3 Steps to Responding to Emotional Warning Lights
- Dr. Michelle Caulk Author
- Published Jan 04, 2022
I felt helpless as I watched my client stage a one-woman retreat. We were so close. I thought. So close to identifying and feeling the emotions that are running so deeply under her grief. She said, “Getting all emotional about it is useless. I’ve just got to move on.”
I sat for a moment, pausing to gather my thoughts. All of my training as a therapist shouted (internally, of course), “Feel the feels! It’s healthy! You’ll heal better if you feel the feels!” Her approach, however, resembled more of the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps approach. Stuff, ignore, press down the emotions. Avoid at all costs.
It was all she knew to do. The emotional pain from her unexpected and earth-shattering loss had been kept so carefully under wraps, but when I gently asked her the well-known therapist question, “So, can you share how you felt?”, her tightly-held emotions threatened to crash and overwhelm her world.
And yet, I knew that this approach would create a huge barrier to her healing process.
I needed to back up. Way, way, way up. Somewhere, somehow, this client had learned that allowing herself to feel and work through emotions was not the way to walk through life. We first had to work with the fundamental question: why would God create us to be emotional beings? In reality, is there harm in feeling our emotions? What if we feel too emotional? And, most importantly, what do we do with emotions?
The Most Fundamental Question
Why, when they are often so very distressing, would a God who loves us give us the ability to feel emotions? (The fundamental answer there is simply because He loves us, but they also have great purpose!) In my co-authored book, Healing Out Loud: How to Embrace God’s Love When You Don’t Like Yourself, I note that God gave humans emotions for two reasons:
First, as indicators. God has equipped humanity to survive.
Emotions are like warning lights on a car. When they beep or flash, it indicates that something is going on that deserves more attention. Perhaps the oil is getting low. Or that vague “Check Engine” light has been glowing on your dashboard for some time. God lovingly has wired us similarly with our emotions so that we can respond to issues before they get out of hand. You want to know that you’re almost on “E” before you’ve actually run out of gas!
What are some of the common warning indicators that you might feel? It could be:
- A puzzling sense that something is off or wrong
- A general dissatisfaction with self and life
- Irritability with self and others
- A feeling of disconnect from self and others, including God
Emotions such as anger, sadness, loathing, resentment, jealousy, and regret tell us that there’s some underlying threat or pain that needs to be attended to so that we can survive. Anger, for example, tells us that there’s a threat in the immediate area - be it an emotional, mental or physical threat - and we need to respond by fighting, fleeing, or freezing.
But, while useful in the beginning of the threat, anger untended can worsen into a kind of emotional cancer that affects your relationships, your sense of peace, and even your connection with God.
Positive emotions, such as contentment, peace, happiness, and joy, tell us that we should keep on doing what we’re doing. These are emotions that are intended for life beyond survival.
Second, as part of the fullness of experiencing life. God has equipped humanity to thrive.
Stop reading this article for a moment. Think about the last time you felt happiness. Was it at a party, seeing loved ones gathered in the kitchen? While enjoying sipping on your favorite flavor of tea while the snow fell outside? Feeling the warmth of sand underneath your feet during a beach vacation?
Now, think about the last time you felt awe. Perhaps you were surrounded by God’s creation in nature. Or listening to a worship song and singing about God’s overwhelming faithfulness. Or while reading Scripture and reflecting on Jesus’ wondrous sacrifice and resurrection.
If we did not have feelings, a core part of our relationship with God would be missing. We would not be able to fulfill the commandment to love what God loves and hate what God hates. We wouldn’t understand God when He states that He is angry, or sad, or even when He is rejoicing. Simply put, we wouldn’t be able to relate in our relationship with God.
Feeling the Feels
Mixed messages about emotions abound. Over the course of your lifetime, you may have heard a few of these messages from parents, teachers, friends, or even said them yourself:
- Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!
- You’re being too sensitive. Toughen up.
- I’m an angry person. I can’t seem to control how mad I get.
- I just feel so emotional all the time. What’s wrong with me?
- I have so many good things in my life. I shouldn’t feel this sad or lonely or depressed.
For some of my clients, and perhaps for you, different experiences in childhood crowded out the development of emotions. These elements may have included a long–term illness (physical or mental) of a parent or sibling, the struggle of addiction within the family, or familial trauma, such as poverty, natural disaster, or social injustice. You and your family operated in survival mode, which does not, by nature, allow much space for emotions. Or perhaps, you learned early on that the only emotions that existed were those typical of survival mode: fear, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, anger, sadness, etc.
The brokenness of the world has corrupted God’s purpose for and messages about emotions, but a careful study of Scripture can rework these messages to ones that are true. Our perfect God expresses all of the emotions that humanity experiences, including sadness (Luke 19:41-45, love (John 3:16), sorrow (John 11:35), anger (Psalm 145:8– 9). As Jesus Himself was part of humanity, so he shares the experiences of all of the emotions that we do. How wonderful that He can relate to us so well! (And vice versa.)
