Not too long ago, I was trying to help my daughter with her math. Payton is like other students who struggle with subjects, and her kryptonite happens to be math. As Payton and I worked on her math homework, it didn’t take long for her to get frustrated and cry. The more I pressed on, the more she got upset—and minutes later, all positive movement ground to a halt.
So, we took a breather from math for a bit, and then rendezvoused at the kitchen table to talk about why she got so upset when we worked on math. That’s when Payton dropped this big bomb on me. She told me that whenever we work on math together, she feels embarrassed, which leads to her feeling stupid and believing she's a failure.
Our families are full of emotion:
Think about who you want to spend the next holiday with.
Think about why some family members don’t talk to other family members.
Think about why you argue and fight with your loved ones.
Think about why you don’t argue or fight with your loved ones.
Emotions exist. No amount of denial can change that. For girls, boys, women, and men, emotions must be accepted so that they can be dealt with in a healthy way. Emotions are a part of who we are. Believing anything else is unhealthy and not sustainable. In fact, emotions don't just exist. Some mental illnesses often result from excess emotion. The overflow of emotion doesn't just drive mood disorders, like Major Depression, it fuels most psychological problems: phobias, anxiety, trauma, hoarding, obsessiveness, borderline personality disorder, and drug and alcohol abuse.
I mention this because many of my clients grew up in homes where emotions were not openly discussed or expressed, or they lived in situations where emotions that were freely expressed led to negative outcomes. As a result, they learned not to value emotions or express them, and these habits were carried into adulthood and into their relationships.
I love working with couples. If I could do anything all day long, it would be sitting with struggling couples and helping them sense how they got to this point in their relationship and what to do moving forward. These couples often find themselves in offices like ours, and they know strongly what they feel, but often they don’t know what to do about it.
I know that’s what I felt when Anna (my wife) and I ended up in marriage counseling. Anna was feeling strong emotions, and I was feeling numb. I felt so many extremely negative emotions and got so afraid, that eventually I determined it was better to feel nothing than to feel the extremes. I learned this in my home from my parents. In fact, as kids, we all learn a lot about how to deal with emotions from our parents. When our parents don’t value or express emotion, we learn not to value or express our emotions.
Now here is another thing I learned as a person who disconnects from my feelings—and why I think it's important for us to value and express emotions in our homes and in our families. When we choose to disconnect from our emotions, we are in essence choosing to cut off parts of ourselves and practice emotional neglect. And when we disconnect from one emotion, we disconnect access to most—if not all—of our emotions. If we don’t listen when anger or sadness warns us about a situation, we also risk losing the feeling of happiness and excitement when we find a job, a home, or a person that is just right for us. When we lose the ability to feel, we lose the ability to listen and be informed by all parts of us.
Want to know something else I learned? Suppressed feelings don’t evaporate; they eventually burst out and wreak havoc in our lives. We all know the mess a burst emotional pipe can make: ulcers and migraines, family feuds and broken friendships, anger and retaliation. Emotions are not bad. Stifling our emotions is bad.
Why is emotion so important in our families?
Emotion is what changes
A painting into a masterpiece
An occasion into a treasured memory
And a person into the love of your life.
I know what a lot of you are thinking. We can’t live by our emotions, we can’t trust our emotions, and emotions are dangerous. I have heard these things my whole life, and I have lived them out to see the outcomes they produce. I have lived years hiding from my emotions and suppressing them. (You can ask my wife how she liked that. It only took us 10 months of marriage counseling to regain its vibrancy.) I related to God with no emotions, which led me into a wilderness. I pastored with no emotion, which led to a dwindling congregation.
Here is what I believe and what I have come to understand. Many of our issues stem from hiding from our true emotions. When I am afraid and I tell Anna I am afraid, she comforts me. When I feel insecure at work, I share that with trusted co-workers, and they reassure me. When I am angry because I feel disrespected by a family member, I let them know and ask for my needs to be met.
I hid for far too long. I learned to hide from the home I grew up in, and I spent the first 10 years of my marriage hiding. I had to come to a determination that I can't hide anymore. If I can encourage you today, create an environment at home where emotions are valued and appreciated.
Now, you might be asking . . . is this biblical and is this the way we are to relate to God? Great question. Well let me tell you what I see in scripture about how God relates to us:
For God so loved the world, that He sent His one and only Son. (John 3:16)
Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore He will rise up to show you compassion. (Isaiah 30:18)
So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom. (Luke 12:32)
Ask, Seek, Knock – Tell me what you want, what you need. (Matthew 7:7-12)
Come to me all of you who are tired, weary, and heavy burdened. (Matthew 11:28)
This is a picture of a God who is intimately connected and passionately engaged. This is a God who is moved by our failures and successes, who cares about who we are now, and who we are becoming. This is not a distant being, but one who understands things like sorrow and joy—not in an academic, intellectual way—but because of His personal experience.
The Bible paints a picture of a God who has powerful emotions, who is even motivated by these emotions—and all without sin. That is a picture of hope for us. It means that our emotions are not a flaw in the design or a sinful condition to be overcome. There is a way to live with our emotions, to experience them powerfully, and still grow and mature spiritually. We cannot grow spiritually to the level God desires if our emotions don’t grow and mature, as well. He wants us to glorify Him with our feelings. In fact, we can’t honor and obey Him without our feelings! Far from being bad and unreliable, feelings are actually central to loving and serving God.
So if our feelings matter to God, they should matter to us—and if they matter to us, they should matter to our families and our kids and our spouses. We need to value emotions and raise their level of importance in our homes.