Don’t Feel That Way!

The following post is from Brent Bailey, a Master of Divinity student at Abilene Christian University. Brent is interning with us at The Marin Foundation this summer, and you can find his blog at


How effective is it when someone tells you not to feel the way you feel?

Let’s take some easy examples: When someone prefaces a statement with a hesitant request, “Don’t be mad, but…” does it effectively prevent you from feeling angry at what follows? When someone finishes a self-deprecating story with an exasperated plea, “Don’t laugh!” does it wipe the smile from your face? Or let’s take some heavier examples: When you’re in a situation that feels unsafe or unsettling and a friend insists, “Don’t be scared,” does your fear immediately dissipate? When your roommate does something that troubles you and urges, “Just be glad for me!” does it fill you with the warmth of happiness? These commands rarely (if ever) work on me, and in many cases, they exacerbate what I actually do feel.

Disagreements about homosexuality and same-sex marriage tend to become passionate and emotional, and I think that’s good. We’re debating something that’ simultaneously intensely personal (whom I love, what rights I deserve, whom I sleep with) and inescapably universal (what constitutes a “family,” what we define as “healthy sexuality,” what our government should provide or deny), and as a result, our debates are never merely intellectual exercises. They’re deeply urgent and close with stakes that couldn’t be higher, and as a result, our emotions flare up in precisely the way I think God designed them to flare up. It’s probably a good thing we feel furious and dejected and exhilarated and tender when we talk about same-sex marriage, since that means we’re grasping in our guts what a big deal this is. Feeling emotions is great; acknowledging and naming and unpacking emotions is even better.

So you’re certainly not going to hear me say our debates about same-sex marriage need to be less emotional. What I do want to say is that, if our goal is constructive dialogue, we need to avoid the temptation to dismiss the feelings of others when we’re of the opinion that they shouldn’t feel the way they do. In many cases, we’re fairly good at recognizing the way other people—even our enemies—feel; unfortunately, in many cases, we’re also fairly good at disregarding those feelings as soon as we can describe the reasons they ought to feel otherwise. And when we focus on the reasons people shouldn’t feel a certain way instead of focusing on the way they actually feel, we start to underestimate the power those feelings hold over the other person’s attitude. “Their fear is completely unjustified,” we say, and so we disregard the extraordinary power fear wields in a person’s decisions. “Their anger is based on faulty thinking,” we say, and so we ignore the way anger inextricably influences behavior. We may even have doubts about whether they actually feel a certain way, as if they’re merely using emotional language to hide their motives and boost their position: “There’s no way they could actually be afraid of that.” At this point, it becomes nearly impossible for us to take what the other person says seriously or to engage them in constructive dialogue. Even if we’re actually right and they’re completely wrong and they really truly shouldn’t feel that way, we’ve moved no closer to understanding or agreement, and we may have even intensified their feelings and their zeal for their position.

When a same-sex couple feels deep sadness and anger about the rights and privileges they don’t receive from the government in spite of their commitment to one another, there’s really nothing to be gained from a conservative Christian telling them, “You shouldn’t feel that way”—even if the Christian believes their relationship is fundamentally sinful and thinks there’s a good reason why the government should reserve those rights and privileges for opposite-sex couples. The couple’s deep sadness and anger are real, and productive discussion can only proceed if the Christian acknowledges those feelings. And when an evangelical pastor feels deep fear about whether it will be possible and feasible for his church to continue refusing to perform same-sex marriages in the midst of a culture that sees no legal difference between heterosexual and homosexual marriages, there’s really nothing to be gained from a marriage equality advocate telling him, “You’re not actually afraid of that”—even if the advocate believes the pastor’s theology is outdated, maybe antiquated, and thinks the pastor’s fears are ill-founded in light of protections for religious liberty. The pastor’s deep fear is real, and productive discussion can only proceed if the advocate acknowledges those feelings.

