Americans today are polarized, resulting in lots of emotional outbursts — especially on social media. I have been thinking a lot about our emotions, moods, and feelings. How should we view these powerful sensations, and what role should they play in our lives?
Take the below true or false quiz, and see if you agree with my conclusions. These common assertions were purloined from real-life conversations.
1. True or False: ‘I am the authority on my feelings.’
True. My feelings are unique to me alone. They are completely internal; no one else can see them. Unless I express my feelings, no one can share them.
The Bible puts it eloquently: “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Proverbs 14:10). We should be careful not to assume that we know what someone else is feeling or thinking. We are only privy to the portion of their internal life that they choose to expose.
But what is the purpose of stating the obvious? The statement, “I am the authority on my feelings” is intended to shut down debate, because you can never know how I feel. Yet my expression of my feelings should not end the conversation. Just because I am the authority on my feelings, it does not follow that my feelings have authority over me or anyone else. We can still fruitfully discuss and even debate the appropriate implications of and responses to my feelings.
Caveat: As a Christian, I believe that God sees and understands my feelings more clearly than I do. That makes me merely the human authority on my feelings.
2. True or False: ‘You must accept what I feel.’
True. You must accept that I feel what I feel as presented by me. I am the authority on what my feelings are. You cannot dispute what my feelings are because they are 100 percent subjective and non-observable, except by me.
On its face, this statement is a request for sympathy, to put yourself in the shoes of the speaker. A good friend will listen and sympathize with others’ feelings. As the Apostle Paul admonishes us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15). You can only do this if you take the time to learn what the other person is feeling, from him.
Caveat: You don’t have to accept that my feelings are truthful, helpful, appropriate, godly, or any other adjective.
3. True or False: ‘I have to listen to my feelings.’
True. You should listen to your feelings — in the sense of hearing them. Our feelings give us important information. If we feel sad, irritated, or anxious, we should stop and listen. We should “feel the feelings” and probe the origin of those feelings. Since we are the only mortals who have access to our feelings, we should be careful observers.
The biblical psalmists were in tune with their feelings and able to describe their inner experiences vividly. “My soul is consumed with longing … My soul clings to the dust … my soul melts away for sorrow … Hot indignation seizes me … My flesh trembles … My zeal consumes me … I look at the faithless with disgust …” all in one Psalm! (Psalm 119:20, 25, 28, 53, 120, 139, 158). Reading and meditating on the Psalms is a great way to process our feelings constructively before God.
Caveat: You should not listen to your feelings in the sense of obeying them. Our feelings ebb and flow like the tide, and sometimes they are not even internally consistent. We have all experienced sadness for no reason, or stifled an inappropriate chuckle. “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (Proverbs 14:13).
Because our emotions are subjective and ever-changing, we cannot trust them as a basis for action in the real world. Just imagine the gooey smiles of a couple in love, and you know that our emotions can blind us, even deceive us. What begins as a pleasant emotion can end in terrible pain.
In addition, the Bible teaches that human nature is fallen, including our emotions. According to the weeping prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). So while it is good to hear our feelings, it is not good to automatically obey them.
4. True or False: ‘You must validate my feelings.’
False. Because feelings are internal and subjective, they may or may not fit objective reality. If my feelings are telling me lies about myself or the world, I need to know that. True compassion will not reinforce dysfunction: “Poor thing! No wonder you are upset.” True compassion will help me recognize and break free from my unhealthy emotions.
It is excruciating to open our tender feelings to the light. It takes courage to say with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart!” (Psalm 139:23). On the flip side, it also takes courage to “speak the truth in love,” to tell another person that her feelings are leading her down a deadly path — especially when that person is very emotional! But this is the gift true friends give each other. This is what we need to grow stronger and more mature.
Caveat: For best results, make sure you have spent sufficient time listening to the other person’s feelings before challenging her. See no. 2 above.
5. True or False: ‘I feel unsafe, therefore I am unsafe.’
False. There is a big difference between not feeling safe and not being safe. You should believe me when I say I feel unsafe. But before taking drastic action, you should confirm I actually am unsafe.
I recently read the memoir of a “smoke jumper.” Imagine sky-diving into a forest fire. Could anything be scarier? Yet acting against our emotions can be just as terrifying. The Bible commands us, both men and women, to take courage. Only God is to be feared. When we experience a generalized “spirit of fear,” we can be sure that is not from God (2 Timothy 1:7).
Caveat: Actual threats to safety should be addressed immediately, whether the potential victim feels unsafe or not.
6. True or False: ‘You must give me a safe space for my feelings.’
False. I am not entitled to retreat to an emotional safe space at the least provocation. When we talk about emotional safe spaces, what we mean are places where our feelings are free from challenge and debate. But freedom from challenge means no growth. See no. 4 above. Because our feelings are 100 percent internal, the more we shield them from outside critique, the higher the risk they will deviate from reality.
For Christians, we believe God is our shelter in every storm, including emotional storms (see, e.g., Psalm 91). God welcomes us when we run to him. At the same time, God’s intent is not to insulate our emotions, but to change our hearts. This is often a painful process that does not feel safe at all.
Caveat: When denying entitlement to an emotional safe space, the normal rules of politeness still apply.
7. True or False: ‘It’s bad for me to stuff my feelings.’
False. There are many situations where it is appropriate, even mandatory, to stuff our feelings. Your emotions may be boiling at a messy co-worker, but exploding will only make matters worse. Even if you are at home with sympathetic family members, vomiting your feelings all over them is generally not productive.
Along with courage, self-control has become a forgotten virtue. Sometimes we just have to suck it up. When we give our feelings free reign, we unleash destruction. “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” (Proverbs 25:28).
Caveat: If you are able to get alone and process your emotions (see question 3), this can assist your efforts at self-control. Talking to a trusted older friend or professional counselor can also help release pressure.
So how was your score? As you scroll through social media this week, make sure to feel your feelings. But have the courage to challenge them as well. And if someone tries any of these statements on you, pause before responding.