Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sources of Emotional Problems (Emotions Part 4 of 4)

            Here I would like to come full circle in this series about emotions and return to our first question: are emotions good or bad? While we came to the conclusion that emotions are good, because they help us express our needs and motivate us towards action, we have also noted that emotions can sometimes become problematic. In this final post, I want to take a deeper look at how emotions can cause difficulties in our lives.
            One way that emotions become problematic is when the emotion does not produce change. If emotions are a signal for some type of action we should be taking, such as setting a boundary with an intrusive individual, but we do not know how to take that action, then we will feel stress. The key to resolving stress is to identify what action needs to be made and then making that change, which often requires tenacious courage, as well as support from others. On the other hand, if the emotion is a signal that something is wrong internally and cannot be easily fixed, such as feeling ashamed about having a bad temper, then the typical response is to become numb. The key to overcoming numbness is to focus on transformation of the self. Once you stop numbing the feelings, the motivation to change often returns so that you can change.
            A second way that emotions cause problems is when people lack the ability to regulate their emotions, or express them appropriately. Some people tend towards over-regulation, where they tend to inhibit all feelings, while others may under-regulate their feelings, becoming emotional or angry easily. The key here is finding homeostasis, or a balance point in your emotional life, where you can experience the passion of emotions but also be able to function effectively and achieve your goals. The key is to be able to allow your emotions to arise in response to your life situation but also to be able to resolve those emotions so that they do not become too intense or endure for too long. Problems with either under- or over-regulation of emotions lead to a lack of homeostasis, which leads to a less than fulfilling life.
            The last way that emotions can challenge our lives is when our emotions lead us to make improper conclusions about our life in the world. Emotions are crucial for making meaning, such as when we learn that life is precious while grieving the loss of a loved one. However, some emotions, such as depression, can lead us to believe life is hopeless or that nobody loves us. We probably know many people who have abandoned faith in God because they encountered difficult circumstances in their life and were unable to make meaning of these times. This process of meaning-making is one where emotions shape our thoughts considerably and where we are subject to making incredibly false conclusions.
            As you can see, emotions can cause tremendous problems in our lives: stress, numbness, being over-reactive, lacking joy, and leading us to miss the real meaning of our lives. Nonetheless, emotions are a gift that God has given us so that we may be fully alive. I hope that you may find the path that leads you to live the emotional life that God has in store for you, where you can feel joy, hope, and love.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Internal and External Emotions (Emotions Part 3 of 4)

            As a follow-up to the last blog, I would like to go into a little more detail about what we causes us to become emotional. In general, we can differentiate emotional reactions to external events from reactions we have to our own internal processes. External emotions are reactions to anything that occurs outside of our own experience, such as being ignored by a friend or dealing with hot weather. These emotions give meaning to the world and allow us to see how these events will affect our well-being.  Being afraid of heights is meant to help us become aware that falling from a high point can hurt us.
            Internal emotions, on the other hand, are reactions to our own thoughts, perceptions, and emotions. With internal emotions, we are often reacting to our own emotions. These internal emotions allow us to change who we are and the goals we have. In their proper form, internal emotions allow us to see how we reacted in a particular situation and grow towards maturity. It is good for us to feel embarrassed if we commit a social faux-pas or to feel satisfied if we share our wealth. These emotions push us to continue to grow.
            However, internal emotions can also be destructive. If I constantly criticize myself for my actions, my fear of making a mistake may actually become so intense that I can no longer function well, thus leading to more mistakes. Feelings of shame are internal emotions that no longer help us to become better people but may actually lead us towards hopelessness and depression. These types of dysfunctional internal emotions are often the root of many types of psychological disorders. The task we have is to differentiate between external and internal emotions, paying particular attention to emotions about ourselves that may no longer be helping us thrive.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Primary and Secondary Emotions (Emotions Part 2 of 4)

            One way of understanding emotions is to differentiate between primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are the first reactions we have to a situation. For instance, if we are driving and another driver cuts us off in a dangerous manner, our primary emotion is fear. Secondary emotions are reactions to our own emotional and cognitive processes. So, if our initial feeling of fear in response to being cut off was unpleasant, we may start to get angry as a means of asserting our right to be able to drive without being cut-off, which helps restore our sense of control and lessens our fear.
            Generally, there is nothing to be done with primary emotions except acknowledge the feelings and allow yourself to experience them. Your primary emotions are basic reactions to a particular situation and are thus neither bad nor good (see previous blog). Primary emotions will generally dissipate fairly quickly if you accept them as they occur. Secondary emotions, on the other hand, require a little bit more cognitive processing to move past. You may get scared by a bad driver for a moment but rarely will you stay scared for a long period of time, although you may feel angry for a long while.
            You can become stuck with a secondary emotion because secondary emotions are built upon a sense of self that is in conflict with your true self. If you think that you are unable to be harmed, then a careless driver threatens that sense of self and the only way you can regain your belief in your own invincibility is to remain angry until you forget what happened. Or, using another example, if you feel that “real men don’t cry” then you may stay angry/grumpy until you get past whatever made you sad in the first place, which can take much longer than it would have if you had just expressed the sadness in the first place.
            To get past a secondary emotion, the task is to be able to identify what your primary emotion actually is and to understand why you chose to express your secondary emotion instead. The woman who feels depressed about herself after being passed by for a promotion may actually benefit from expressing anger that her boss has not recognized her excellent work, which she may have otherwise felt would have been prideful. This work of identifying your primary emotions and your self-concept can be a place where God’s grace can enter and show you how to love yourself as God loves you.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Emotions: Are they Good or Bad? (Part 1 of 4)

All people have emotions. Some people display them in the stereotypical manners, like crying when sad, smiling when happy, and scowling when angry. In fact, nearly all children will openly show these emotions. However, some people become adept at either hiding their emotions or at covering up their emotions with other reactions, such as smiling when they feel sad. These people often believe that their emotions are illogical, immature, or embarrassing. So I want to spend some time answering the question: are emotions good or bad?

