By Jenny Heckman, MS LPC NCC
Can you imagine life without emotions? No wonder at the beauty of creation, no anger to identify when an injustice has occurred, no sadness to assist us in adjusting to loss, no happiness that allows us to laugh with friends, no compassion to suffer with others. Life would have a strange flatness rather than rich complexity.
Emotional health is a combination of the ability to accurately identify the internal experience of our emotions; the ability to convey those feelings to another in ways that honor their dignity; and the ability to understand the emotional world of another.
We also identified that our incompleteness, wounds, and life experiences often diminish or magnify our emotional experiences, making it difficult to be effective in these three areas. As an early adolescent, I made a silent vow that only positive emotions would be welcomed in my experience. Due to the depression and anxiety I carried as a kid, paired with generational “rules” about negative emotions, I attempted to make my internal life as tidy as possible.
That did not work so well. As Brene Brown states in her talk The Power of Vulnerability, there is no selective numbing of emotions. When negative emotions are suppressed, the positive ones get suppressed at the same time.
It was a learning curve for me to begin to accurately identify and allow myself to experience the range of human emotions God designed. As I did, my internal world became less frightening, my range of emotions broadened, I allowed people to know me, and my empathy increased for others. This is how powerful this first facet of emotional health is; it directly impacts the other two facets.
What makes it so difficult to identify and befriend our emotions? Below are common hindrances that may be keeping you stuck.
Fear that if a negative emotion such as anger or sadness is experienced, we will either be engulfed by the emotion or it will become a permanent state of being. As George Bonanno reminds us in his book The Other Side of Sadness, emotions by their very nature are temporary. They appear for adaptive reasons, serve their purpose, and subside. Certainly they reappear, but if we cooperate with their purposes we will learn that not only can we tolerate them, they help us move forward, make decisions, and form and keep relationships. Amazing!
Shame that certain emotions are either a sign of character weakness or point to a spiritual deficiency. Imagine this: every time an emotion in this category makes an appearance, an immediate experience of shame is attached to that emotion. The shame keeps us from moving with the emotion and we get stuck. The families, churches, and cultures that formed us early on, and continue to do so, are tremendously powerful in forming beliefs about the role of emotions. Our emotional practices come from these beliefs. The good news is that shame can be challenged and resolved, allowing emotions to flow freely and flexibly for the adaptive purposes God designed them for.
Infirmities involving mood or personality. When brain chemistry or nervous systems do not have the “happy messengers” to regulate mood, or are “revved up” by chronic overload, emotions will either become escalated or diminished. These are infirmities of mood, have a strong genetic component, and can be brought on by significant stress. God’s gift of psychotropic medications can effectively restore brain chemistry and nervous system function so that emotions can be experienced accurately.
In addition to infirmities of mood, some people have infirmities that reside in the personality and significantly distort emotional perception and expression, including the ability to empathize with others. Common names for these include: Borderline, Histrionic, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders. These infirmities require more intensive therapeutic work in a safe, consistent atmosphere.
Just Between Us (JBU) has compiled numerous articles on emotional health to help you examine difficult areas and work through specific emotions. It is our prayer that you will find encouragement as you strive to work through challenging circumstances and keep yourself in good emotional health.