Sure, the highs of joy and excitement are nice, but those gut-wrenching lows that come when someone breaks up with you, for instance, are the worst. I remember this girl I had feelings for in high school. Whenever we spent time together in groups with our other friends, that butterfly in the pit of my stomach was there. That was a fun feeling. But there were also many times when I wasn’t sure if she liked me back, and sometimes she’d say or do things that made me think she didn’t. Ugh, the misery! Those butterflies would clump into a heavy mass in the pit of my stomach. One night she and several friends were over at my house and she said something really mean that absolutely gutted my hopes we might officially start dating. After they all left, I literally collapsed on the floor. (I let myself be a little dramatic in the moment).
But what was not dramatic was that I had no appetite for like two days afterward. Those feelings of sadness, betrayal and disappointment were so strong that they took away even my appetite! That’s when it feels like life would be simpler if we just didn’t have emotions.
Of course we all know that emotions are here to stay. Correctly processing and managing our emotions is in fact a critical part of being a functional human being. Actually, in an ideal world, it’s those gut-wrenching experiences that teach you how to handle things when times get tough. But we live in a very less-than-ideal world, so there are millions of adults walking around who haven’t learned the right lessons from their experiences, and the result is emotional immaturity.
With so much of life beyond our control, it can feel hopeless when those gut-wrenching moments come and the emotions take over. It can feel like you are riding a huge elephant that’s charging right towards a cliff, ignoring your pleas and pulls on the reins to stop . What can you do to bring this huge beast into submission? How can you even hope to stop feeling the way you do and move on in your life?
There are three steps I’ve learned that are helpful in managing, processing, and growing from powerful emotions:
Step 1—Ask, “Why am I feeling this way?”
Step 2—Change your thoughts, change your life.
Step 3—Enlist the Holy Spirit in the fight.
1. “Why am I feeling this way?”
In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain, being angry (and also probably disappointed, frustrated and jealous), came to hate his brother Abel and murder him (Genesis 4:2-8). Here’s a perfect example of one man’s inability to manage his emotions and the bad that came out of it. It’s an extreme example—and one where the cause of the emotional trauma was Cain himself, unlike many of the situations we find ourselves in where the situation is beyond our control—but we can still draw lessons from it.
To recap: both brothers make an offering to God, and while Abel’s offering is accepted, Cain’s is not. Cain gets mad, and God, knowing what was in his mind, says: “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7, New International Version). Right here, in this brief exchange between God and man, are clues about learning to manage our emotions.
The first thing to note is that the emotions are not the problem. God’s warning to Cain is about his behavior—“If you do what is right,” and, “you must rule over [sin].” Millennia later King David sang, “Be angry, and do not sin” (Psalm 4:4), which the apostle Paul reiterated to the Ephesian Church (Ephesians 4:26). God created us to have emotions. Take heart to know that God knows how you’re feeling, and Jesus probably felt the exact same way at some point in His own life. They get it! It’s how you respond to those emotions that God is interested in.
After that, the first step you should take to handle your feelings is to ask yourself “Why am I feeling this way?” That’s what God asked Cain. It can be easy to either wallow in your feelings or beat yourself up for feeling that way. But psychologist Guy Winch says that’s a mistake: “Don’t spend time feeling bad that you’re having emotions. Get curious, because when you get curious, there’s a defense mechanism there to take you to an intellectual level, which distances you from the emotion and allows you to think through it” (“Emotions Aren’t Irrational,” TheAtlantic.com, June 25, 2019).
If your emotions have completely taken over and are fogging up your thoughts—a break-up causing you to lose your appetite, or a furious rage at a loved one over their mistreatment of you—asking yourself “Why am I feeling this way?” initiates your rational thinking process, helping break through the emotional fog. Then you can start thinking more rationally, trying to identify the cause of your emotions and deal with them.
Thinking of your emotions this way—as something to be managed and mastered through practice and God’s Spirit—is a powerful, life-changing practice.
Some people simply bury their emotions, but that never makes anybody better off either—usually it causes that emotion to simmer under the surface, only to burst out in a much worse way later on. Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, who writes a “Dear Therapist” column for The Atlantic magazine, puts it this way: “Emotions are like GPS. They help to guide us. Follow your envy; it tells you what you want. If you’re feeling sad, why? Something’s not working” (ibid.). Her advice flips the normal and terrible advice you usually hear on its head: instead of being led by your emotions, you tell your feelings “I’m onto you . . .” discovering their underlying cause so you can root them out.
