the truth of our feelings.
- Familiarizing yourself with a feelings wheel can help grow capacity for recognizing and naming all of the different human emotions. Taking time to ask, “how do I feel?” and “what do I need?” can strengthen this ability further.