How Should We Handle Overwhelming Feelings?

Sue Bohlin's picture

What is the biblical perspective on how to handle overwhelming feelings?

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to do that.

The healthy way to deal with strong feelings starts with thinking wisely about feelings in general. Our pastor often says that feelings are real (we do feel them, often intensely), but they're not reliable (they make terrible indicators of what is true). So we should acknowledge them, but not be led by them.

Especially powerful, overwhelming feelings.

Allowing yourself to be controlled by your feelings is unwise and immature. The flip side of that is our example of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. No one ever experienced the strength of horrific feelings like He did, to the point of sweating blood. He allowed Himself to feel His feelings, but then He turned in trust to His Father, submitting to His will. He set the bar for how to handle overwhelming feelings: feel the feelings, and trust the Lord.

Often, though, especially in the young, people deal with their strong feelings in unhealthy ways.

Stuff them. One of my friends refers to her "vault," the supposedly safe, impenetrable locker where all the painful feelings of her horrific childhood were supposed to stay stashed. Out of sight, out of mind, out of touch. Until the vault developed cracks, and those strong feelings of pain and shame and horror and fear started slipping out sideways into her relationships and her dreams.

This is not God's plan for emotional health. David wrote in Psalm 51:6, "You (God) desire truth in my innermost being." In Romans 1, Paul referred to those who "suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (1:18). Stuffing and denying feelings is not truthful. And it doesn't make them go away. Someone even wrote a book titled, "Feelings Buried Alive Never Die."

Let them explode. Without self-control, the angry person can vent his or her anger with verbal shrapnel and even physical abuse. Road rage, anyone? (I blogged about this in The Problem with Heart Bombs.)

Self-injure. The "solution" of cutting, burning, skin-picking, hair-pulling, and other forms of self-injury has been growing in popularity over the past decade or so. These destructive behaviors can provide momentary relief by distracting attention to soul pain by causing body pain. When it becomes an addiction, the release of endorphins, feel-good brain chemicals, provides an additional reason to keep repeating it.

Those choosing to self-injure need an extra measure of grace and understanding, because their level of soul pain is especially high to go to that extreme. In addition to the emotional pain, I believe they are experiencing a nasty spiritual warfare attack. Jesus said that our enemy, Satan, "comes only to steal, kill and destroy" (John 10:10). The "slow suicide" of self-injury is a pernicious way to do that. I do think that cutting is a demonic suggestion, based on the story in 1 Kings 18 where the prophets of the false god Baal cut themselves trying to get the attention of their idol. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 10 that sacrifices made to the false gods of idols are actually sacrifices to demons, so there is a biblical connection between cutting and demonic influence. (I'm not saying anything about demon possession, which is not even a good biblical interpretation of the New Testament word demonize; rather, I think those who cut hear the whisper from the enemy, whose native tongue is lying [John 8:44]: "Cutting will help. Cutting will make me feel better. Cutting is the answer.")

God's word offers us some healthy ways to express strong, overwhelming feelings.

Talk about them. The highly sensitive and emotional King David invited the Lord into his strong feelings, and he used words to express the agony of his heart. Many of the psalms are powerful expressions of the psalmists' emotions. Consider Psalm 55:1-5 for example:

"Listen to my prayer, O God. Do not ignore my cry for help! Please listen and answer me, for I am overwhelmed by my troubles. My enemies shout at me, making loud and wicked threats. They bring trouble on me and angrily hunt me down. My heart pounds in my chest. The terror of death assaults me. Fear and trembling overwhelm me, and I can't stop shaking."

When overwhelmed by strong emotions, telling someone else who can be trusted to listen respectfully and with understanding is a healthy, constructive way to express feelings.

Writing one's thoughts and feelings in a journal is a powerful process to move the feelings from the inside to the outside. (I recently wrote about that here: Pen > Puter)

Let yourself cry. Then there is God's good gift of tears. God created us with tear ducts as a way for strong feelings to leave the body, moving from our hearts on the inside to our cheeks on the outside, and that is much better, much healthier, than cutting so that the "red tears" flow.

Psalm 56:8 shows us that David was not afraid to let his tears fall:

"You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book."

God considers our tears precious enough to collect!

