Healthy Emotional Processing

February 28, 2023
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This is long! But I think you will find it helpful. May be best to print this one?  

Processing emotions is a skill. Like being taught how to manage money, we need to be trained how to work through our feelings in healthy ways. Apart from being taught, what are we to do with ALL the emotions we experience? And what happens to us, and to those closest to us, when our broken processing does not work? Brokenness turns messes into MESSES!  

Ah, we need serious help and relief.  

I offer to you the following steps to healthy emotional processing. Because these are based on Jesus’s highly emotional experience in the Garden of Gethsemane from Matthew 26:36-46, I can say with high confidence that these steps work. I think you will find them easy to understand but, at some points, very hard to implement! Just know that the Holy Spirit is a gracious and patient teacher! 

1. Choose your emotional teacher(s) 

From Isaiah 11:1, 42:1, and 61:1, we know that Jesus lived in full submission to the Holy Spirit, including emotionally. Jesus’s emotional control is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The fruits of the Holy Spirit, listed in Galatians 5:23-24, are highly emotive. The last fruit is self-control, which certainly includes emotional self-control. In this most important step we are establishing who is our emotional teacher. Our first teacher is Jesus. Do we look to Him as THE model of emotional health and well-being? If we are not convinced that He is the MOST emotionally healthy individual who has lived then our ability to receive the fullness of His ways is already compromised. 

Through Jesus, our second teacher is the Holy Spirit. As Jesus learned to live in total, even emotional, submission to the Holy Spirit, so too we must surrender our emotions and our processes to Him so that He can teach us Kingdom ways.  

In this step, we must also identify who has influenced our understanding of the role, nature, and definition of emotions. Where needed we must dethrone bad teachers and enthrone Jesus. For those of us whose parents did not teach us, or who taught us poorly, we must be able to dethrone them from the places of power in our hearts. Dethroning our parents does not necessarily mean we are mad at them or that they failed. In the case of training our emotional processing, dethroning them can simply mean that in this area they did not provide correct teaching.  

2. Allow yourself to feel  

“He began to be grieved and distressed,” (Matthew 26:37). Jesus does not stifle or dismiss His emotions. He is allowing Himself to feel. And He is a man – the ultimate man. Whatever one’s definition of man is, it must, if one follows Jesus, include allowing oneself to feel. I find many people, women as well, for whom this can be a very difficult step. That Jesus allows Himself to feel can be a great source of permission for those who need it. 

3. Identify your feelings 

“He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Jesus identifies the specific emotion He is feeling. He is grieved. And the location of His grief is in His soul.  

Here we press into one’s emotional vocabulary. To help people access their emotional vocabulary I will often use the metaphor of a spice rack. How many emotional spices do you have? (And in what condition is your spice cabinet? The responses can be hilarious!) I used to have only three spices that I could identify – anger, lust, and joy. While my spice rack has increased, I have a very long way to go.  

I have seen all sorts of charts and wheels identifying any number of emotions. Here is one I like because of its simplicity. But it lists 70 emotions! Hey, let’s leverage the Holy Spirit. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He WANTS to make us emotionally strong. Ask Him to help you identify the specific emotions you are feeling! I KNOW this can be super hard but the more you learn how to hear what He is saying, the easier identifying your emotions will be.  

4. Verbalize your feelings 

“He said to them (His disciples), ‘My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death…” and then He moves beyond His disciples and shares with His Father, “My Father, if it is possible (going to the cross) let this cup pass from Me…’” (Matthew 26:38, 39, etc.). Jesus has safe people in His life with whom He can verbalize His emotions. But Jesus does not stop with His disciples, He goes on to share with His Father. He has such a healthy relationship with His Dad that He can be emotionally raw with Him.  

This step can be so hard for so many of us but if we do not learn how to talk about what is going on inside of us, we are doomed to be controlled by it and deal with it the rest of our lives. 

Here we talk about the necessity of having safe brothers and sisters with whom we share the rigors and successes of life. We are simply not built to do life on our own. But, cultivating safe relationships with safe people can be hard. And many of us will have stories of “safe” people violating our trust and causing us pain. I have found the book, Safe People, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend to be a useful resource for those who have experienced a lot of woundedness.  

