(Editor’s note: Last year we wrote several posts about helping children handle their emotions. Here are a couple of thoughts for grown-ups on the same topic.)
Many of us have the impression that emotions are bad. Some were raised in families where people didn’t express much emotion. No one ever said it was wrong to cry or to get too excited about something. But then again, no one ever did.
Quite a few people are raised in a culture where “too much emotion” is frowned upon. Like one woman from the UK who says she is speaking very generally, but “I’m British so we have a stiff upper lip that is part of our DNA. Anything else would seem false or forced to us.”
Maybe you were made fun for crying on the playground, or mocked for your exuberance or your laugh. Whatever the situation, we all know what its like to get the message from other people: your emotions aren’t welcome here.
Even if you grew up with a more positive view of emotions from your parents and culture, you may still have gotten the idea from some Christian books or sermons that feelings were a sign of immaturity.
No matter what our background, most of us don’t realize that negative views of emotion have an ancient history. Aristotle and the Stoics believed that “if you feel good about something you have nullified the virtue of it.” These ideas have profoundly influenced the history of emotional thought.
While more recently, freedom of expression is celebrated in popular American culture, it is also seen as a hindrance to success. In particular for women, whose emotions are particularly unwelcome in the workplace. And it is often frowned upon in the church where a legitimate fear of excessive emotionalism leads many to avoid emotion all together.
“You almost get the feeling,” writes Matthew Elliot of philosophers, “that emotions should be kept in cages, like lions at the zoo—nice to walk past and look at, but better left locked up.”
Lock ‘em up is what many of us do. We press them down, stifle our feelings, suppress any emotional expression. We tell our friends to do the same. Keep calm and carry on. Chill. Relax. Keep a stiff upper lip. Put on your game face. Try to be cool.
We suppress our feelings because it feels like the safe thing to do. It provides protection from the ridicule and rejection of others. It makes us feel a little bit like we are in control of our confusing emotions, which frankly, can be a little frightening at times. It feels like the mature or godly thing to do. Telling us we shouldn’t suppress our feelings is like opening up the cages and letting all the wild animals escape. How can that be a good thing?
“The response of some Christians” writes theologian D.G. Benner “has been to suppress emotional expression. However, such emotional suppression is not only the cause of many psychological problems, it should probably also be seen as a sinful response to emotion in that it violates God’s intentions.”
Emotions aren’t bad. Suppressing emotions is bad because it “violates God’s intentions.” You see, God, is an emotional Being who created us to be like him, to reflect his image (Gen. 1:27). He is not glorified when we suppress or stifle our emotions. He is not pleased when we view feelings as inherently bad or defective.
Stifling emotions is not only wrong, it is dangerous. It is the cause, as Benner points out, of “many psychological problems.” AW Tozer agrees:
“Be sure that human feelings can never be completely stifled. If they are forbidden their normal course, like a river they will cut another channel through the life and flow out to curse and ruin and destroy.”
Because emotional suppression runs contrary to God’s design, it wreaks havoc in our lives. Feelings that are suppressed do not disappear; they burst their bonds and rush forth to ruin and destroy.
We all know the mess a burst emotional pipe can make. Ulcers and migraines. Family feuds. “She finally snapped,” we say. Emotions that are stifled and suppressed—contrary to God’s design—are the source of significant trouble in our lives. Sometimes, after years of stuffing their emotions way down inside, people either “lose it” altogether or instead lose the ability to feel much at all.
Be comforted that God has not left us at the mercy of our emotions. He didn’t give us a gift that is wild and uncontrollable and then tell us we’re wrong to try and tame it. No, he has given us all the wisdom and instruction we need in his Word to help us deal with our emotions in a manner that glorifies him.
So often, and especially with our emotions, we choose a course of action based on past experience instead of God’s Word. We have bad experiences with emotions and so we decide that feelings must be bad. We get rejected because of our emotions and so we conclude that feelings are best kept under wraps. But God wants us to set aside our experiences and return to his Word to learn how to deal with our emotions.
For those of you who have found some degree of safety in suppressing your emotions, God wants you to know that he has a better way. He wants to put faith and courage in your heart. He is the one who gave us emotions and he has told us how to handle them, in a way that results in freedom and in joy.
Others of you may worry that we are opening up all the cages to wild and uncontrolled emotions. Are you really advocating that everyone just express how they feel whenever they feel it? Of course not! If you’ve been reading our blog for any length of time you know us better than that. Rather, we want to encourage everyone to take a fresh look at what Scripture says about our emotions. In the next couple posts we’ll consider one way God helps us to properly handle our emotions.