“Ignoring our emotions is turning our back on reality. Listening to our emotions ushers us into reality.” – Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, The Cry of the Soul
Emotions are God-given and can reflect the image of a God who feels, but they are also affected by the fall of man — leading to a lot of distress in one’s life. The church has traditionally taught to ignore and stuff the uncomfortable emotions, like anger, hurt, doubt, fear, and sadness. People are told to “not be anxious about anything,” but be thankful. They are told that they are “too blessed to be stressed.” Sound familiar?
God did not intend for people to shove aside all uncomfortable feelings. He expressed his anger, grief, jealousy, and disappointment multiple times in Scripture, and when Jesus walked the earth, he expressed pain, grief, sorrow, anger, and fatigue. If God had not intended for people to feel or express these emotions, then why would He express them?
God created people in his image, and therefore, they are created to feel. However, God does not want emotions to drive people around. Instead, His model gives emotions a seat at the table, but they are not in charge. People learn much today about managing emotions in effective ways, but the most important part of emotion management is awareness.
It is not wise to ignore one’s emotions, uncomfortable, and comfortable emotions. Ignoring emotions can lead to many more problems in someone’s life.
Uncomfortable Versus Comfortable Emotions
When a person thinks emotions are “good” or “bad,” they think they need to stop feeling the bad ones. It is good practice to change the labels and see emotions as comfortable or uncomfortable. It can feel safer to try to avoid one’s uncomfortable feelings because paying attention to them seems to bring more pain. What people do not realize, though, is that the opposite is true.
Some examples of uncomfortable emotions:
Some examples of comfortable emotions
The Effects of Ignoring One’s Emotions
More serious mental illness
When someone pretends that they are not sad when they have been lied to, or that he does not feel anger toward his wife who cheated, or that her feelings were not hurt when her boss shamed her in public. When these emotions are pushed aside and ignored, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, or other issues can drastically increase. On the contrary, when a person pays attention to what he is feeling, it is the first step toward healing and helps him manage those feelings better.
When emotions are not only ignored but also not expressed in relationships, many things can happen. People can grow distant or resentful. It can lead to confusion and miscommunication. It can lead to more intense conflict and less resolution. When a person is aware of and expresses feelings appropriately, it can bring deeper connection, less conflict, and clarity in communication.
Emotions are felt in the body, so when someone chooses to ignore them, the body hurts. Things like headaches, muscle tension, a racing heart, chest pain, stomach problems, and difficulty concentrating are all possible when emotions are not tended to.
The “volcano” effect
After a while, a volcano’s lava is too hot to remain inside the volcano, and it eventually erupts. It is similar with emotions. When they are ignored or suppressed for too long, they eventually erupt in harmful and confusing ways.
Someone loses her temper when her child spills the milk, but she has been angry for months because her husband has not been helping in the house. One small action triggers a major anger outburst because she denied her anger for so long. Someone keeps his schedule busy so that he does not have to grieve his mom’s death, but one day, he breaks down and cries hysterically on his office floor because he could not contain it anymore.
How to Pay Attention to One’s Emotions
Many counselors teach about the practice of mindfulness and mindful awareness. This is essentially learning how to be present in the here and now without judgment. It is allowing oneself to notice how one is feeling in a moment.
When washing her hands, it is thinking about how the warm water feels. When taking a walk, it is noticing the calm in her body when she sees the leaves falling. When hugging his child, he is aware that he feels loved.
When reading a painful email from her boss, she recognizes that she feels shame. It is simply noticing how one feels in certain situations. This could be noticing body sensations or thoughts.
Busyness is the enemy of awareness of one’s emotions. If someone stays busy enough, he won’t have to sit still and think about what is happening inside. He can continue to avoid it until it explodes. Allowing time in one’s life for stillness and even solitude can help her become more aware of what she is feeling or experiencing in a moment. It gives room for reflection.
When still, it is important to take time to reflect if possible. Reflect on the emotion, where it is felt in the body, when it began, and what action was desired when the emotion was felt. This could be a good time to pull out a journal and write about it, or just simply think about it. Reflection can be how a person moves through the feeling, instead of trying to go over or around it.
Look at the list mentioned above or find a more comprehensive feelings list online. Carefully scan the list and find the name of the emotion you are experiencing. Say it out loud or just to yourself. Give it a name.
Labeling it takes away much of its power and fuels healthier ways to manage it in the long run. If a person knows what it is, what triggered it, and how it feels, then he will be prepared to know what to do with it when it comes up again.
This article is not saying that paying attention to one’s emotions automatically makes them easier to deal with. Sometimes that is true, but it is not always the case. Being aware of feelings is just a step, but it is there to try to get rid of uncomfortable feelings.
Remember, all feelings are God-given, not just the fun ones. People do tend to misuse their emotions, giving in to fear, anger, doubt, and sadness in unhealthy ways. Being aware is one way to handle them in more God-honoring ways. It removes their power without taking away their place in one’s life.
When someone begins to notice these emotions, it is wise for them to consider what these emotions are communicating. Communication is one of the primary functions of emotions. Anxiety could communicate that someone needs to step away from a situation. Anger could communicate that some injustice needs to be addressed.
Sadness could indicate that someone needs to do more life-giving things. Loneliness could communicate that a person needs connection. Joy could communicate that a person needs more of this thing in her life. All emotions tell a story. Don’t neglect to pay attention to them because that story may be vital to hear.
Emotions are not the enemy. Approaching them with gentleness, curiosity, and compassion by intentionally paying attention can help them be more of a friend. It may feel scary to allow them to have a role in life, but they could be the very thing that brings goodness, restoration, and hope.
“Figurine”, Courtesy of Rhendi Rukmana, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Staring Out Into the Mist”, Courtesy of Arnel Hasanovic, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Joy”, Courtesy of Sincerely Media, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Reflection”, Courtesy of Kunal Goswami, Unsplash.com, CC0 License