We often advise each other to change or replace an emotion with a “better” one. Be content. Be secure. Be happy.
Under these seemingly biblical suggestions is an unhealthy belief that there are “good” and “bad” emotions. Happy, of course, falls in the “good” category, and almost everything else taboo falls gets categorized as “bad.”
This article is part of our New You series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
We need to stop delineating our feelings this way. The truth is, all feelings are helpful. Yes, I am including anger, bitterness, sadness, loneliness. We need to stop judging our feelings.
I am often told to replace my comparison with contentment, my bitterness with gratitude, my sadness with joy, my loneliness with community. These are great concepts, but often, these commands alone simply push me deeper into helplessness. If I could be content, grateful, joyful and surrounded, why would I choose the painful alternatives? Of course I want to be on the other side, but it takes time.
We have to appreciate the process and not pressure others to simply stuff their true feelings and change on our timing.
Emotion modification without a deep digging of what’s underneath is only a mask. If we just work on changing outward emotions, we’ll usually skim over the deeper beliefs that lead us to those feelings. Every emotion reveals a belief about who we are and what we want. Every emotion shows us where we have placed our identity and our value. Every emotion reveals how we see God. If we want to reshape our emotions, we need to address the underlying beliefs.
Let Yourself Feel
Embrace the emotions, especially the ones you’re afraid of and the ones for which people have wrongly judged you. They are real. They are valid. They aren’t bad in and of themselves. Emotional vulnerability is a strength.
I remember the day I sobbed in my acting class. I turned away from the audience and yelled, “I am not supposed to be sad. I am strong.” For all my life, I equated sadness with weakness, therefore something I needed to hide. Yet, how could a person who cries openly while standing tall be considered weak? David is distraught and desperate for God in Psalm 51. He displayed unparalleled strength and trust in God.
Evaluate the Reasons You Feel That Way
Emotions are indicators of deeper beliefs. What triggered the feeling? What were my expectations? What have I supposedly lost? What am I hoping for in this emotion?
Sadness is ever present in my life. But the more I leaned into it, I realized that under my tears were issues of abandonment, my need to be seen, my need for intimacy. I am often sad because my attempts to fill these needs with other people, my work and my appearance fall short. I am often sad because there is a disconnect between how I see myself and who God says I am.
In Matthew 5, Jesus reminds us that our emotions can be indicators of sin. Anger itself is not sin, but the actions we take when angry can be sinful, as Paul addresses in Ephesians 4:26. When our anger pushes us toward sin, it can reveal a lack of forgiveness and hatred toward others.
Address the Beliefs Behind Your Feelings
When we become aware of our underlying identity conflicts and disbeliefs, we need to immediately turn to God’s Word. God’s Word can reshape how we see ourselves, but more importantly, it can reshape how we see God.
I don’t need to change all my emotions to happiness, but I want God to remold my core so that regardless of my circumstances, thoughts and feelings, I know He never changes and my identity in Christ remains the same.
In the past, I didn’t know how to deal with my sadness. My need for approval led to jealousy, bitterness and loneliness. But when I experienced feeling completely loved by Jesus Christ, in my insecure and helpless state, I began to see my unshakeable value. God saw me fully and loved me completely. His promises and His truths trump anything the world, the enemy and I could ever say. Do I still get sad? Yes, but now I embrace it and remind myself that God is still with me.
We are so quick to judge, squelch or bottle up our emotions. We let others see our smile, but we hide our tears. We contain our anger and we ignore our loneliness. Instead, sit still in all your feelings and ask those tough questions about why you’re feeling a certain way. Pray like David did, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalm 139:23-24).
Emotion is a testing ground. What do your emotions reveal about your identity? Where have you ultimately placed your trust? Is there a disconnect between how you feel and God’s promises? Now those are healthier conversations.
Nancy Ma acts and writes in Los Angeles.