Emotions: Why do we demean them so?

This morning I am on my way to represent my school at CCEF’s annual conference. This year the topic is “Emotions: Engaging the Expressions of our Heart.” I’ll try to post some reflections of what I hear throughout the conference.

Truth be told, emotions have gotten little consideration in the biblical/Christian counseling world. When I was a Westminster student back in the late 80s/early 90s David Powlison wrote an essay called “Crucial Issues in Biblical Counseling.” I recall one of those crucial issues to be that of developing a more robust theology of emotions. Nearly 30 years later, we still need that work to be done in evangelical circles. I’m hoping to hear some of that this week.

We evangelicals have prized thinking over feeling, as if one is less biased or less “fallen” than the other. This is not new. Early Christians worked to clarify the personhood of Jesus and shut down false views. The protestant reformation was intended to correct errors in thinking and belief that had infiltrated the Church. Thus, belief and repetition of those beliefs have been prized over listening to emotions. Right thinking is even prized, sadly, over right behavior.

One of the negative results of this problem for Christian counselors is the temptation to invalidate the feelings and experience of clients. Most counselors assume their helpful, gently corrective responses will bring a level of comfort and reduction in emotional pain. Far too frequently, the client is left feeling more alone and upset–even when they know the counselor as spoken truth. Why? Consider this made up exchange and see how you would feel if you were the client.

Client: [who feels that many overlook her competencies] I can’t believe my sister did that to me. Why would she be so hurtful and cut me out of my mother’s birthday celebration planning? I feel so rejected.

Counselor: You know, some people are like that. Really, you shouldn’t be bothered by her. Hasn’t she done this before to others? Be thankful that you didn’t have to do all that planning.

Does thinking or emotions have to trump the other? We are designed to think and feel, to experience our world through emotions and thoughts; each informing the other.

Here’s how we would know we are making headway:

  1. We stop trying to talk people out of their feelings. We start listening to what our feelings can tell us about ourselves and our world
  2. We worry less that emotional experiences are biased. We know they are but still recognize them as real experiences of the world.
  3. We look more for corrective emotional experiences than assuming that thinking always changes feeling.
  4. We know that God cares about our painful feelings and so we bring them to God, knowing that He too has felt sadness, jealousy, anger, and angst. He has compassion on us and offers us opportunities to see him in the midst of the struggle.

Sure, our feelings are not always (ever?) accurate. They need correction. They need perspective that God, Scripture, and wise friends can give. But rather than starting out with pointing out emotional or logic errors in our counselees, how about we get down in the mud and share in the experience as we walk together.


Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, christian counseling, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Emotions: Why do we demean them so?

  1. Savedbygrace

    Thanks Phil- I agree with what you are saying about the importance of validating emotions, but then i got confused when you said:
    Sure, our feelings are not always (ever?) accurate. They need correction.

    What did you mean by that? I can’t imagine someone substituting the word ‘thoughts’ into the sentence instead of ‘feelings’- to me this sentence seems to contradict what you have been saying. Why do our feelings deserve to be viewed with more distrust than our thoughts, surely both are susceptible to both good and bad?

    • Save by Grace, That is a helpful pushback and lets me clarify what I mean. I would say our thoughts are never fully accurate either. I can think you are dissing me when you are not. I can feel something that is due to misperceptions. But it might have been clearer if I had said something like this: “Our thoughts and feelings are. They exist and are real. We continue to evaluate our thoughts and feelings and recognize they are not infallible nor without bias.”

  2. Savedbygrace

    Yes! I think that new sentence captures what you are trying to say much better. thanks!

    As I reflect on the question posed: Emotions why do we demean them so? I think there is fear involved wrapped up in the need for people to feel ‘in control’ and they think there is more chance of that in the arena of ‘thoughts’ and I also suspect it may be a pride thing -it is easier to judge others and discriminate through ideas and lift oneself up, but emotions tend to be a great leveller amongst people. Tuning into emotions and listening to them and learning from them requires a vulnerability and humility that some people will avoid.
    Personally, I find “accuracy” is very over rated and acceptance would be a more helpful pathway to true insight and growth.
    For example, I work in pastoral care -sometimes with people living with dementia. Their thinking to all intents and purposes could be deemed “inaccurate” ie it does not correspond with reality. However, if the pathway of emotions is pursued there is the ability to get to their true felt needs and connect in a way that is helpful.
    Sorry for the long comment, but I also want to say how important listening to our feelings is for women. Gavin de Becker writes about this in his book The Gift of Fear. He comments how women are taught to ignore their ‘gut feelings’ and that fear is trying to warn us of subtle signals picked up that all is not right eg around personal safety.
    It is my experience that women are also taught through the realm of ideas in evangelical circles to switch off the warning signs of abusive behaviour from intimate partners and are disempowered because the ‘thoughts’ of the church keep her second guessing her intuitive sense that the abusive behaviour is wrong.

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