There’s a pervasive belief that is destroying hearts and lives. A certainty that emotions are morally wrong, and feelings such as anger and fear are the problem. Joy and love are touted as holy, but pain and shame represent a black mark on your character.
I find this to be true specifically within certain Christian cultures. The idea is that feelings are the problem and if we could only conquer those nasty moods we’d be just fine, thank you very much. Feelings are to be considered weakness or even a lack of faith. When used to control, the message is a subtle but powerful form of spiritual abuse.
In my experience, it is the single most harmful message keeping people from personal growth and connected relationships. It underlies most issues driving folks to our office, and creates a culture of stunted hearts unwilling to live in reality.
It’s a strange, Spock-like Christian creation: thoughts are morally good, feelings are morally bad.
The train of thought goes something like this: Let’s follow a guy named Jesus who had strong feelings, and believe that our feelings are a limitation to our own faith. This dude who warmly welcomed feelings in others shames us for ours. It’s a strange thing to try to reconcile with any authenticity of heart or mind.
Feelings are beautiful. Even the ones that get a bad rap. They matter because you matter. Your heart and story with all its peccadillos matters. Emotions don’t have moral value, they are a way we receive information. They are street signs.
Pain and fear are not the problem.
What’s causing the pain and fear, however, is. If you are stabbed in the arm and scream from the pain, no one with a sense of intellectual honesty would begrudge you your feeling. We can clearly see the knife and the subsequent gaping wound is the problem, The pain is just a natural outpouring due to the circumstance. As the knife is removed and the wound heals, so does the corresponding emotion.
It is abusive, plain and simple, to tell the person with the stab wound that they are sinning because the wound is causing pain. The same is true with emotional pain.
When a heart is shattered or a spirit broken, the onslaught of not-at-all-helpful messages abound. The spoken, and often unspoken, messages provide pressure to feel different, better, or nothing at all. This is the spiritual equivalent to pouring salt in that big, open, knife wound.
Subtle contempt is often the modus operandi of authority figures when the wound hasn’t taken a physical form. If it can’t be treated with a bandaid, surgery, or medication, many times the deeper message is, “why are you making this such a big deal” or “if you just had enough faith…” This leaves the wounded unsure if they can trust their own feelings.
Feelings are always true, just not always accurate.
I may feel sudden fear if I hear someone come into the office unexpectedly. The fear is true. But, perhaps this person is a dear friend who has brought dinner as a surprise. The feeling of fear is a true feeling, but it as inaccurate in that moment. I am actually safe.
Had someone entered the office with ill will, that same fear would serve me well as a form of protection.
Feelings direct us like billboard signs. They direct us to the next off ramp or fuel station. They help us keep moving forward in the direction we most desire.
The feeling of guilt can help us see we made choices outside of our value systems and help us correct our course. Feelings of joy or passion can help us identify the career path or partner most suited for us. Anger says, “Stop. No more” if we are being mistreated or abused. Emotions are simply street signs.
If, as children, our feelings were disregarded by those who were meant to support our emotional growth, feelings can be mysterious and confusing as adults.
The ultimate beauty of humanity is we can unlearn and re-learn new stuff. Oh the joy!! We can learn to identify emotions. We can learn how to have feelings and be safe at the same time. Let me say that again. We can learn to have our feelings and be safe at the same time. Let that sink in.
Feelings become scary when we’ve been shamed for having them. The feelings were never the problem. The shaming message was.
Feelings of sadness may wash over us, but we can learn that sadness can wash over us and then subside. It doesn’t have to overwhelm us. Feelings of passion may bubble up from our bellies, but it doesn’t have to mean we have to become swept away by it.
These astonishingly sensations give us so much data, let’s stop ignoring and discounting them. Let’s start noticing and learning. If we listen to emotions rather than discrediting them, we might find they provide great and powerful direction toward what we most need to move into the life we most desire.