Most Christians have a pretty ambivalent relationship with our emotions. We just don’t know what to feel about our feelings. Sometimes, emotions can be the source of a great deal of joy, satisfaction, and well-being. Other times they can wreck us with anxiety, despair, anger, and angst. Of course, there are still other times when we get upset with ourselves for being upset, angry at ourselves for being angry, or depressed about how sad we feel.
Emotions are a part of our body, of course, and, as such, the Theology of the Body tells us that–just like the rest of our body–emotions are intended by God to work for our good and the good of others. But what about the times they don’t? What is the best way to think about our emotions and how can we do a better job managing them?
Emotion: What is it…Really?
It is surprisingly difficult to get consensus on what an emotion actually is. Biologists will tell you that emotions are just neurochemistry. Psychologists will tell you that emotions are the results of the thoughts that run through your head. Anthropologists will say that emotions are the way individuals know they are connected to some groups and disconnected from others. All of these theories get at some aspect of emotions and some of these theories describe what emotions do, but none of those descriptions really do anything to tell us what emotions are.
The new science of interpersonal neurobiology (the study of how relationships affect the mind and brain) has proposed an interesting answer to the question, “What is an emotion” that cuts across all the different professional distinctions and gives the average person a simple but useful way of thinking about emotions so that they can get better control of them.
What is an emotion?
Emotions represent shifts in the degree of integration between or within the body, mind, and relationships.
Let me explain.
Warning…Warning…Disturbance on Level Three!
Think of your emotions as the security office in one of those caper movies, you know, like, say, Oceans 11. In a sense, your emotions are like that room filled with cameras, indicator lights and buzzers that let you see how well (or not) everything is working–and working together (or not)–from moment to moment. Only, instead of a bank vault, elevator shaft, and the boss’ office, the security system represented by your emotions is the system that monitors how well your body, mind and relationships are working both on their own and with each other. In other words, they “represent shifts in the degree of integration between or within the body, mind, and relationship. Let me give a few examples…
Let’s say you feel “emotionally close” to someone. What does that mean? It means their thoughts and feelings are meshing well with your thoughts and feelings. In other words, you are experiencing a high degree of integration between you and the other person and, as a result, you experience emotions that correspond with that integration, like happiness, affection, even love.
On the other hand, if you have a serious disagreement with that other person about something, your thoughts and feelings aren’t meshing well. As a result of this lesser degree of integration between you, you might experience anger that they don’t see things the way you do or you might fear that the relationship is in jeopardy.
In both of the above instances, your emotions are monitoring the degree of integration or disintegration you are feeling in your relationship with someone from moment to moment.
Let’s take another example. What does it mean to be “emotionally healthy?” Your degree of emotional health has to do with the degree of integration you experience between (and within) your body, mind and relationships. It represents how much your mind consistently desires and motivates you to do things that are good for your body and your relationships.
For instance, if your mind produces strong urges to do things that would endanger your sense of bodily integrity (for example; drink too much or take drugs that impair your functioning or risks that endanger your well-being) you have poor integration between your mind and body. As a result, the “security officer” played by your emotions may send out a warning sign in the form of sadness, desperation, or emptiness.
Similarly, if your mind produces a strong urge to lash out at others, there may be a poor degree of integration between what your mind wants and what your relationships need in order to function well. As a result, your emotional security officer will send out warning sign in the form of feelings of estrangement, loneliness, or isolation.
The above represent examples of disintegration between your mind, body, and relationships. But the Emotional Security Office also monitors how each of these systems are working on their own.
For instance, if you are rested, your body, itself, is more likely to feel a greater degree of integration than if you slept poorly. Your emotions will probably reflect that degree of integration by making you feel content and peaceful. But if you slept poorly, your emotions reflect that poor degree of bodily integration by making you grumpy and irritable. In this case your emotions represent the degree of integration you are experiencing within your body from moment to moment.
In short, emotions are the vast monitoring network God gave you enabling you to oversee, at a glance, how much unity (integration) and well-being you are encountering between and within your mind, body and relationships from moment to moment.
Too often, especially when we feel negative emotions, we think of the feeling as the problem. “I wish I could just stop feeling so anxious/depressed/overwhelmed. The feeling isn’t the problem. The feeling is the warning light telling you to look for the problem–i.e., the disintegration that is causing the emotional alarm bells to ring. Imagine if the Head of Security in our caper movie heard all the lights and buzzers going off that indicated a robbery in progress and instead of dispatching guards to the scene just said, “Ugh! I’m so sick of listening to all these buzzers and seeing these flashing red lights! Shut it all down! I just need a nap!” Or, alternatively, what if the same Head of Security said, “These lights and buzzers are freaking me out! Let’s just torch the whole room. You heard me! Burn the place down!”
Obviously, those would be foolish choices. But we try to do the same things with our emotions! Because we tend to think of our feelings as the problems themselves, we try to ignore them or shut them down with rash decisions intended to make all the buzzing stop. We often forget to listen to our emotions and, metaphorically speaking, send a guard to check out what’s going on at the vault, or on level four, or to the elevator (our mind, brain, or relationships) so that we can correct the problem. We forget that the buzzing will stop when the problem is solved.
Just like the warning indicator doesn’t stop buzzing until the problem is resolved, your feelings won’t change until the disintegration they are pointing to is adequately addressed.
Emotions and the Quest for Original Unity
The Theology of the Body tells us that, before the Fall, man, woman, and God existed in a state of Original Unity. Presumably this unity didn’t just exist between them, but within them as well. After all, you can’t be at peace with others if you are at war with yourself. Before the Fall, man and woman felt right (i.e., experienced a high degree of integration) within themselves, as well as between each other and God. That “Original Unity” is what our emotions are pointing to; what they want us to get back to. The thief has entered the building, and the alarms will not cease until we have expelled him from the premises (Matt 24:43).
Our emotions remind us of the need to strive for the Original Unity in which we were created to live. Emotions are not the enemy. In fact, they can serve us well as long as we don’t try to shut them down by rashly cutting people out of our lives, or by drinking, drugging, indulging our passions, or taking foolish risks in a desperate, reactionary attempt to plug our ears to the warning bells and blindfold ourselves so we can’t see the flashing red lights.
What Can I DO?
So the next time your emotions get the better of you, don’t beat yourself up for being weak. Thank God that your emotions are doing exactly what he created them to do. And instead of asking, “Why do I feel this way?” Ask, “Where is the most acute imbalance in or between my body, mind or relationships right now and what can I do to begin addressing it?”
Correct the disintegration in or between your body, mind, and relationships and your feelings will follow suit.
If you would like additional help in achieving emotional health, contact me, Dr. Greg Popcak, to learn more about the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Tele-Counseling Services. You can visit us online or call 740-266-6461 to make an appointment today.