emotions

Dealing with Difficult Emotions as a Christian Bloke

5 July 2023

6.8 MINS

I can’t believe they said that.  

I feel so patronised, so demeaned, and so angry. 

I’m overwhelmed by my emotions — they’re coursing through my body in waves. I can’t think. I can’t focus on anything else. I’m flooded with anger. I feel trapped. I feel hijacked by these feelings. And I can’t seem to escape them. 

Most of us have been in situations where we’ve felt the tidal wave of negative emotions — especially anger or sadness — wash over us, and carry us along. We can’t think straight. And anything we say is propelled by our negative emotions. The thoughts and feelings stay with us at work and home, and are companions throughout the night. The emotion greets us in the morning and shapes our thoughts for days.

These emotions also shape how we relate to others, often in unhelpful ways.

Our spouse might notice and ask what’s wrong. ‘Nothing!’ we snap, making it plain that something is wrong. Our kids might have their usual tussle in the back of the car, and we explode — ‘Can’t you kids just behave for once!?’ we yell.

And we withdraw. We brood. We may even adopt the victim mentality.

Or we distract. We binge on Netflix. Perhaps we do destructive things like watch porn. Or drink more than we should. Anything to distract us from the painful emotion that’s taken over our lives.

What’s going on?

The simple answer is we’re not dealing well with our difficult emotions.

And we blokes often struggle with our emotions more than females do. For cultural reasons, it hasn’t been acceptable for males to speak about our feelings (although that’s changing). We often don’t know what to do with emotions — whether our own or others (especially if they’re strong, painful emotions). We blokes prefer to fix problems, and emotions are rarely an easy fix.

And I’m no different.

While I am a Christian and have been blessed with many Christian and non-Christian friends who are happy to talk about their emotions, I’m still learning and growing in this critical area.

Here are 11 lessons I’ve learned about dealing well with difficult emotions.

1) Dealing well with our emotions is not a feminine characteristic. It’s a Biblical characteristic.

Traditionally, our culture hasn’t encouraged blokes to talk about their emotions.

Talking about feelings feels too mushy, and not what blokes do. Better to stick with talk about work or the footy. While this is changing with a growing awareness of men’s mental health, we must realise that the stoic stiff upper lip British way of dealing with emotions is not biblical — quite the opposite.

If you read the Psalms, you’ll see people keenly aware of their feelings. These Psalmists (primarily men) are ‘in touch’ with their emotions, describing them in vivid 3-D surround sound detail:

Psalm 6:6 — I am weary from groaning; all night I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.

Psalm 42:5 — Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?

And when we come to the Messiah whom the Psalms point to — Christ Jesus — we see a man who isn’t scared of his emotions, but open about them (e.g. at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11:33-36), or even anger at the moneychangers in the Temple (Jn 2:15-17).

2) Our emotions are not the result of the Fall, but they are affected by the Fall.

God created us to have emotions.

As His image bearers, we’re emotional beings. We’re made to experience the emotions of joy, contentment, and love that flow from our relationship with him.

Yet, our emotions are also affected by the fall. We feel things we shouldn’t. A desire for beauty so quickly turns into lust or jealousy. A desire for good relationships turns into a desire for control. Our desires become disordered: we desire earthly goods — often legitimate blessings, like health and good relationships — more than we desire God.

3) If you don’t deal well with your difficult emotions, they can hijack your life.

If you don’t deal well with your emotions, they can hijack your life and lead you to do things that dishonour God and things you regret.

You know you’re not dealing well with your emotions if you constantly ruminate on them, removing yourself emotionally from those around you even if you’re physically present. You’re not dealing with your emotions if you’re distracting yourself to avoid painful feelings.

Or maybe you try hard to suppress these emotions (but like ‘whack-a-mole’, they always rear their heads, often in unexpected and sometimes destructive ways).

There are always consequences if you don’t deal well with difficult emotions.

4) Difficult emotions can distort your view of reality

We’re driven by our emotions more than by our reason.

And difficult emotions like anger often distort and narrow our view of reality. So if you’re angry with a boss, spouse, or family member, these emotions can lead us to see them as villains and yourself as the victim.

