The Gift of Feelings
By Dick Innes
Do you know the number one complaint I hear from wives who attend seminars I lead on relationships? It's this: they don't know how to communicate effectively with their husbands as their husbands don't share their feelings with them nor do they understand their (the wife's) emotions.
Feelings. Imagine living in a world without them. It would be like "playing a trombone with a stuck slide. Very dull and boring to say the least. And yet, so many of we men were taught from childhood that feelings weren't important. By the time I was five-years-of-age I had learned that "big men don't cry!" By the time I reached my mid-thirties, while I was, to the best of my ability, always "doing the right thing" outwardly, inwardly I felt very dry and empty.
Fortunately, I have long since learned how damaging that teaching is. Feelings are God-given and are a vital part of life. Very recently we were saddened by the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his wife and sister-in-law. One highlight in the midst of all the sorrow related to the Kennedy family was the comment from a radio commentator who quoted an incident in the life of the late Bobby Kennedy, John Jr's uncle. On one occasion when Bobby was just a boy and was crying, one of the Kennedy men said to him, "Don't you know that the Kennedy men don't cry!" to which Bobby answered, "This Kennedy does."
When we bury our negative feelings we can become physically ill, act out in destructive behavior patterns, and damage or even destroy our relationships with the ones we love the most. Or to medicate our pain we can become addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, work or many other addictive behaviors.
Patty, for example, was a young adult who took one of these strange paths. Little by little she became addicted to shopping. Many of her spare hours were spent at the mall. Buying things gave her a temporary lift. She bought clothes, jewelry, and other items she neither needed or used. In time her apartment was crowded with small and large boxes of goods she had never worn. Dissatisfied, she continued to buy more and more, but her addiction failed to bring real happiness.
It would be like "playing a trombone with a stuck slide."
Sometimes we try to camouflage our deep hurts. But When we hide our grief and tears, where do the tears go?
Dr. Clyde Narramore talks about a group of young people returning from the mission field to enter university in the U.S. As children, a few of them were left in boarding school at a very early age where they were only allowed to cry for three nights when they were first separated from their parents.
"What did you do with your tears after that?" Dr. Clyde asked them. They replied, "We cried in our stomachs!"
That's the sort of thing that makes us physically ill. Sadness and grief, like all pure emotions, are God-given. Tears are God's method to help us "drain the pain." For example, when Jesus' friend Lazarus died, Jesus did a beautiful thing. He wept. And David, the psalmist, wept when he was separated from his dearest friend, Jonathan. Many of his Psalms are an expression of raw emotion.
The point is, when we fail to express our hurt feelings in creative positive ways, we are likely to express them in destructive ways.
When some people are carrying an overload of buried anger, for example, and it gets triggered by some seemingly insignificant incident, they explode and lash out and verbally or physically abuse a loved one. Some even lash out and kill!
Or we can internalize our feelings and implode. That is, we can become very hard, cold and distant from the ones we love the most. We build walls around our heart to protect us from feeling our painful feelings - not realizing that the same walls we build around our negative feelings also block out our positive emotions of love, joy, peace, wonder and so on. This is what Janet did.
She was bright and finished college without much trouble. But then she began to separate herself from her family and others. Janet only lived 60 miles from her parents who loved her and were concerned about her. But she took many opportunities to keep her distance from them. She installed a phone with an answering service (machine) so she could hear what people were telling her and she would not have to talk with them. Janet actually lived a world of hiding and anonymity. She filled her years with as little contact with the world as she could manage. If Janet wanted to know when her parents would be away from their home, she would contact an acquaintance who lived close to them to get the information without having to talk to her mother and dad. Unfortunately, such behavior is part of daily living of many people.
Or we may become very ill. For some men, the first symptom of buried anger or other negative emotions may be death by heart attack. Others may get ulcers, dermatitis, cancer or any of a score of other symptomatic illnesses that can take years off their lives. For me personally, when I learned to cry again, I was healed of hay fever from which I suffered relentlessly. And when I learned to get in touch with my anger and express it in healthy ways, I was healed of painful bursitis in both shoulders.
Perhaps this is why James wrote, "Confess your sins and faults to one another and pray for one another so you will be healed."1
But you ask, "Is buried anger a sin ?"
God's word says, "If you are angry, don't sin by nursing your grudge. Don't let the sun go down with you still angry - get over it quickly for when you are angry you give a mighty foothold to the devil."2 Or as another translation puts it, "In your anger, do not sin."
The emotion of anger isn't a sin. It's what we do with it that is either right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy, creative or destructive. Buried anger can turn into resentment, bitterness, and even hostility or rage.
Unconfessed guilt can also make us ill or depressed. David wrote, "There was a time when I wouldn't admit what a sinner I was. But my dishonesty made me miserable and filled my days with frustration. All day and all night your hand was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water on a sunny day until I finally admitted all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide them. I said to myself, 'I will confess them to the Lord.' And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone."3
The Purpose of Feelings
Feelings are an emotional barometer. They are an indicator of what is going on in our inner self or mind. For instance, if I lack peace, or feel guilty or anxious, my feelings are telling me that something is out of harmony and needs to be resolved.
Second, warm loving feelings keep us close to and feeling connected to the ones we love the most. . .and also to God. Emotions also put sparkle into life. People whose emotions are buried are not very dynamic.
To allow feelings to control us and act them out blindly can be very immature and childish. To be an adult is to feel our feelings and express them in healthy, appropriate and creative ways and thereby be in control of them.
God's Word says, "Surely you [God] desire truth in the inner parts," or as another translation puts it, "You deserve honesty from the heart; yes, utter sincerity and truthfulness. Oh, give me this wisdom."4
What is God saying here? I believe he is saying that we need to be honest with ourselves and with God about both our feelings and our motives. When we be this, we have discovered the key to warm, loving, and close relationships both with our loved ones and God.
When it comes to love, however, we need to realize that it is much more than a feeling. It is also a commitment of one imperfect person to another imperfect person regardless of how we feel. We need to do the loving thing consistently, even though we may not always feel like it. If our feelings are regularly lacking, we may need psychological counseling to get in touch with them and to let our loving feelings grow.
If I am out of touch with my feelings, the loving thing to do for the ones I love is to get the help I need so I can learn to feel their love and so they can feel mine and so that we can relate on a meaningful, intimate, Christ-like level.
In the meantime we need to do the loving thing whether we feel like it or not. This is part of Christian love. But simply doing the right thing is not enough. It is essential that we cultivate a healthy emotional life so we will both act and feel the way God intended us to do.
1. James 5:16 2. Ephesians 4:26-27 (TLB). 3. Psalm 32:3-5 (TLB). 4. Psalm 51:6 (NIV and TLB).
Copyright © 2000 by Dick Innes