The Problem With Emotions

What are we supposed to do with the way we feel?

To say that 2020 was a hard year seems like an understatement. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died from the coronavirus pandemic, and when I looked at Brazil—my country of birth—I saw the same devastation. I read articles about how indigenous peoples of Brazil were suffering the worst of the disease, how the country had handled previous diseases well, but this one was ravishing the nation. I was afraid to ask my mother about our family. To me, COVID-19 seemed like a shark circling my loved ones. I would hear about a distant family member who’d gotten it and found myself saying, “Please, God, not my uncles; spare my uncles”—a prayer I’ve prayed before.


Of course, the coronavirus pandemic was only the background to racial reckoning, international turmoil, and financial upheaval. I started taking medication for sleep. My antidepressant dosage had to be increased. And I was often useless on weekends, unable to leave my bed because of headaches, muscle tension, and nausea. The question I’d repeat over and over again was, What am I (are we) supposed to do with so much pain? So much loss?

“Are there good and bad emotions? Yes and no. Emotions in themselves are neutral. Their expression takes on the nature of good and bad. All emotions are valid, and each has a place in God’s design of your human psyche and spirit. God created your emotions so you might enjoy them and communicate to others by using them …

Sometimes we are overcome with emotion. We may lose control in a particular situation. At those times, we may feel that we should apologize for our lack of restraint, but we should never apologize for having feelings. After all, none of the psalmists held back in expressing their full range of human emotions to God. When we apologize for having emotions, we are in danger of stuffing them, with a possible eruption later. Stuffed emotions can only be damaging.”

—Charles F. Stanley, Becoming Emotionally Whole

Dr. Stanley reminds us our emotions aren’t good or bad. They just are.

Dr. Stanley reminds us our emotions aren’t good or bad. They just are. In fact, emotions give us useful information. They can indicate when something matters to us. For instance, when I find myself crying over something, I can tell that it impacts me—perhaps more than I would have thought or was willing to admit.

But emotions can become problematic when we allow them to overpower us and take over. There is a line between feeling anger and becoming it. Sometimes an emotion feels so big that I can’t separate it from who I am in that moment. Sometimes I seem to be embodying sorrow, as if it’s a lotion that has soaked into my skin. This is when I know I have to pull back. I don’t reject the emotion, but I want to be able to hold it at a distance. I change “I am desperate” to “I feel desperate; I am holding despair.” This small change in perspective is enough to give me relief. And if I treat the feeling with care and compassion, I am able to come out of it with time.

Do I get tired of feeling the pain from those around me and even my own? Yes. I want to be able to mourn with those who mourn. And it is precisely because of this that I need to be aware of when my feelings have become more than I can handle. By treating our own emotions not as enemies but as neutral information, we can have compassion for ourselves and, in turn, with others.


Illustration by Adam Cruft

Related Topics:  Spiritual Life

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