We can then say and do things that are unreasonable given the truth of the situation. No wonder the Bible warns us, ‘In your anger do not sin.’ (Eph 4:26)

5) Dealing well with your emotions begins by being aware of them.

You can’t deal with things you’re not aware of.

On the flip side, if you’re aware of your anger, sadness, or any other difficult emotion, you can begin responding to them constructively.

The first step is to become aware of the story we’re telling ourselves that’s driving our emotions.

6) Our emotions are driven by the story we tell ourselves (not by what’s happening to us).

One of the most significant insights I’ve learned over the last decade is that our emotions are driven not by what’s happening to us, but by our interpretation of those events.

That’s a game-changer when it comes to dealing well with our emotions.

It goes like this: Your boss says something to you, and you feel upset. Initially, you might think to yourself that they are making you feel angry.

But in reality, what’s happening is this:

Event —> Your Interpretation of the event —> Feelings arising from your interpretation of the event.

So, in the above example, if your boss criticises you for your work, your interpretation might be a ‘villain story’, where they are the villain who’s being unfair, and you’re the unfortunate victim. If that’s the story you’re telling yourself, then, of course, you will feel angry.

7) If you want different emotions, you need to tell yourself a different story.

If you change the story you tell yourself, you will feel something different.

For example, if you saw your boss as being at least partly, if not mostly, right, then chances are you’ll feel different about what she said. You’ll probably feel more humbled and apologetic than upset and angry.

And once we realise that our interpretation of events, not events themselves, affects how we feel, we start seeing this all throughout Scripture. Have a look at the first couple of verses in Psalm 46:1,

‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way.’

Even though the world around us is falling apart (the event), we’re still not afraid (the feeling). Why? Because of what we interpret about the event (God is with us).

8) The first thing to do with difficult emotions is to bring them before God, as the Psalmists do.

If you’re anything like me, and you feel your difficult emotions rise above the legal limit when something painful happens, the immediate response is to wallow in your anger or self-pity. (We all have different triggers that trigger painful emotions. For me, it’s the perception of being hard done by people whose opinion matters. For others, it might be comments about their body or their abilities.)

You don’t run to God. You don’t even think about God (you’re so flooded with emotion).

But the best thing we can do with our emotions is bring them before our heavenly Father asap, crying out to him like Job, or the Psalmists:

‘O God, be not far from me;

O my God, make haste to help me!’

(Psalm 71:12)

9) Naming your emotions helps you soothe those difficult emotions and ‘come to terms’ with them

Another way to deal with difficult emotions is to name them.

If we’re able to name the emotion that we’re feeling — anger, sadness, confusion, frustration, and so on – our mind literally ‘comes to terms’ with them, and they start calming down.

As neuro researcher Dan Siegal points out:

‘[R]esearch shows that merely assigning a name or label to what we feel literally calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry in the right hemisphere [of the brain].’
— Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child (Random House, 2012), p. 27

I’ve also heard it said that people who can name their emotions are less likely to suffer mental health issues than those who can’t.

10) Under God, growth often happens as we learn to process the painful emotions in life.

God in His wisdom brings these difficult situations into our life not to destroy us, but to grow us. It’s through painful and difficult situations that we get the opportunity to process our stories and the painful emotions, which leads to growth in godliness and maturity:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
~ James 1:2-4

11) You can’t be emotionally mature unless you know how to process the painful emotions in your life.

Can you grow in Christian and emotional maturity if you leave your painful emotions unprocessed?

Not really. If you leave your painful emotions unprocessed, they’ll be emotional equivalents of ‘Improvised Explosive Devices’, that explode at unexpected and unwanted times. They’ll hamper your ability to relate well to difficult situations (especially high-stakes emotional situations), and can lead you to be reactive in unhelpful ways.

Fellas, this is where many of us are stuck. If we don’t process the complex emotions that arise from difficult situations (e.g., conflict with a loved one), we’ll keep responding in the same unhelpful ways if and when those difficult situations arise.

___

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

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