I’ll pause a bit on that word “acknowledges.” I think there’s a strong concern on both sides of the debate that acknowledging the way an opponent feels somehow legitimizes the other person’s position. If the advocate recognizes the pastor’s fear, doesn’t that somehow cede ground to the pastor’s reasons for feeling afraid? If the Christian genuinely listens to the couple’s sadness and anger, doesn’t that somehow validate their relationship? And in either case, isn’t that the very last thing the person on one side of a debate would want to do to someone on the other side? That concern is understandable (Did you notice how I’m trying my best to model what I’m advocating in this post?), especially in those situations where my opponent’s position has done harm to me or is doing harm to me. Nevertheless, this isn’t really about seeing things from my opponent’s perspective, although—when that’s a safe endeavor for me—it’s often a helpful exercise. This is about recognizing that my opponent is probably feeling emotions just as intensely as I’m feeling emotions, and regardless of whether those emotions are justified, I’ll get a lot farther when I acknowledge they’re part of the game. If my opponent is afraid or sad or angry, increasing their fear or sadness or anger through aggressive arguments or deafening protests probably won’t improve the situation or invite them into a new way of thinking.

It’s useful to remember that the emotions I’m describing—fear, anger, sadness—are universal human emotions. When we can acknowledge those emotions in ourselves and in others, it reminds us of the countless ways we’re similar instead of the few ways we’re dissimilar. It reminds us we’re usually striving for the same things, even if we don’t agree on how we’ll attain them, and it suggests we might even possess the capacity to imagine an existence beyond a zero-sum game, an existence in which you getting what you want doesn’t mean me not getting what I want.

If nothing else, it reminds us we’re humans who ought to treat one another like humans, and that could go a long way in improving the conversation.

Do you find it difficult to acknowledge the emotions of people who fundamentally disagree with you? Have you ever felt like someone else was dismissing your emotions in the midst of this debate?

Much love.

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  • thegaypk

    Spot on Brent. Thank you for the reminder.

  • Micah Seppanen

    This is so true!

    I’ve had a few challenging situations lately where I must remind myself of this constantly. It is so easy to dismiss others if you look only through the lens of your own emotions and life. However, when you take into account the other persons life, emotions, etc., it can open up real dialogue.

  • Jamila Grimshaw

    fab! love the last line!

  • Peter Marin

    Your phrase, ‘disregarding those feelings’ is not limited to this debate. Directives regarding (a) don’t feel, and (b) don’t talk, and (c) don’t trust, have been recognized for those who have grown up with an adult substance user. When partners ignore how emotions inextricably influence behavior, emotional abuse can begin to shape their relationships. Using emotions to aggressively argue, deny, minimize to devalue others are different forms of emotional abuse.

  • jontrouten

    No offense, but why is the pastor afraid? I mean, I feel bad for their fear, but someone really ought to point out that the pastor’s fear is over-blown.

    I wrote the following on another TMF employee’s blog a couple weeks ago:

    If a heterosexual Hindu couple showed up at a Baptist church today, would they be required to marry them now?

    If a divorced Catholic couple (not annulled) showed up at their local Catholic church today, would they be required to marry them now?


    There was a church in Missouri as recently as July 2012 that canceled a wedding between a interracial heterosexual couple b/c they were an interracial couple. The church received blow-back from the community, but they were legally in their right to do this.

    Churches and church leaders may fear that they will be forced to marry gay couples, but reality and history disagrees. Name me one church or pastor in any of the 12 states or Washington DC where they’ve been forced to officiate at the weddings of gay couples. You’ll find none.

    So pastors might be afraid, but someone needs to help them overcome their fear.

    On the other hand, a simple google search will find you lots of stories of LGBT people whose families, employment, housing, and place within the Church has been destroyed by others because they are LGBT.

    Are we saying that these fears are equally based in reality?

    • Jon, I’m not necessarily trying to say all the emotions at play in this big national debate are justified – in fact, I’d say a good deal of the fear and anger we find on both sides of the fence is based on misinformation, misunderstanding, poor communication, etc. But regardless of where the fear comes from – or whether it’s justified – it’s affecting the way people behave. It’s causing people to become defensive and often insensitive. I think saying, “Someone needs to help them overcome their fear” is a great suggestion, and that can only start when we believe and acknowledge the other person actually feels afraid, regardless of whether we think they should.

      On another note, I have a suspicion – and this is entirely speculative – that a lot of the fear conservative Christians express is less about the idea that they’d be forced to perform a wedding they don’t want to perform and more about the growing realization that it’s going to become increasingly unpopular for churches to refuse to marry same-sex couples. Like you said, the church that refused to marry an interracial couple was within its legal rights, but it also received a major negative reaction from its surrounding community, and I think there’s a growing sense among conservative Christians that their opposition to same-sex marriage is likely to produce similar reactions in the years ahead. Whether that external pressure is a good thing or whether Christians should be upset their position is becoming unpopular is a different discussion, but I do think THAT fear is at least a little more justified than the fear they’ll have to marry people against their consciences.