Cain’s disappointment turned into anger that simmered into hatred for his brother, which led him to murder. That’s allowing your feelings to lead you. Instead, acknowledge your feelings so that you can discover why you’re having them. Then you can work on a game plan to manage them in a healthy, godly way.
2. Change your thoughts, change your life
The analogy I used earlier of an elephant charging, ignoring your pleas to stop, is actually a legit metaphor I learned that psychologists use. They roughly categorize our thoughts into two systems. About 80 percent of your thinking makes up the first system, which is automatic; it’s made up of your emotions and intuitions. It guides your daily habits, your gut reactions and your first impressions. The other 20 percent is the intentional thinking you do: your logical, rational thinking, which handles more complex mental activities like learning new information and managing relationships (Gleb Tsipursky, “How to Manage Your Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors,” Psychology Today, April 13, 2016).
The first system—the 80 percent—is like that elephant. It’s been built up over your lifetime by your experiences, upbringing, relationships and personality. It’s difficult and slow to change, and actually might feel unchangeable because it’s so automatic. A big part of this system includes your “human nature,” a concept the Bible talks about. Jeremiah prophesied about it (Jeremiah 17:9); Jesus warned about it (Mark 7:21-23); Paul wrote about it (1 Corinthians 2:14). Because the world is under the influence of Satan, our human nature is influenced by evil without us even realizing it. And that in turns feeds into our natural, automatic thinking system (the elephant).
Take heart to know that God knows how you’re feeling, and Jesus probably felt the exact same way at some point in His own life. They get it!
But even as large an animal as an elephant can be guided and moved by humans. Trained elephant riders are called mahouts. Just as a mahout trains to be able to guide an elephant, we can train so we can manage our emotions.
Here’s how: once you’ve asked “Why am I feeling this way?”, the next step is to intentionally choose what you think about.
That’s it. Simple, right? But oh so difficult to do!
If you’re feeling angry at someone, choose to think positive thoughts about them. Remember that they’re made in God’s image, same as you; that they’re someone’s child, sibling, and friend; that they’re probably dealing with problems you don’t even know about. We know that we must eventually forgive people—it’s right there in Jesus’ model prayer (Matthew 6:12). Intentionally thinking better thoughts helps make emotions such as grief, anger and betrayal begin to fade with time.
I’m not saying that intentionally changing your thoughts instantly flips a switch that makes your feelings go away. But neither does an elephant simply turn on a dime when it’s charging forward. You must patiently practice, choosing your thoughts all the time. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8, NIV ). Slowly, day by day, you will begin to guide your emotional elephant to the place you want to go. And the more you do it, the better you get—you start to become an elephant whisperer. Instead of trying to turn the beast once it’s going, you will be able to steer it in the direction you want to go before it starts moving.
3. Enlist “the Helper”
This life-changing practice of reshaping your emotions by changing your thoughts is available to anybody. There is no prerequisite for exercising self-control over your thoughts. But God offers you a serious leg up if you’re willing to take it: the Holy Spirit. Jesus called it “the Helper,” and it is a definite help in our quest to manage our feelings.
How? For starters, it shows you what you need to be working on. God’s Spirit helps by illuminating the path you need to be walking on. The Psalmist sang, “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105, NIV). God’s Spirit takes it to the next level, and writes God’s laws on your heart.
This doesn’t mean God’s Spirit will do the work for you—you have to yield to it (search “how do you overcome sins you can’t get under control” at UCG.org for an article we published in Compass Check about that a few years ago). The Spirit puts God’s will on your heart and you learn to listen to it, then act on it.
If you respond to God’s call and decide to invite His Spirit in through baptism, you’ll have a secret weapon in the fight we all face in becoming someone with solid emotional composure. In the meantime, as someone exposed to God’s way of life and His Word, the Bible, the Holy Spirit is in your life already as a positive influence through your parents, family or friends who have taught you about God’s way.
I remained friends with the girl I had feelings for in high school, and as time went by all that drama disappeared from memory. As I got older, I went through other emotionally heartbreaking situations, some of which still sting when I think about them. But they all taught me lessons that shaped me and helped me figure out these three steps, which I hope will help you right now.
Remember them when you find yourself feeling emotionally out of control on an elephant charging towards the cliff, ignoring your pleas to stop. As you practice choosing to engage your rational brain in the heat of the moment, choosing your thoughts at all times, and asking for God’s influence through His Spirit, you’ll be well on your way to becoming an emotionally mature and functional adult. CC