emotions: wallowing or processing

One of the most challenging tasks I have as a counselor is helping people learn how to process emotions.  Processing emotions, while painful at times, isn't all that difficult, once we get down to it.  

But a lot of times there are fears we have to overcome, before we can even begin the process of processing.

A big worry that many Christians seem to have is that feeling our feelings will stop God from doing good things for us.  

I don't think this is true at all, and assigns us way more control over God than we actually have.  See Naomi's story from last time.  But a lot of us have been taught this, and it makes emotional processing a tough task.

Another worry we might have about feeling our feelings is that we will wallow.

And it's true that wallowing is ugly.  When we've been close to wallowers, it is not fun. When we have wallowed, it has not been a joyous experience.  (I really, truly have never met anybody who actually wants to wallow.  It's miserable.)

Another worry that we seem to have about feeling our feelings is acting out.

And it's true that acting out can be ugly.  When we've been close to people who act out, that can be scary and even abusive.  We don't want to be people who abuse others, and rightfully so.

The upshot of our fears of being unspiritual, of wallowing, or of acting out is that many of us don't learn to process emotions very well at all.

We learn to repress emotions:  "I'm fine!"

We learn to project emotions:  "You're always blaming me for everything!"

We learn to spiritualize emotions:  "Jesus, then Others, then You!  What a wonderful way to spell JOY!"

But we don't learn to process emotions.  

We aren't taught this beautiful lesson that Harriet Lerner talks about in The Dance of Anger:  "Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to."

Of course, if you've watched Inside Out, as I have harangued you to do (here, here, and once again, here), you will have learned that all our feelings are signals worth listening to.  

Our anger, our sadness, our disgust, our fear, our joy--they all mean something.  

Something important.

Those emotions mean something important in the present moment, AND learning to process those emotions is a life skill that will serve us well in every moment of life yet to come.

When we don't learn to process our feelings, we're left with a limited emotional capacity, without emotional muscle.

When hard things happen, we're shocked and overwhelmed, knocked around and dragged under by the waves that roll in.

But when we learn to process our emotions, then we're able to do more than just wade in the emotional shallows of our lives.

We learn to swim, to surf, to sail, maybe even to circumnavigate the globe of our own emotional lives.  

We grow beyond what we knew to be possible. 

We discover who we really are, deep inside.  

And we learn that Love reaches everywhere, into our deepest, darkest emotions, and brings us strength to help in times of need.

The other day, I was talking with a young client of mine who's doing some amazing work in listening to her feelings lately.  We worked out what exactly that process has been like for her, and it seems to be going something like this.

  • An event takes place, and a feeling is felt.
  • Then there's a choice:  act out, wallow, (spiritualize, ignore, ???) or process.
  • Processing involves:
    • naming the feeling (our feeling figurines are helpful here)
    • experiencing where the feeling lives in our bodies
    • listening to the feeling (understanding why am I feeling sad or mad)
    • talking to the feeling ("this is not forever, it's just for right now")
    • deciding what to do with the feeling (self-care, journaling, boundaries, etc.)

This makes me wonder:  

  • What does your emotional process look like?  
  • Is it similar to the process above, or have you found other ways to process emotions that work for you?  
  • Do fears of wallowing or acting out or being unspiritual keep you from processing?  
  • And if so, what consequences do you experience when you don't process your emotions?
  • What have you learned to say to your feelings that helps them chill out?
  • What decisions have you made (self-care, boundaries, assertiveness, ???) to honor what your feelings tell you?

While we're discussing feelings, you might like to know that I recently created an animation that addresses how to talk honestly to others about our emotions.  Check it out on YouTube.

I add to the animation collection from time to time, and I don't often mention it here.  To keep up on animations, you can subscribe to my YouTube channel, and/or my Blog Friends Facebook page.  I also add all the animations to the Resource page, here.

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