Our emotions are complicated creatures. They can creep up on us, bursting out at seemingly randomly times. They can also linger like a stain we cannot get rid of or ignore.
I was on the subway the other day and a kid (about 2 years old) was crying. Just wailing his heart out. The mother, clearly embarrassed, screamed at him with red eyes “You have to learn to control your emotions!”
We try so hard to tame the wild beast that is our emotions. To “control” them. But our emotions are no more tame than a tiger. Trying to leash our emotions doesn’t work. It isn’t productive. It stifles us, which brings about new emotions, morphing like a chameleon but expressing much of the same thing.
Our emotions aren’t meant to be controlled, but managed. They are to be used, put to work on our behalf. When we set ourselves up to try to control our emotions, feeling them means we have already lost the battle. And that is not right. Feeling them is just the beginning.
A Call to Act
Emotions are an indication something of value is at stake. When we feel them, negative or positive, small or large, they are letting us know something important needs to be done.
The mistake we make is we think the thing that needs to be done is to pacify and validate the emotion itself. Feelings are not meant to be served. They are the front lines of defense, not the king giving orders.
Our attempts to control or dismiss emotions is an overreaction to this reality. If they aren’t king, we imagine, they aren’t valuable. So we try to silence them. And that unlocks a whole maze of problems that gets us off track and wastes a lot of time.The key question in the midst of emotions is why. Why am I feeling this way? What value feels threatened? What value feels edified (if it is a positive emotion)? Emotions are not their own reward. If we feel them, it is because something that matters to us has been fed. It is a means to an end. The effect of a cause.
Respond, Don’t React
When we address our emotions truthfully, we give ourselves the best chance of using them advantageously. Rather than exacerbating a problem, they can help move us toward solutions. As scary as it might sound, we cannot solve anything unless we honestly name and engage our emotions.
The key is walking the fine line between react and respond. If we react to our emotions, we let them behind the wheel of the car. They are too wild to be given that responsibility. If we hand it over to them, they will smash our vehicle into trees, run up the sidewalks, and endanger us and others.
Responding to emotions is a calculated maneuver. It is like when someone talks to you and you think about what to say in return. We call it “collecting our thoughts”. Rather than control our emotions, maybe we ought to try “collecting” them. Jesus flipped tables over in the temple while he was angry. But it was not a reaction. It was a calculated response. One he deemed appropriate not because of his anger but because of the abuses happening within the temple.
Our emotions are nothing to be afraid of. They are nothing to avoid. Feelings are tools that help us live our best life. All we have to do is allow them their proper time and place, “collect” them by evaluating how they connect to our values and what they are indicating, and responding to them responsibly.