By Chris Chandler, MA, LMHC, CSAT-C, Seattle Christian Counseling
Ignoring something never made it go away. People keep trying to make problems disappear by pretending they don’t exist, but they never seem to have much success. In his book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel argues that acknowledging our feelings is actually the best way to deal with them.
Ignoring Your Feelings Doesn’t Work
Feelings are sometimes confusing or uncomfortable, which is why we so often try to suppress them. We may not be sure why we feel a certain way, or, as is often the case with believers, we feel guilty for succumbing to emotions such as anger, disappointment, or loneliness. We try to solve this difficulty by avoiding it. Siegel’s book, and the teaching of scripture, encourage us to do the opposite. In Hebrews we read that the word of God is sharper than any double-edged sword, judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Why would the Lord assert this as one of the purposes of his word if we were not to use it accordingly? Hebrews encourages us to know ourselves. It is only by being open to our emotions, and observing them objectively, that we can “name and tame” the feelings that so often threaten to define and consume us.
Siegel suggests three steps that we can take to help us get in touch with our feelings.
Step One: Stop Trying to Achieve “Normal”
“Openness implies that we are receptive to whatever comes to our awareness and don’t cling to preconceived ideas about how things ‘should’ be.”
One of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is to stop trying to achieve “normal.” There is no one right way of achieving happiness or success, and God’s plan for everyone is different. Life events are not a linear chart gradually moving upward toward “success.” Our life plans change. Sometimes work and relationships and expectations are rocking along on all cylinders; sometimes we have no idea why things are the way they are, or what will happen next. That is OK.
It is the same with our feelings. Sometimes we feel cranky or tired or selfish, and we don’t know why. That is also OK. Often there are deeper inner workings that cause us to feel a certain way. By ignoring these feelings, we leave unsolved the problems that cause them, creating the possibility to feel this way again in the future. By being open to our feelings, we create an opportunity to understand why we feel the way we do. We can begin to understand and address the even deeper feelings that give us the blues or cause us to be impatient with others.
Step Two: Observe Your Mind with Curiosity and Respect
“Observation is the ability to perceive the self even as we are experiencing an event … self-observation allows us to see the fuller context in which we are living. Observation offers a powerful way to disengage from automatic behaviors and habitual responses; we can sense our role in these patterns and begin to find ways to alter them.”
Observation involves asking why you feel the way you do. Are you reluctant to help someone because you feel they are taking advantage of you? Are you going to help them anyway, lest they reject you? Why are you so scared to lose your relationship with this person? The only way you can begin to change how you react in emotionally stressful situations is to understand why you react that way. Siegel writes:
“In my own experience, a great transformation begins when we look at our minds with curiosity and respect rather than fear and avoidance. Inviting our thoughts and feelings into awareness allows us to learn from them rather than be driven by them.”
Step Three: Don’t Let Your Emotions Overwhelm You
“Objectivity permits us to have a thought or feeling and not be swept away by it.”
Taking a moment to step back and analyze our emotions and reactions helps us to avoid being overwhelmed by them. When a wave of emotion threatens to drown you, pull yourself to the surface by taking a more objective stance. Siegel suggests a change to help us “name and tame” our feelings. Instead of saying something like, “I’m sad,” say, “I feel sad.” This reminds you that your emotions are temporary, and do not have to define you.
Emotions are powerful. It is only human to feel strongly when we are disrespected or rejected by others. Feeling emotions is not weak or wrong. However, we do not do ourselves any favors when we allow these feelings to overpower us.
Understanding Emotions with Christian Counseling
Sometimes we don’t understand our feelings. A Christian counselor can help us in this. If you often feel as if your emotions are too much to handle, don’t keep this a shameful secret. God did not intend for his children to struggle alone, trapped by their individual difficulties.
As Hebrews reminds us, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:12-16, NIV) The Lord can use a Christian counselor to help you understand why you struggle as you do, and how you can lighten the burden.
Don’t Struggle with Your Feelings Alone
It can be a daunting task to face your emotions alone. You may find yourself overcome with anxiety or stuck in a rut of your own making. Emotions sometimes feel like a prison, and you need a key to unlock the prison door. As a trained Christian counselor, I can help you to unlock that door, and I would truly be honored to do so.
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel
“Broken Windows on Empty House” by Ladyheart, morgueFile.com; “Ashamed and Frustrated Man” courtesy of Master isolated images, FreeDigitalPhotos.net, ID #10079221