Thursday, February 6, 2020

Learning to Believe My Emotions

The church where I grew up had an interesting anti-emotions current running through it. This ran the gamut from a milder "Emotions are fine, Jesus felt emotions, you just can't let them control you" to the more extreme "Your emotions will always lie to you." Most often the verse "The heart is deceitful above all things" was used as the justification for this, and people who diverged from us in doctrine or behavior were frequently said to be letting their emotions take control or interpreting the Bible through their feelings instead of the truth.

So I grew up with an intense distrust of my own emotions. If I was sad or angry, I felt the need to apologize for feeling those things, like they were embarrassing signs of immaturity. I was pretty good at acknowledging I was feeling things, but I just thought of myself as being "too emotional" and told myself I needed to just turn those emotions down because they clearly weren't useful. At best they were to be tolerated, at worse they tried to control me. And making decisions based on emotion was always a bad idea.

Problem is, there are some decisions that you have to make based on emotion. Or at least heavily informed by it.

My junior year of high school, I was super involved in my youth group. I did everything I could. I was at every after-youth-group hang out and went on every trip. Then my senior year, I burned out. I couldn't explain why, I just... couldn't do any of it. I stayed involved with my drama team (arts still fed my soul) but almost all the other extracurricular stuff, I just backed out of. I couldn't do it anymore. That's also when the church anxiety started, when I started being less involved because it felt terrible and then feeling unbelievably guilty for not being involved and feeling like I had to justify it to everyone and telling myself, "Your anxiety is a lie. You have to go."

But turns out, my emotions had in fact been whispering truths to me for a year.

Feeling anxious: "You don't feel secure here."

Feeling lonely: "You're not letting anyone here see the real you."

Feeling unfulfilled: "This isn't helping you grow no matter how hard you try."

Feeling irritable: "You're at your limits."

I ignored all these things. I dismissed them as emotions. And then I broke down.

The anxiety about backing out of church stuff was also trying to tell me truths I didn't recognize for awhile: "You've internalized the idea that you have to be active in church to be a good Christian" and "God is not only in the church building" and "The Christian life can be better than this." And for awhile, I shut those truths down too, insisting my emotions were lying to me, my emotions couldn't be trusted, I couldn't let my emotions make decisions for me.

I should have, though. Maybe if I had spent more time trying to tease out which parts of my feelings were true and which were not, I could have listened to those truths. And what would I have turned to at that time but my emotions? Like... there's no Bible verse that says, "Hannah, make sure if you're going to every youth group event that you give yourself a break sometimes because you are not as extroverted as the youth group leaders you're trying to imitate, and you're going to burn out." It all requires interpretation and discernment and self-awareness, but self-awareness is stifled without emotional awareness.

On a day to day basis, my emotions can be a wonderful barometer for me. My emotions are the best way for me to sense my own needs, what I'm lacking, who I should get close to, what my next steps should be. They don't need control so much as discernment, finding the true thing they're trying to tell me and holding onto that. By shoving it down or dismissing it as "well, you don't make decisions based on that," I lose all the truths that, actually, I should be incorporating into my decisions.

So let me attempt to read my emotions right now.

I'm anxious about posting this.

The lie the anxiety is telling me is that I don't deserve to say anything, I don't know what I'm talking about, my emotions ARE actually evil and I shouldn't say they're okay, and everyone is going to hate me for some reason because I posted this and I won't know how to deal with it.

The truth the anxiety is telling me is that while this kind of thinking may help some folks (I don't know their emotional journeys), it hurt me. And that hurt was real, and it's something I'm still dealing with, and judging by the anxiety, I'm not out of the woods yet, and may not be for awhile.

But I'm at least out of the woods enough to be able to communicate this. So here I am.

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