When Our Feelings Don’t Make Sense

In Anger, Articles, Life Issues, Life Skills by Lewis Lau

Imagine it’s 2009, and you are movie star Christian Bale (I know, this event was a long time ago, but work with me).

You’re in the middle of filming a scene, and the cinematographer walks onto set and into your eyeline to check a light.

It’s a minor irritant, but something within you takes over at that moment, and you explode. You go on an expletive-filled verbal rampage that is recorded, uploaded and viewed by millions on YouTube (I don’t recommend watching it).

The incident threatens to derail both the movie and your entire career. Days later, you release a statement admitting how unbelievably embarrassed you are for your behaviour.

The defining feature of mental health is having emotional states that fit their context and are an accurate response to situations we face.

What do we do, though, when we run into feelings that don’t make sense within context? How do we keep them from ruining our lives?

Emotions That Don’t Make Sense

Most of us haven’t had our worst moments go viral, but we’ve likely gone through our fair share of emotional outbursts that are entirely disproportionate to the situation at hand. Even as disciples of Jesus, we aren’t immune to being flooded by difficult emotions and allowing them to guide our decision-making.

This issue plays out in many aspects of our lives: relationships, friendships, work, and even at church. I often wonder whether many heartbreaking situations in ministry, including abuses, disqualifications, and church splits, could be prevented if we were better equipped with tools and skills to regulate these difficult emotions when they arise.

Emotional Regulation: The Key to Self-Control

Generally, “emotional regulation” means having healthy ways to monitor and manage our wide range of feelings. When we consider the costs and consequences of our inability to regulate our emotions, we understand the emphasis Scripture places on self-control (e.g. 1 Peter 1:6; 1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 3:3, etc.). Proverbs 25:28 compares people who can’t manage their temper to cities whose walls are broken down. What happens to cities without walls? They’re completely vulnerable to being attacked by the enemy, whose objective is to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10).

Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Without the Holy Spirit, we’re hopeless, but with Him who strengthens us, we can do all things (Philippians 4:13). That said, there can be wisdom gleaned from contemporary psychology that supports the work of the Spirit within us.

Clinical psychologist Sue Johnson presents four key components of emotional regulation. It refers to our ability to:

  1. Access (i.e., pay attention to) a wide range of emotions
  2. Identify those emotions clearly
  3. Modify them (i.e., reducing or amplifying them)
  4. Use them as sources of information and to guide our thinking/acting in ways appropriate to the situation

Let’s be honest—as men, we often don’t get past step two in this process. For many of us, the ability to acknowledge and identify our emotions is the primary battle. Without this foundation, though, we’ll continue to be unconsciously enslaved by those feelings. Awareness is the first step to freedom.

Still, we’ll find that modifying and utilizing our emotions productively is a tough skill to learn. Ultimately, the key is taking leadership over our emotions rather than being led by them.

Occasionally, we may find ourselves in situations where our emotions seem to grab the steering wheel and drive us off the road. For example, some guys notice an unusual amount of anxiety when their significant other doesn’t text back soon enough. Others feel disproportionately angry when certain comments, which are otherwise innocent, are made at home or work.

The critical question to constantly ask ourselves in these moments is: Is my emotional reaction right now proportionate and reasonable given the immediate situation?

When it isn’t, I kind of get excited.

Understanding Emotions That Don’t Make Sense

Okay, that’s a weird note for me to end that last section on, but let me explain.

In my training as a psychotherapist, I’ve discovered that whenever emotions are disproportionate to the immediate situation, there’s usually something else worth exploring.

Nine times out of ten, those intense emotions are actually masking pain.

Here’s the idea, as psychotherapist Terry Real describes it:

  • We all carry around wounds from our past, often from our childhood, that we’ve spent most of our lives avoiding.
  • When we experienced those wounds, we developed ways of coping with the pain that became “crutches” we have leaned on ever since. Often, it’s things like perfectionism, striving, or the need to be in control, as examples.
  • When those crutches are threatened, we either panic or lash out. Hence, anxiety and anger show up. What was meant to help us in pain (adaptive) has become unhelpful today (maladaptive).

Here’s where Christians can get excited. Not only do we have the Holy Spirit to help us discover the deep-rooted pain driving our maladaptive responses, but we also have the One who knows us better than ourselves to lead us toward complete healing, or what therapists call corrective emotional experiences.

The Power of His Spirit: An Invitation

          Search me, God, and know my heart;
          Put me to the test and know my anxious thoughts;
          And see if there is any hurtful way in me,
          And lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalms 139:23-24)

David’s prayer here illustrates a profoundly powerful invitation available to us. When we have no idea what’s happening in our emotional lives, we ask the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and pinpoint the root of the problem. When He reveals any pains or wounds, He can lead us toward healing, restoration, and fullness of life. This is the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).

The renewing of our minds is a process through which the Gospel and the truth of who God is progressively reaches deeper parts of our souls. In this process, the unbelief, doubt, and fear we’ve been harbouring melt away.

The Holy Spirit has the power to restore our minds so that our emotional and psychological systems are functioning as they were designed to. We were created to operate in a way where the Holy Spirit leads our internal lives.

When we surrender the leadership of our internal lives to the Holy Spirit, we receive much more than just the ability to regulate our emotions. We receive a whole new mind that’s more valuable, more powerful, and more capable of victory than the entire US Armed Forces (see Proverbs 16:32)

How’s that for an invitation?

About
Lewis Lau
Lewis Lau is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying). He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in Psychology and Applied Health Sciences (respectively) from Brock University, in addition to a M.A. degree in Counselling Psychology from Yorkville University. In addition to his psychotherapy work, he is currently completing a Ministry Internship program at Lakemount Worship Centre and theological training from Portland Bible College. His life's passion is to connect young adults and men to the life-changing presence of Jesus Christ.
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Lewis Lau
Lewis Lau is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying). He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in Psychology and Applied Health Sciences (respectively) from Brock University, in addition to a M.A. degree in Counselling Psychology from Yorkville University. In addition to his psychotherapy work, he is currently completing a Ministry Internship program at Lakemount Worship Centre and theological training from Portland Bible College. His life's passion is to connect young adults and men to the life-changing presence of Jesus Christ.