When it comes to emotions, the struggle is real, friends. As highly sensitive a person as I am, my feelings about feelings are very much like this cat’s—we’re not exactly happy about being held in their grip.
I ran across a question a few years ago that’s never quite let go of my brain: what would it look like for me to be emotionally healthy? It’s sparked some deep pondering and a few possibilities.
First, emotionally stable people can own their desires. What is it you want? Review a recent conflict you’ve faced—which longings do you notice? Where do your thoughts naturally wander given the chance? What do you tend to celebrate? (Another easy way of identifying your desires is to start with the opposite of your core fears. If I’m afraid of abandonment, for example, there’s a good chance I have a deep longing for commitment.) Don’t forget—we were designed with creation longings. It’s okay to crave peace or acceptance or value (as long as we carry those desires to the right Source and guard against their becoming overdesires).
Second, emotionally stable people can own their beliefs. Between family culture, social culture, and popular culture, convictions are advertised nonstop in today’s world. I’ve got so much experience with being told what to think that crystallizing my own ideas is quite a feat. When possible, I find it helpful to sit down, disentangle myself from other people’s voices, and key in on my own stance. What do I know to be true of myself? of the situation? of God?
It’s important to acknowledge the role of thought life in the emotional realm. Certain intellectual tendencies create pathways in our minds and hearts for feelings to run rampant. These “cognitive distortions” include:
- all-or-nothing thinking: seeing the world in black and white absolutes
- over-generalization: viewing an event as a never-ending pattern of defeat
- mental filters: dwelling on the negatives and ignoring the positives
- jumping to conclusions: thinking apart from the facts
- mind reading: assuming others are reacting negatively to you
- fortune telling: predicting things will turn out badly
- magnification or minimization: making issues disproportionately huge or tiny
- emotional reasoning: assuming that your feelings dictate truth
- should statements: reasoning from a place of unlimited obligation
- labeling: calling yourself/others names based on specific actions
- personalization: pinning the fault entirely on yourself and overlooking others’ contribution
- blame: pinning the fault entirely on others and overlooking your contribution*
When we no longer find ourselves looking to these false saviors for mental rescue, we can rejoice over the emotional growth the Spirit is bringing about. He’s prompting us to see with more clarity and nerve.
Finally, emotionally stable people can own their feelings. Depending on your personality, you might be tempted to gloss over emotions because they leave you feeling vulnerable (though you don’t mind a good dose of happiness). But selective feeling isn’t an option for the human heart; numbing out everything but happiness dulls even the happiness. Far from operating solely from strength, Plato considered courage to be the perseverance through all emotions. “Real” men and women can experience the feels without losing their competency cards.
If you’re as emotionally illiterate as I can be, try an experiment: set your alarm to go off discreetly throughout the day for the next week. Each time it buzzes, take stock of your feelings since the previous alarm (no, “good” doesn’t count. Are you optimistic? confident? energetic?) and why.
Becoming aware of our emotional side is a step in this journey we dare not neglect. Did you know that God has never been a Stoic? Look at just a sampling of the emotional language He uses to describe Himself in Scripture: regret, jealous, crying out, fierce anger, everlasting love, compassionate, overwhelmed with sorrow, deeply distressed, and full of joy. This is no cold automaton we serve. We feel because He feels. As we stretch out into the flourishing creatures He intended us to be, a sweet sense of the nearness of Christ comes rushing to meet us with never less than His whole heart.
“I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all My heart and all My soul.”
*adapted from a document by Dr. David D Burns