Sometimes, though, people have trouble accessing their unshed tears. They are locked up inside. Often this is because of having made a self-protective inner vow, usually many years ago: "I will not cry." It was considered unsafe because crying resulted in shaming or being punished. When children make a personal inner vow like that, it functions like the cruise control on a car, controlling the speed. The little person who made the vow many years before created a hard and fast life-rule, and until it is addressed and renounced, it stays in place. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things." One of those childish things can be making an inner vow—which ends up, from the perspective of adulthood, being what the Bible calls a "foolish vow" (Lev. 5:4-6). And the wise thing to do with a foolish vow is break it, or renounce it or cast it off in Jesus' name. Romans 13:12 instructs us to cast off deeds of darkness, which this kind of vow would be because it is the opposite of trusting in God.

What should we do with hard, overwhelming feelings?

• Don't try to hide from them or stuff them.
• Acknowledge them and let yourself feel them. Invite Jesus into your feelings.
• Talk about how you feel, and what you're thinking, with a safe person.
• Let yourself cry them out of your body one tear at a time.

And follow the example of the Lord Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man: Feel the feelings, and trust the Lord.

Comments

Thank you Sue for this. You always know what to say!  This really is helpful to me! I will refer to this again and again.  Your a great friend and inspriation!  Thank you for you! I really do appreciate you!  

Sue Bohlin's picture

I'm delighted you read my post, Cheryl, and that you found it helpful! You are dear to me!

Thank you Sue for this read. Its very helpful!  I will refer to this as often as i need to!  I am one to stuff and or blow up depending on the situation.  I appreciate your insight!  

Sue Bohlin's picture

Thank you for your comments! I think when we know we have other choices than what our flesh tells us, it's easier to make a wise and mature choice, huh?!  ;-)

I am wanting to learn God's word for a long time but din't really put a lot of effort into it. Tonight I was laying in bed when all of a sudden I felt the need to open my bible but was feeling a little frustrated because I didn't know where to start. So I opened my computer and google Bible Studies, I came up with a lot of sites and click to a few of them but wasn't really convinced. I clicked on this site and the first think that came up after clicking engage was your blog. It always surprises me how God works in mysterious ways. This is exactly what I'm going through right now. I don't know how to control my emotions and feelings and most of the time say hurtful things. I really don't like to read or study but for some reason I read everything you wrote. This is what got stuck in my mind... "Allowing yourself to be controlled by your feelings is unwise and immature." I absolutely agree, like most people I don't like to hear the truth about me. I think I am always right and people should already know what I am thinking which I know that is immature. I really appreciate your time to write this and wanted to help others with your knowledge.

Sue Bohlin's picture

I love hearing stories of God directing people to find just the thing to help! I am honored that He directed you to my blog post. I hope it continues to feed your soul with wisdom!

Thank you, Sue for clearly stating what we all need to hear.  After my stroke I had a very hard time controlling my emotions. As many as 50 percent of stroke victims go through this, but it becomes something that I was constantly aware of. Would I embarass mysrlf or others when I could not stop crying....or laughing? I think I've always been a spontanious person; not afraid of my emotions.  This was very different and troubling......Then when JE died early in 2014, The fears I had were multiplied. What if I couldn't make it through a memorial service or an evening's visitation without compltetely breaking down? There were my children and grandchildren to think of and JE's aged and fragile mother.  So I prayed and I shut down those strong emotions. My memories of those hard days are remarkable. I did not cry, I did not moan; but when those days ended and I came back into our home I was exaushted.  When I did finally sleep, I cried. I was astonished at my wet pillow when I awakened. This happened over and over. My revelation through all this was, our Lord is aware of ALL of my emotions; not only the crying, but also the fear of crying. He was my stronghold through all of my sadness and He honored my troubled heart over the others that I cared for.....Then when the time was right, He just let me cry.
Thank you for giving me a reason to share.....and thank you for your wisdom.
Carol

Sue Bohlin's picture

Precious sister, thank you for sharing your story. It not only shines a light on the goodness and gentleness of our Lord, but it reveals your spiritual maturity and the beauty of a godly woman who trusts the Lord. 

I did not know JE had graduated. I am so, so sorry, dear Carol. ::HUG::

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