Remember, Jesus goes beyond His safe people and verbalizes His condition to His Father. We must learn to bring our emotional reality into our prayer life, talking to our Father about how we are doing. If you are a parent, don’t you strongly desire your children to share their hearts with you? How much more does our Father want you to share your heart with Him! The peace you will feel just from discovering how much He delights in hearing from you will be a treasure.  

5. Identify your trigger(s) 

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me…” (Matthew 26:39, 42). Jesus is feeling deeply grieved because of a specific reason. He does not feel this way just because. While He allows Himself to feel, His feelings are connected to the truth of His circumstances. The Garden of Gethsemane scene happens the day before He will be crucified. And He is agonizing because of what is coming.  

The Holy Spirit will continually work with us to attach our emotions to true circumstances of our lives. As followers of Jesus, we MUST move beyond our perception of situations to learn the truth of those situations. So many of our negative feelings can spike simply because of what we think is happening verse what is truly happening. We must allow the Holy Spirit to train us to ask fact finding questions of those from whom we feel slighted. Not every perceived trigger is actually a trigger.  

Further, triggers can get buried. We can be triggered by something a spouse does because their action is connected to something a parent did. Identifying family of origin triggers can be very difficult and often requires the help of a skilled counselor. 

Again, leverage the work of the Holy Spirit. Ask Him to show you the trigger(s). Be still. Breathe. He is a safe person and a safe space. He loves you and wants your healing.   

6. Surrender your will 

“…yet not as I will, but as You will” (26:39, 42). Jesus acknowledges that He has a will for His situation. He wrestles with His desire for God His Father to change His path. But, He surrenders to a position of trusting His Father to care for Him regardless.  

When you experience offense, you can spike defensiveness. You want justice. You want a pound of flesh (or more). But Jesus shows us another way. Jesus shows us the path of emotional processing requires us to acknowledge what we want to happen and then surrender our desires to our Father and His will.  

We cannot allow our emotions to dictate our obedience when our emotions are not led by the Holy Spirit. The really good news in this step is the absolute truth that our Father sees you, sees the situation in which you are, and wants to work. He absolutely has a will to lead you through the storm. In Him, no one gets away with anything! (Romans 12:18-21). What does He want you to do? What does He want you to walk through? While our Father’s will did not save Jesus from the cross, look at what was accomplished because of His faithfulness. God our Father can do miraculous things in us, through us, and in others when we surrender what we want and obey what He wants.  

7. Repeat as needed 

I LOVE this…Jesus goes back to His Father three times! “And He left them (His disciples) again, and went away and prayed a third time” (Matthew 26:44). I think part of why Jesus went back three times is because He didn’t like His Father’s answer! There will be times our Father leads you to do things that you flat out do not want to do. Keep going back!  

Processing emotions and being faithful amid painful circumstances is not easy. Jesus cried out three times. Similarly, the Apostle Paul cried out three times in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 for our Father to change his path. Both kept going back until they were done and resolved.  

Here we receive permission to be messy and struggle! If He went back three times how many times will it take us? Keep going back to our Father until you vent out everything in you that needs to be vented. Cry. Wail. Scream. Our Father can take it. Don’t hold back and don’t filter what you are feeling. And when you get done, if you’re not done, take a break and then go back!   

8. GO 

“Get up, let us be going, behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand!” (Matthew 26:36). Jesus got up and left. He was faithful.  

There is a time to emote and deal with emotions and then there is a time to go and be faithful. Obedience delivers us from the pit of self-pity and victimization. Is He leading you to have a difficult conversation? Is He leading you to ask forgiveness? To offer forgiveness? To suffer an injustice? To love an enemy? To endure? To wait? To act?   

The ultimate question is always, “What is our Father leading you to do?” There will be seasons when all He is doing is inviting one to let Him sit with them in their pain. And then there will be time, His time, when He is ready for you to move forward.  

These are the steps Jesus takes to process His emotions in the Holy Spirit. I hope you find them useful. Our Father wants us to be emotionally healthy! Emotions can be of God. Put these steps to the test. If you do not find victory in them, then they will be useless to you. We need gear that works! Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you.  

May you experience the emotional fullness of LIFE!  

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