NAVIGATING EMOTIONS

Written by: Nicole Poolman

If I tell you what this post is about I know what will happen.

A third of readers will be intrigued. A third of readers will immediately disengage their hearts. The rest of the readers will quickly switch over to Instagram. 

It is a word so scary, so messy, so confusing, that it has the power to send the strongest person you know running; and turn the softest person you know into a rock.  It is a word that brings out our defense mechanisms, and can put each of us on edge.

So I am not going to say it (Okay, not yet.) 

I have always had passionate responses to…well…everything. When I was six, I found this stick bug and made a home for it in a Cool Whip container.  I was never particularly into bugs, but a bug that looked like a twig? That was something I could get behind! Alas, my mom said that I needed to set my beloved Sticky free. (Naming pets has never been a strong suit.) Like any good mom, she tried to get a picture of my pet and I together. Unfortunately, my face turned out blotchy and my eyes red, from what I remember as many, many tears. 

Emotions can be scary (whoop, there’s the word!) Sometimes it’s easier to shut them down rather than navigate what is causing us to feel like we are losing control.  As children we are expected to have emotions. When we cry over setting a stick bug free our parents take pictures, not yell at us. However, as we get older many of us have experiences that cause us to shut down what our hearts are feeling. For me, I remember bursting into tears over literal spilled milk. Instead of being reassured, I was asked to go to the bathroom till I could stop crying.  The results of those type of repeated experiences push us into one of two camps.  

The first camp is wild and erotic emotions. This is when we never mature beyond the emotional capacity of our childhood.  When we are happy we are ecstatic, when we are sad we are depressed. This is how you end up being a middle schooler crying over a torn shirt, or a high schooler sobbing a goodbye to a friend…that you will see in a week. Erotic emotions are getting swept up in a tornado of emotions. You stay there until a bigger emotional tornado rips you away.  I call this the Emo-nado. Emo-nado Alley is marked by destroyed friendships, co dependency, gossip, inconsistency, and constant dramatic shifts. Emo-nadoes gives emotions a bad rap.

When we find ourselves in Emo-nado Alley we need to go to Bruce’s words from Finding Nemo, “Emotions are friends, not food.” Okay. He was talking about fish, not emotions. It still applies.  Emotions are beautiful and important. They make great friends. They help us celebrate, and they help us mourn. They are a part of life’s greatest joys, and greatest sorrows.  Emotions speak to us about when to slow down, when to prioritize. 

However, we also get to control what feeds our emotions.  It is never a good idea for our emotions to feed each other. We need to be anchored in something that is beyond fleeting emotions. Christa Black wrote, “If you are not anchored in the goodness of God, you will lower your theology to match your pain.” Distress will always fail to anchor us.  

Emo-nados are one reaction to repeated negative responses to emotion. The second reaction is a stony heart. When we have a heart of stone we keep people at a distance, deaden emotional responses, look down on those who express their emotions, and are numb. Sometimes we are even rewarded for the heart of stone by being labeled “the strong one.” God spoke to the Israelites about  a better way to live in Ezekiel 36:26, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

I was on a personal retreat a couple of years ago. While I was exploring I stumbled onto an old baseball diamond. The field sparked something in my spirit, but I didn’t understand it. I sat on the bench, taking in the rusty fence and torn bases.  As I quietly observed, I realized the irony of a baseball diamond. Baseball players hope to hit the ball so that they can leave home, but only for the purpose of getting home again. A player does not want to stop at first…or second..or third. They don’t just quit and walk off the field, and they don’t take short cuts. They go through the steps, and touch all the bases. I stood up and walked over the faded path to first base. I realized that when it came to processing my emotions, I started the process but never kept going. 

Letting our hearts feel can be risky business. Acknowledging that we are weak or hurting feels vulnerable, and rightfully so.  When we let others into our emotions we are opening ourselves up for the possibility of rejection.  Even sharing something you are excited about can cause a jealous person to reject you. For those of us feeling pain, allowing ourselves to feel emotions can bring us to a desperate place, to the end of ourselves. However, just like we get hurt through relationship, we also heal in relationship.

Safe, healthy friends are one way to process emotions. I don’t want to discount what a blessing this can be. However, if they are your only way of processing emotions I see some red flags. Your friends are not perfect, and they are not going to always be with you.  Their responses will not always be what you need, and sometimes they are downright hurtful.  The line between processing and gossip is very thin, and it’s easy to cross over. Gossip will only feed the emotional tornado, or harden the already stony heart. Finally, depending on friends for this kind of processing is a fast track to codependency.  Letting our friends in on what we are experiencing is incredibly important, but I recommend sharing after you have spend time with God. 

Whether your life resembles Emo-nado Alley, or if your heart is closer to a stone wall, the purest way to healthy emotions is processing with Papa God. God is our good Father, and while our earthly dads might not have been able to handle our emotions, Papa God is eagerly awaiting for us to process with Him. Papa celebrates us better than we ever could, and He mourns with us in our deepest heartaches. He is not afraid of our mess, He knows how to sit in it with us.  He also knows who we are, and the call on each of our lives.  When we are content to settle for the messiness of our hearts, He will tell us who we are and pull us out.

The idea of processing with God could seem daunting. When I first started processing my emotions with God I didn’t think it could be satisfying. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are some of my top tips as you begin your journey to healthy emotions. 

Write It Out: Invest in a journal or journaling app and write what you are feeling out. It doesn’t have to be pretty, poetic, or wise. It’s a safe place to be messy. 

Listen: Let God respond to your mess. Quiet yourself down, and listen for what Holy Spirit is speaking to you. Write it down. If you are unsure how to hear Holy Spirit speak to you I highly recommend Mark Virkler’s teaching entitled Hearing God’s Voice. 

Feeling the Feels: When I have trouble understanding what I am feeling I read the Psalms. I find that David’s blatant display of emotion stirs my heart, and I often find myself relating to something he is writing about. 

Ask God Questions: I find that asking good questions is one of the best skills a person can have. In fact, when I am doing a hiring interview I look for the person to come with good questions. My closest friends ask questions that get me to think, pulling out wisdom I didn’t know I had. We can do the same thing when talking to God. We can pull out revelation from Him by simply asking. Try out some of these questions: Papa God, who do you want to be for me in this circumstance? How do you see me? How can I partner with you in this moment? What is your role here? Your emotions will be validated and you will have the tools to move forward in a healthy manner! 

Learning to see our emotions as friends takes time. In my experience, years and years.  When it comes to this journey, Psalm 27:14 has become one of my favorite Bible verses. It is my prayer for you as you engage your heart. “Here’s what I’ve learned through it all: Don’t give up; don’t be impatient; be enticed as one with the Lord. Be brave, courageous, and never lose hope. Yes, keep on waiting- for he will never disappoint you!”

Like what you’ve read? Give Nicole a follow on instagram at @nicole_poolman or head on over to her website at nicolepoolman.com