What are your emotions telling you? Emotions can be tricky to understand, much less manage. Interwoven with our emotions are thoughts and physical sensations. It takes inner attentiveness to unwind them from one another and process what our feelings are communicating to us. We often judge our emotions to be good if they make us feel happy and bad if they make us uncomfortable in any way. But what if we were able to receive those emotions as simply information to process?
Emotions teach you about you
Emotions are instinctive reactions to our perceived circumstances, whether happy or dire. If we perceive fun circumstances, we'll likely feel joy and happiness. If we perceive threatening circumstances, we'll feel fearful, defensive, or angry. Your emotions are real, often unsolicited responses of your body, designed to help you respond quickly to your perceptions. Without intention, you might smile to see an old friend, or move away from a foreboding stranger, or clench your fists when overhearing an insult. Often we don't feel and react by choice as our body responds to what our minds think is happening.
But your perceptions aren't always a complete picture of what's truly happening. Our minds have limited information and filters for what's important. You might be thrilled to see and old friend who happens to turn out to be a stranger after all. You might be afraid of someone who means no harm. You might misperceive a comment as a slight. Your emotions are real, but not always the truth, and they happen before we even notice. Given a past bad experience, we might interpret every new experience in terms of the old one. When we act out of emotion, sometimes we get it wrong, so it always helps to take a step back and ask "What am I feeling?" and more deeply "To what am I reacting?" Your emotions are true data about what's going on inside you, so we can learn about ourselves by observing our emotions in self-reflection.
Take an Inventory
I am learning through the practice of mindfulness to be present in the moment and take notice of all that I am experiencing, emotionally and physically. I scan my body to feel the tension I am holding in my muscles and guide my body to relax. I note the physical sensations as well as the thoughts, and feelings that comprise my everyday moments. As I tune in to how I am experiencing the world around me, I marvel at how God has crafted our bodies. I hear the noises of my breathing as my chest rises and falls. I note the warmth of the sun on my face and the chilliness of the breeze. I recognize my wandering thoughts and emotions swirling inside my head.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19:14).
Set aside judgement
Emotions are neither good nor bad. They are information about how you perceive and respond that you can process. Condemning emotions as bad or negative misses the understanding that all of these emotions are gifts from God to help us cope. It is okay to feel all the feelings, even the ones that make us sad or uncomfortable. All of our feelings provide us with information about how we are processing the events around us.
Instead of leading with judgement, become curious and wonder about our emotions. When you feel emotion bubbling up, stop to notice it and name it. What is this I feel? Am I sad? envious? afraid? insulted? To what perception am I reacting? What in this moment is getting a hook in my heart? It's all information about your underlying perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that you can step back to process with genuine curiosity. As strong feelings creep up, wonder about what is happening emotionally and receive it as information.
Respond to yourself with grace
I have been surprised to see how judgmental my own thoughts can be toward myself. I would never speak to another human being the way I talk to myself. It has been a learning curve for me to practice grace toward myself. I remember a day that I was watering a hanging basket of flowers just burnt from the sun and desperately in need of water. I felt such empathy for the neglected plant and it caused me to wonder about how I was neglecting my own needs at the expense of others. What might it look like for myself to care for the emotions that I was experiencing?
- When I am feeling stressed what is the grace-filled response to myself? Do I allow myself to slow down? Do I recognize the weariness of my body and engage in self-care?
- When I feel anxiety what is the grace-filled response? Do I try to push past my fear or do I take the time to ground myself in my surroundings and remind myself that I can do hard things with God walking with me.
- What is the grace-filled response to feelings of discouragement? Do I play the negative tapes in my head to reinforce my sense of failure or do I comfort myself with the encouragement that setbacks are a part of life that provides learning opportunities.
- What is the grace-filled response to feeling sad? Do I allow myself the opportunity to lament honest losses or do I chide myself for being self-absorbed? Do I wallow in the sadness or do I let the lament allow me to look for joy and practice gratitude?
- What is the grace-filled response to feelings of anger? Do I let it fuel hurtful actions or do I address where it originated? Do I consider the underlying injustice that triggered the anger and consider how I can be a voice speaking against justice?
The Holy Spirit is at work renewing our hearts and minds and transforming our lives. God calls us to take our emotions and thoughts captive to himself. Our thoughts and emotions are reordered when they encounter God’s grace.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).
We have an opportunity to tune into our emotions and look at them with curiosity instead of judgment. We can respond to those emotions with the same grace that God has given to us.