Have you picked up the habit of expressing yourself with emoticons? They fill our text messages, Facebook status updates, and more. Expressing emotions can be helpful, but “expressing emotions” can sometimes also be dangerous. Stuffing your feelings can be just as dangerous, resulting in serious physical and mental distress. There must be an alternative – a way to manage emotions without letting them completely manage you.
We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have strong feelings. Rage, grief, terror, pain, shock, ecstasy, excitement, desire, joy, love – those are just some of the emotions our minds and bodies feel. (Some of those are more than just emotions, but you get the idea.) A life or even a day completely devoid of emotions is almost inhuman. (If that’s you, you need a different kind of help than this post. Find some help right away!) God built into us the ability to feel deeply; it’s part of the way we are created in His image.
Emotions have been called energy-in-motion, and there’s a lot of truth to that.
Two Dangers in Managing Emotions
In our humanness emotions often get us into one of two dangerous situations.
Trap One: Believe and Follow your Emotions.
Oh, how this messes with us! You’ve probably done this too many times to count.
- You eat what you want when you want and however much you want, even when it’s decidedly unhealthy for you.
- You study hard or work hard only when you “feel like it,” and your professor or boss isn’t happy.
- You buy something because you want it without considering the impact on your financial health.
- You go after, stay with, or become sexually involved with someone because “the heart wants what the heart wants,” even if that relationship is unwise, dangerous, or unhealthy.
- You yell at, blame, complain about, or withdraw from your spouse because your feelings got hurt, and risk damaging the things that are good about your marriage.
Those little (or not-so-little) behaviors seem innocent in the moment because your feelings are so strong. You’re following your heart.
Until your heart gets traumatized. Something happens that makes you believe your feelings are wrong and can’t be trusted. And you fall into trap 2.
Trap Two: Shut Down Your Emotions
You determine never to feel again – at any cost.
- You were shamed for crying, so you shut down all tears – forever.
- Childhood sexual abuse or past destructive relationships cause you to close off your heart to intimacy ever again.
- You worked or prayed hard for something you wanted but were disappointed, so you kill all hope or desire for anything good in your future.
- Anger and standing up for yourself got you in trouble, so you determined to never feel or acknowledge anger again.
Shutting down emotions in these or other ways does not end well.
And furthermore, shutting down usually doesn’t work. At some point those stuffed feelings are likely to boil over, and your emotions (anger, pain, isolation, desire, etc.) become explosive and cause you to act out in even more dangerous ways.
So what’s the answer? How do you manage emotions rather than letting them manage you?
3 Keys to Managing Emotions
These 3 keys are important with any emotion you feel – positive or negative.
1. Pay attention to your feelings.
Notice I did not say believe, trust, or follow your feelings; more on that in a minute. But it’s important to understand as much as you can about what your feelings are, where they came from, and how they are affecting you.
Learn to see your emotions as information.
- Tears may signal that something deep and meaningful is happening, or that you have some unfinished emotional work to do about loss or pain.
- Anger may signal that something in your world is not alright, and often alerts you to something painful underneath the anger.
- Joy may signal that you’re touching something close to the purpose for which God put you here, or something that nourishes your inner being.
When you have a strong emotion, learn to stop for a moment and ask yourself, “What is this emotion trying to tell me?” Just that act of stopping and questioning yourself will help you begin to manage your emotions in a more healthy way.
2. See your feelings as PART of the truth.
Feelings can be triggered by any number of things, some of them important and some of them less important. In the loss of my husband a few months ago, my sadness and grief were (and are) real and important. Those emotions are telling me a lot about the depth of our love for each other and how much of my life was wrapped up in our relationship. But if I believe my emotions as the whole truth, I would become immobilized and useless, stuck in the past.
There is also other truth – about me, about God, and about my husband. That truth includes the reality that my husband is now in God’s hands, without pain or suffering. Jesus has promised to return and do away with death, pain, and tears. Heaven is real, and we will be united together again. God’s big enough to walk with me through difficult days, and He still has work for me to do. That is all truth too.
Whatever your feelings are – anger, pain, grief, excitement, desire, frustration, love – learn to evaluate them for what truth they illuminate. But also learn to search for “the rest of the story.” God always has something more to say about the situation; look and listen for that. If you’re broken and hurting, God has healing available. If you’re angry, God may have a job for you to do in improving your life or that of someone else. If you’re “in love,” it MAY be a signal that God has brought this person into your life, or it may be a way God is teaching you more about yourself. If you’re miserable in your marriage, God will use it to grow your character – either through improving your marriage, or showing you what to do to grow anyway.
Your emotions are real. Your feelings are true. But they are only a part of the whole truth. Tweet that.
3. Consciously choose what to do next.
Don’t simply “follow your heart.” Listen to your heart, but follow your mind – as informed by your heart. Your mind can also take into account wisdom from other sources. Your mind can choose to pause long enough to listen for God’s voice and get His perspective on things. Your mind can choose to own the terribly painful feelings long enough to bring them to God and experience His healing.
Sometimes you will do what your feelings would have “told” you to do, and sometimes you will have to do something that goes against your feelings. Taking the time to understand and own your feelings will help you put them in their proper place, and be less vulnerable to acting out in ways that you will regret later.
Emotions are a gift. They’re part of the color that makes us human, and part of how we express the image of God. And when you learn to manage emotions in a healthy way you are freer to experience the full range of experiences God has for you and to be more available to the people He has for you to bless.
How do you manage emotions? Listen to them. Look for the rest of the truth. And then consciously choose what to do next.
Your Turn: How do you manage emotions? Are you more likely to stuff your feelings, or to act out on them? Leave a comment below.
Tweetables: why not share this post?
- Listen to your emotions, but then search for the rest of the truth about your situation. Tweet that.
- Notice your emotions, but before you act make a conscious choice about what to do next. Tweet that.
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