Anxiety,  Brain Care

How do you Feel?

I was working through something the other day dealing with emotions and turning them over to Jesus, and this question came up: “What emotions are you experiencing right now?”

You want to hear something embarrassing? I had no idea. As someone who has fought anxiety for the past few months, I seem to have a very binary assessment of emotions. It goes like this: I am feeling anxious. OR I am not feeling anxious.

What’s even more embarrassing is that I couldn’t come up with a decent list of emotions. Happy, sad, angry, anxious. That was my list. Apparently I have the emotional awareness of a toddler.

I’m not sure why this mattered so much, but I decided it was time to expand my horizons. I was reading an article about how Jesus experienced so many emotions, and how he wants to come into my emotions with me to help me, comfort me, and guide me so I use them well. Emotions are part of me, a gift to allow me to experience the world and connect with people.

And I had two. Actually one. One emotion and one lack of emotion.

Well, if emotions are a gift and Jesus wants to experience them with me, then I’m all in.

I just had to remind myself what they are.

Apparently I have the emotional awareness of a toddler.

As a novelist, of course, I let my characters experience the gamut of emotions, the more dramatic the better. So I’m not a cold sociopath who doesn’t feel them. I just can’t name them. I don’t pay attention to them in my own life. Instead, my characters deal with them. And I rarely name them there. The writer’s mantra is “show, don’t tell,” so my characters feel things without me having to label them.

It was time to label them.

The Rabbit Hole of Emotions

Okay, ready to fall down the rabbit hole with me? Because wow, I fell. But I think it’s valuable. I think God wants us to understand ourselves and others, and words are important in understanding. We all narrate our lives, either through self-talk or the stories we share with friends and family. Those stories come closer to sharing our inner lives if we have the right vocabulary.

So I did some online research. First, I had no idea there is officially, at least in the social science circles, a difference between an emotion, a feeling, and a mood. I used them interchangeably.

And if you want to continue to use them interchangeably, that’s okay, because most of us do. But this is a fun aside, and we’re careening down rabbit holes anyway, so let’s do it right.

First, the more research I did, the more muddled this felt. The problem is psychologists don’t have a clear, universal definition for emotions. The best explanations use a lot of metaphors.

My favorite is that emotion is the parent, and feelings are the children. An emotion is a short-lived reaction to something, raw data, if you will. It can be triggered by a physical sensation, although some say it can be triggered by a thought.

Here is a well-known list of emotions from 1972 by psychologist Paul Eckman. He said there were six universal emotions: fear, anger, sadness, joy, surprise, disgust. He later added embarrassment, shame, excitement, amusement, satisfaction, trust, pride, and contempt.

Feelings are longer-lived, and the word is more about how we live out those emotions. A feeling is more contextual and carries with it more of our baggage. Or at least that’s my take on it.

On to Thoughts

Why does this matter? The idea is that, while I can experience all the emotions, I don’t have to get dragged down in feelings. Yes, I can feel. I will feel, and that’s good. But sometimes feelings run away with us, and if we label an emotion and leave it at that, we can do away with some of the spirals feelings cause.

Our thoughts, in this theory, have a lot to do with how we experience emotions and create feelings. The Bible has a lot to say about us controlling our thoughts. Emotions, according to these definitions, aren’t quite in our control. It’s just raw data. But our thoughts seem to be more controllable, and the right thoughts will help us live out emotions and feelings—and how we behave and react because of them—to keep us out of trouble.

Does that make sense? It almost makes sense to me. I admit I’ve had to stew on it.

Here are some verses about our thought lives:

...and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:5b

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8

Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Luke 5:22

Catch that one? Thoughts come from the heart, not just the head. If emotion is raw data, how we perceive the world, and thoughts reflect the heart, our deepest selves, then maybe it makes sense that feelings are the union of the two. Heart and body.

Author Jennie Allen wrote a wonderful book on taking our thought lives captive called Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts. I highly recommend it if you tend to find your thoughts spiraling and leading your feelings to bad places. Especially excellent for the anxious crowd, because wow, we know how to spiral. We are the masters of spiraling.

The Joy of Lists

So, now I have a list of emotions and some nebulous idea about the relation between thoughts, emotions, and words. I kept digging a little deeper. I found an interesting article on different theories of emotions and a list of emotions. Big list. However, this list might be better called a list of feelings if we’re going with the definitions above. Here’s a just a tiny sampling of those:

  • Alarm
  • Baffled
  • Calm
  • Determined
  • Fury
  • Fondness
  • Vigilance
  • Worthy

The list is LONG. And there are even longer lists out there. Are they emotions? Feelings? I don’t know. Depends who you ask.

However, I was impressed by the variety. Yes, I experience many of these. But I disregard them. Am I feeling vigilant today? Grumpy? Stubborn? Who knows. I tick the anxious/not anxious box and go about my business.

The emotional landscape in my head is so grand! And because I haven’t had the vocabulary for it, I haven’t really let myself experience it. It’s behind a wall somewhere. Which means I’m not in tune with other people who experience it. Connections aren’t made because I’ve lost a connection within myself to myself.

Bringing it Home

To be honest, this is not my normal blog post. It’s rambling and uncertain, because I’m not sure I understand this or why it matters, but I know it matters. Everything inside me screams that I need to open up to other emotions and feelings. (Even moods, which have yet another definition, but we are not going there!) By closing my eyes and senses to all but one emotion, I had made my life too small. My focus is too narrow. If my only emotion is fear, then my feelings all revolve around that, and I won’t let myself experience other things, good things like excitement or anticipation. Maybe today I’m stubborn. Maybe I’ve been grumpy, and I need to acknowledge that. Maybe I need to apologize for how I’ve lived out that grumpiness. But that won’t happen if I don’t know I’m grumpy.

Jesus wept. That’s sadness. He sweated blood. That’s dread and agony. What he knew he had to do—and wanted to do—was going to be difficult. He experienced the emotions and feelings that went with that difficulty. He said he felt joy. Peace. He got exasperated. Frustrated. Tired.

He experienced all those well and without sin. That means I can experience just as big a gamut of emotions and feelings and experiences, also without sin. But step one is admitting the feelings and emotions. Only then can I call on Jesus to show me how to live them out.

A pastor friend recently said Jesus came to show us how to be human. Nobody ever lived out humanity as perfectly as Jesus did. That includes his inner emotional life.

So now I have some words. It’s time to live them out with Jesus, make connections, and show those around me how to be beautifully human.

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