Emotions are king in our culture. We write love songs while we look for love; we pursue happiness with everything we’ve got. We avoid painful feelings by shopping, eating, drinking, having sex, watching TV or wasting time. When we have good feelings, we hold on to them for dear life, often pursuing them in ways that don’t bring lasting contentment. Most of the clients who come to me start by saying they either want to “be happy” or “get rid of” some bad feeling.
If you think about the way God created the world, there is a lot of ebb and flow – the sun rises and sets; the tide goes in and out; the moon is a sliver and then it’s full. Ecclesiastes 3:1 and 4 says “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven; a time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” Our emotions are meant to ebb and flow. If we desire healing and emotional growth, every emotion should be fully experienced. God understands and loves for us to pour out our hearts to Him, in the midst of our experiences, whether they be good or bad, happy or sad.
We see a great picture of this while reading the Psalms. In Psalm 88, it says “I am forgotten, cut off from your care. You have thrown me into the lowest pit, into the darkest depths. Your anger weighs me down; with wave after wave you have engulfed me.” (Vs. 5-7). Here the psalmist is expressing some deep, dark and painful emotions both about God, and to him. A few chapters later, we read “You thrill me, Lord, with all you have done for me! I sing for joy because of what you have done! O Lord, what great works you do!” (Ps. 92:4-5). Now, the psalmist (a different author) is rejoicing with great and wonderful joy. This isn’t instability of character. Rather this is God preserving emotion in his Word to show us that He can handle all of our emotion as we experience our lives. Again, not all behavior is beneficial, but God loves honesty about how we are feeling.
So what do we do about all of these feelings? If we use the metaphor of ocean tides, instead of getting rid of emotion we think is negative, why not find a “surfboard” so that riding the tides of our emotion becomes an adventure? If you are sitting on your surfboard in the ocean, you can sit there through many large waves before you actually choose to stand up and surf one. You also might be sitting on calm seas one day, and getting knocked off your board and thrashed around on another! This is all part of the experience of surfing. A surfer understands that the waves are not at his beck and call – he will have varying conditions. The one stable resource he has is his board.
One of the primary steps in learning to work with emotion, then, is to observe it and feel it without impulsively acting upon those feelings; this is your surfboard. What would it be like to become angry at poor customer service and not complain or make a scene – simply as an experiment to observe the rise and fall of what anger feels like in your own body. For most of us, the behavior that follows our emotion (like yelling when you are angry) comes so quickly that we tend to think we can’t control it. Feelings and thoughts are inextricably linked and difficult to separate, but behavior is an entirely different thing. It is possible to be fully angry and not respond angrily. It is possible, if you found yourself having feelings for someone outside your marriage, to experience those feelings without acting upon them.
Think of it as a scientific experiment: How long would anger remain in your mind and body if you simply observed it and watched it rise and fall without buying into it or attaching your thoughts to any particular part of it? If you were curious about it but didn’t feed it all of the evidence about why you think you are justified to behave poorly? You can do this with any emotion, and for each person it will be altogether different. For me, anxiety might be brief and tolerable, but sadness almost unbearable. For you, observing anger might feel completely impossible but experiencing loneliness is ok. It’s a life-changing shift to realize that not everything you feel needs to be acted upon.
EXERCISE: Take a look at this list of emotions. Pick a couple that are uncomfortable for you but not unbearable. Practice dedicating yourself to simply experiencing this feeling without doing anything about it. How long does it last? Where do you feel it in your body? Ride the wave as it crests and recedes. Later, you can choose more difficult emotions, but commit to working on this one emotion at a time.
*Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started. Jump in!*