Many of us have been taught some damaging and false principles about emotions. You might have been told that it’s wrong to feel angry, that you shouldn’t feel sad, or that your faith is weak if you’re emotional.
Your Emotions Are Neither Right Nor Wrong
But your emotions are neither right nor wrong. In fact, they can be your best friends if you pay attention to the messages they’re attempting to convey. Think of emotions as flashing lights on the dashboard of your car that let you know something is wrong. If you understand what a light means, you know what the problem is and can attend to it so that your car will once again operate the way it was built to operate.
The same is true for you. A light is flashing on the dashboard of your mind. Powerful emotions battle for your attention. You might feel anger and sadness at the same time, or anxiety may have you in its grip. You weren’t created to live with this pain and confusion. The flashing light is telling you to attend to what is going on inside you.
Use Your Emotions to Communicate Productively, Decisively, and Respectfully
There are specific action steps you can take to deal with your emotions in a healthy way. The goal is to learn to become aware of your emotions, interpret their meaning, and use them to communicate productively, decisively and even respectfully in your situation. During desperate times, it can be difficult to sort out your feelings and make sense of them, because as human beings, we’re capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions. But emotions can provide you with valuable information if you embrace them and develop an awareness of them.
To become more aware of your emotions, you need to be able to distinguish primary emotions from secondary emotions. Primary emotions are feelings we experience in direct response to an event and/or a specific stimulus. They’re initial reactions or responses we have that are natural, instinctive, or unthinking. A secondary emotion is “an emotion about an emotion.” For example, you might feel guilty or ashamed about the fact that you feel sad or lonely. Secondary emotions are often learned responses to life or what we think the “script” should be.
Now that you know how to recognize primary and secondary emotions, let’s look at some helpful steps you can take to deal with your emotions in a healthy way.
1. Identify the primary emotions you’re experiencing.
Again, primary emotions are the “first natural responses” to something that happens. Sometimes your body will offer clues as to what you’re feeling. Tightness in the chest, a snarled nose, heaviness or strain around the eyes. Take body cues and give these visceral reactions the most fitting emotional label. The awareness of the initial reaction is helpful so that you can decide what to do in response to it over time. It helps you honor what you’re experiencing and then make decisions as to how to care for or direct that reaction. So pause for a moment. Think about what you’re feeling as you react or respond to an event, and if possible, jot down a word or two describing the emotion and what triggered it. Later on, journal in more detail about the feelings you identified.
2. Dig deeper to gain access to buried (secondary) emotions.
Why is digging deeper necessary? Because, the environments in which we grew up and the people who raised us had a profound influence on our development, and as a result, we quickly revert to the relational style and emotional responses we learned from our upbringings. Digging into buried secondary emotions can help you evaluate the thinking that drives them. Remember, secondary emotions are emotions about emotions, and you can often make conscious decisions that steer them to God’s truth.
Here’s an illustration of what I mean: A supervisor in a corporation called a departmental meeting and announced the company decision to begin keeping better production records. Each member of the group initially experienced apprehension, but if you look beneath the primary emotion to the secondary emotions, here’s what you might discover:
Person 1 felt hopeful and thought, Good! Management will see there are problems and make needed improvements.
Person 2 felt dread and remarked, “Oh no! There will be lay-offs.” Depression quickly followed, and she withdrew for the rest of the day.
Person 3 felt excited, thinking, They’ll see that I’m a valuable employee and give me a raise.
Person 4 felt angry with the establishment and made some nasty comments. That night, she took out her anger on her husband and children.
Interesting, isn’t it? The entire group heard the same message, which initially resulted in the primary emotion of apprehension. That emotion triggered secondary emotions, which triggered a wide range of thoughts and actions. As this example illustrates, it’s not what happens to us that matters but how we respond to it.
It’s Not What Happens to Us that Matters But How We Respond
3. Practice getting in touch with your emotions.
If this step is difficult for you, look at the list of feeling words you found online. You might also initiate a game with your family at dinnertime and announce, “Whoever can name the most emotions they felt today wins.” Or you could go online and search for cartoon faces of different emotions, which you can print for free and put on the refrigerator door.
4. Increase your vocabulary for expressing various emotions.
The more specifically you identify your feelings, the more likely your spouse will understand. For example, the primary emotion “mad” might mean anything from “annoyed” to “enraged,” so it’s important to use a word that accurately reflects what you feel.
5. Practice communicating “I feel ___________ when you __________.”
Countless clients report that using this suggestion alone decreased the length of their arguments and reduced the risk of an escalation. Remember, though, a feeling is expressed with one word, not a full sentence. In our culture, people who begin a sentence with “I feel” may assume they’re expressing a feeling. A husband recently said, “I feel my wife is drifting away and having an affair.” Instead of expressing a feeling, he was expressing a thought or opinion.
At this point you might be thinking, Okay, I have a better understanding of my emotions now, but I still feel mad, bad, sad, or afraid. If that’s the case, don’t get discouraged. Remember that you’re in a spiritual struggle as well as a human one. It will take some time and practice to know how to best respond or work through each emotion, but in the midst of your pain, God will draw near as you draw near to Him and truly seek His peace. Whether or not you feel like doing so, keep following these steps and suggestions, and in time, you’ll be well on your way toward honoring and responding to your range of emotions in a productive way!
Taken from Aftershock: Overcoming His Secret Life with Pornography: A Plan for Recovery by Joann Condie and Geremy Keeton. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.
About the Authors
Joann Condie’s career as a licensed and nationally certified professional counselor, registered nurse, and counselor at Focus on the Family has spanned several decades. Her counseling specializes in the sexually broken and wounded.
Geremy Keeton is the senior director of the counseling services department of Focus on the Family and a licensed marriage and family therapist. He has extensive experience in counseling men and couples on topics of healthy sexuality, infidelity, and pornography addiction.