      • jontrouten

        I’m sympathetic to a point. But I cannot imagine it’s easy for Catholic institutions, for example, to dig in and refuse services and rites for people who don’t toe the line on social issues important to that church’s leadership.

        I mean, are they standing opposed to our families based on principle or on popularity?

        • Great question, especially since a few of the Catholic church’s teachings related to sex (contraception, same-sex marriage, etc.) are becoming so intensely counter-cultural these days.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          Nothing the Catholic Church ever does is based on popularity.

          It is ALWAYS based on principle.

          And if you’ll notice in other areas (pro-choice Catholic politicians being the obvious ones) the Church is *extremely* reluctant to refuse services to anybody, to the great consternation of many conservatives (though truthfully, if we refuse the eucharist to Nancy Pelosi, we need to refuse it to Paul Ryan, neither are 100% within Church teaching).

          When it comes to homosexuality, that’s why Courage (for Catholic gays who want to live within Church Teaching and supported by the Magisterium) and Dignity (for cafeteria Catholic homosexuals who want their relationships to be monogamous even if not directly supported by the Magisterium) exist. Two ways to be Catholic while struggling with Same Sex Attraction- and *both* include ways to make sure abandoned heterosexual spouses and children are cared for as well.

          • Jeremy Adkison

            No, they don’t each include ways to help ‘abandoned’ heterosexual spouses and children. One encourages unsafe, unstable, destructive, and selfish relationships and spurs ‘abandoned’ heterosexual spouses and children. The other one does NOT. There’s a line in the sand.

            • TheodoreSeeber

              Funny, in my liberal heterodox parish I’ve seen both groups work with abandoned spouses and children, right down to drives for food, clothing, and shelter.

              One is within Church Teaching- if you can’t have sex with your wife, don’t have sex at all.

              The other is not. But neither fails to work with the people affected by the homosexual “coming out”.

              • Jeremy Adkison

                I think you’re missing my point, or ignoring it. One group encourages the behavior that creates abandoned spouses and children, the other group says it’s really not a good idea for gay people to enter into imitation relationships with opposite gendered person’s. It does everyone good to let people be who they are. Do I discount that they do food and clothes drives? Of course not, and that’s great. But the reason those families fell apart was because they had two irresponsible adults who entered into a relationship they had no business being in. I think it’s fair to say we vastly outnumber thee Irreconciled, and that the majority of intentional beard “marriages” fail and don’t succeed- clearly, considering how many gay men I knew who got married and came out after figuring themselves out. One organization encourages and congratulates unstable relationships, and inherently unhealthy environments for children to be brought into. The potential for catastrophe far outweighs any other counter argument. It’s the duty of gay antigay persons to take their medicine for themselves and stay celibate, and not drag anyone else down their gutter with them.

  • gimpi1

    I think your point, that feelings are valid, no matter what, is very good. However, I think it’s also important to remember we can learn and adapt, and with new information, our feelings can and should change.

    Take the pastor worried about being compelled in law to perform same-sex weddings. A look at how current marriage and religious freedom laws work should set their mind at ease. For example, secular law recognizes divorce, and any divorced person is free to remarry, the Catholic church does not recognize divorce, and is not obliged to marry a divorced person.

    If understanding that they won’t be compelled to officiate at a gay wedding doesn’t calm their fears, it’s reasonable to wonder if that is the real fear. People do offer “cover” explanations to explain what they know are baseless fears or hostilities. Sometimes, they don’t even know themselves that they are doing it.

    • You’ve made a few great points – that we have a responsibility to be open to our feelings changing (rather than simply using them as an excuse to dig in our heels) and that we’re often good at deceiving ourselves about why we feel the things we feel.

      • gimpi1

        I blush! Compliments will get you (almost) anything. Thanks.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    It isn’t Christianity the homosexuals need, it’s Buddhism. All suffering comes from within oneself, from attachment to desires that can’t be fulfilled. The key is to end the attachment, not force everybody else to try to fill the desire.