In terms of emotional pain, we all know that some emotions, like joy, are experienced as “good” and that other emotions, like fear or disgust, are felt as “bad” or unpleasant. There are times when we may wish we felt numb, rather than have the pain of our emotions as companions. Yet, just because we find some emotions unpleasant does not mean that they are not good or useful. Physical pain is unpleasant but it nonetheless helps us pull our hand away from a hot stove. So, is it possible that our emotions, even the unpleasant ones, may actually be serving a purpose?  I believe they do, or at least that they are supposed to be serving a purpose.

The purpose of emotions is two-fold; emotions allow us to communicate our needs and emotions drive our actions. Expressing our emotions will generally help others know how to interact with us. Expressing sadness will generally bring others who will comfort us. Expressing anger will help keep others from taking advantage of us. Without emotions, there is nothing drawing people toward one another. I have never been concerned about how my computer feels.

Our emotions also allow us to see what we enjoy and what we do not enjoy. Emotions are the motivating force that keep us from apathy and that drive us to accomplish our goals. The books of Psalms, Lamentations, and Job, as well as the example we have in Jesus, who wept at the loss of his friend Lazarus, show us that emotions serve a good purpose. Thoughts alone do not motivate our behavior. If I think a bear will eat me, but do not fear being eaten alive, I will not do anything to keep myself safe. Emotions accomplish what thoughts alone cannot.

However, problems with emotions can arise when our emotional reactions become maladaptive or unhelpful. Feelings of hopelessness, rage, and despair are reactions that may actually cause tremendous problems in our lives. In other words, emotions that were meant to bring us life can sometimes break down and lead us down dangerous paths. So, in light of this, I will be spending some time discussing emotions and how to better understand them in the coming blog posts. Many of these reflections are influenced by the book, “Working with Emotions in Psychotherapy” by Leslie Greenberg and Sandra Pavio.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Passage from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

            I wanted to share this passage from the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The text describe the thoughts of the character Levin who was falsely accused of leisurely returning home, when he had actually become lost while taking a short cut in an effort to return home more quickly. I believe it captures well the dynamic of the bond between a husband and a wife and how difficult it is to wrestle with when misunderstanding and mistrust occurs. In marriage, the spouse becomes a part of the partner and to rebuke the spouse would be to rebuke one’s self.
            “…he clearly understood what he had not understood when he led her out of the church after the wedding. He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began. He felt this from the agonizing sensation of division that he experienced at that instant. He was offended for the first instant, but the very same second he felt that he could not be offended by her, that she was himself. He felt for the first moment as a man feels when, having received a violent blow from behind, he turns round, angry and eager to avenge himself, to look for his antagonist, and finds that it is he himself who has accidentally struck himself, that there is no one to be angry with, and that he must put up with and try to soothe the pain.
            Never afterwards did he feel it with such intensity, but this first time he could not for a long while get over it. His natural feeling urged him to defend himself, to prove to her she was wrong; but to prove her wrong would mean irritating her still more and making the rupture greater that was the cause of all his suffering. One habitual feeling impelled him to get rid of the blame and pass it on to her. Another feeling, even stronger, impelled him as quickly as possible to smooth over the rupture without letting it grow greater. To remain under such undeserved reproach was wretched, but to make her suffer by justifying himself was worse still. Like a man half-awake in an agony of pain, he wanted to tear out, to fling away the aching place, and coming to his senses, he felt that the aching place was himself. He could do nothing but try to help the aching place to bear it, and this he tried to do.
            They made peace….” (p. 694, emphasis in bold added)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Knowledge and Love

            We are natural learners. God created us with the ability to change from our experiences, even while we are still in the womb! Sometimes, however, we forget that the sin of Adam and Eve was that they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The first sin was a sin in how people learned! They chose to exclude God from their learning.
            Nowadays, we spend years being educated. We are formed in incredible ways as we learn about the basic facts about the world we live in. However, we do not always use that knowledge for good. Sometimes we use our knowledge to control others, or to feel superior, or to gain an edge so that we can beat out the competition. The problem is that we have lost our ability to find God in our knowledge and to see how we can carry out God’s will through that knowledge.
            There are countless ways we can take our knowledge and use it for the benefit of others. We could take our knowledge of architecture and build a house with Habitat for Humanity. We could take our knowledge of the Bible and use it to form who we are. The pathway to move from knowledge to love is prayer. We ought to take what we know and pray that God makes it clear how we can use that knowledge for good. If we could pray whenever we learn something new, just imagine how caring and compassionate we could be.