Taking Action - or Not
Step 1: Identifying the Emotions
There’s a saying in therapy that “you cannot heal what you cannot feel.” I would argue that it’s not that we cannot feel, it’s just that oftentimes, we don’t know exactly what we’re feeling. It might be a tangled-up mess. It might be the complexities of grief. The emotions might be moving through at lightning speed. Let’s put it another way: you cannot heal what you cannot understand! (Not quite as catchy, but you get my drift.)
What are you feeling right now? Is that a difficult question for you to answer? If so, there are several reasons for feeling stumped:
- You may not have developed a “language of emotions” in childhood
- You may be feeling an overwhelming number or complexity of emotions at this time
- A mental illness, such as depression, may be causing you to feel numb to emotions
You are not alone if any of the above resonates with you. In fact, I spend a great deal of time in counseling providing psychoeducation on emotions and how to identify them. Developing a language to describe emotions is the first critical step; without words to describe, emotions remain intangible, scary, and overwhelming.
According to Dr. Gloria Willcox, who developed the Feelings Wheel in 1982, there are around 72 different emotional states within 6 groups - from indignation to frustration to bewilderment (and everything in between). You may find her online resource helpful as you develop your own emotional vocabulary.
This first step requires courage, time and patience. First, it takes a measure of courage to simply be present in an emotion, particularly when it is a distressing one such as loneliness or jealousy. The time factor may be just a moment to slow yourself and remain patient in the process of developing this new language. When we can identify an emotion - that “ah ha!” moment - we give voice to it. Only then are we able to understand what to do with the emotions we are feeling. Only then can we take the next step: what needs to be done with this emotion, if anything?
Step 2: Using Our Emotions for Good
In counseling, there is a commonly used approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Basically, this approach gives structure to the human process of making decisions. It says:
-First, an event takes place (using the dashboard analogy above, this is when the indicator light in your car begins to blink frantically).
-Second, you have an emotion about the event (it may be panic, resignation, or frustration).
-Third, you have a thought about the situation that is driven by your initial emotion (panic might cause you to catastrophize and think, “Oh no! My engine is on fire! Why does this always happen to me?!”)
-And finally, there is a behavioral response. You take action based on the warning light, your emotion, and your thoughts. In this case, all three may cause you to swerve through three lanes of traffic to the side of the road and quickly shut the engine off - if you made it through all the cars, Frogger-style, without causing a pile-up.
Please hear me: Emotions are not always rational. Thoughts are not always rational, either, and when our behaviors follow, they may not always be in alignment with the initial event. While our emotions are indicators, they should not be in the driver’s seat. Proverbs 14:30 (MSG) notes: “A sound mind makes for a robust body, but runaway emotions corrode the bones.”
In counseling, I encourage my clients to slow down, take a deep breath, and take one mental step back to observe what the emotion is trying to tell them. We can be curious about our emotions, but not let them make the decisions for us.
We can check them out to make sure that we’ve got an accurate picture of what’s going on with the engine (i.e. our thoughts and reactions). We may turn off the radio and listen carefully to what the internal engine is saying. We may flip through the owner’s manual. We may then call a mechanic for help.
We might even pray that the car keeps going until we can figure it out.
Step 3: Resolving Our Emotions
We may have believed the lie that we can’t control our feelings of shame, guilt, anger, or fear, and that we have to live under the storm cloud of our painful experiences forever. We may have believed that emotions were useless, or at worst, dishonoring to God. The truth is we are called to know in our hearts and minds that we’re no longer condemned to living at the whim of our feelings. The Message translates this reminder so wonderfully:
“With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.” - Romans 8:1
I encourage you to spend time reflecting on the questions below, and using them as a tool for your own discernment when feeling the feels, naming the emotions, and taking a course of action based on your indicators.
- What am I feeling right now?
- Am I permitting myself to feel the feels? Why or why not?
- What are the warning lights trying to tell me?
- How can I invite God into these emotions right now?
Caulk, M. & Brown, S. (2022). Healing out loud: How to embrace God’s love when you don’t like yourself. Dexterity Publishing.
Willcox, G. (1982). The feeling wheel: A tool for expanding awareness of emotions and increasing spontaneity and intimacy. Transactional Analysis Journal, 12(4), 274-276.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Javier Zayas Photography
DR. MICHELLE CAULK, LPC, LMHC, NCC is a counselor, author, and educator. Michelle is currently an Assistant Professor and Director of Clinical Experiences at Huntington University, supervises counseling interns, and joyfully works with clients in a private therapy practice. Michelle and Sandi Brown, founder and President of Gateway Creative Broadcasting in St. Louis, are co-authors of Healing Out Loud: How to Embrace God’s Love When You Don’t Like Yourself. Visit the website at www.healingoutloud.com.
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