Do your emotions sometimes spin out of control? Do you fly off the handle at an innocent remark? Does anger or resentment get in the way of your relationships? Or do you fear strong emotions and avoid expressing your own?
Our emotions are vital to a healthy Christian life. Emotions tell us something important about ourselves, the world, and about our key relationships. Fear alerts us to danger, injustice provokes anger, and we rejoice in the presence of a loved one. As the Catechism tells us, through our emotions we intuit the good and suspect evil. Emotions are our God-given radar.
Sometimes couples will shy away from sharing their true feelings, fearing conflict. But, as Catholic attorney and mediator Mary Meade points out, conflict is actually healthy for couples—as long as they know how to discuss their differences respectfully and lovingly, without abusing, belittling, or being contemptuous. Honest expression of our feelings (even the more intense ones) is normal and healthy for a relationship.
But sometimes, our emotions can spin out of control and push people away. We burst into tears at a perceived slight or we are nearly incapacitated by fear and anxiety. We might struggle with anger (see my previous column) or with deep resentments. Some of us over-react when criticized, while others withdraw or become emotionally distant.
I once had a colleague who would become contemptuous and hurl angry insults whenever she was criticized (even necessary, constructive criticism). As a result, her co-workers refrained from giving helpful feedback and often walked around on eggshells around her. Her tendency to over-react actually had roots in emotional wounds from childhood. As an adult, it is difficult for her to hear criticism without feeling rage.
Our emotional reactions often signal us that we need to resolve some issue from the past. An inappropriate emotional response—for example, flying into a rage over a colleague’s critical comment—may indicate that we have a wound related to neglect, abuse, or other serious trauma. Our fear or anger shows that we have some personal issues that need to be addressed.
Psychologist Paul Ekman (whose pioneering work on emotions and facial expressions is portrayed in the TV show Lie to Me) describes an occasion when he over-reacted to his wife not calling him when she was out of town on a business trip. He experienced waves of anger, fear, and jealousy while waiting for her call…emotions triggered by his sensitivity to abandonment, due to his mother’s premature death when he was only fourteen years old.
Not all past wounds are as poignant as a death of a parent, physical abandonment or sexual abuse. A child can be wounded by lack of affection, the silent withdrawal of a father into his work, or a chaotic homelife where daily battles raged. John Eldredge says that “every man carries a wound.” And that wound carries a negative message: you aren’t good enough, you’re not a man, you aren’t loveable, you don’t have what it takes, you can’t trust anyone.
Unmet emotional needs can result in fears of abandonment and rejection (which, in turn, can give rise to anxious, depressed, or angry feelings) and in shame (there must be something wrong with me that I was abused or mistreated). Feelings of helplessness and self-loathing take a tremendous toll on our personal integrity and our interpersonal relationships. Yet we can be unaware of this toll. It’s hard to see how our own woundedness impacts our present and future relationships. We may over-react or under-react emotionally, become over-sensitive or overly critical, fly into rages, attempt to control others or act perfect, or use alcohol or other substances to lessen the pain from the emotional wound. These wounds can hold us back from living the abundant life God calls us to.
We are all wounded in some way. It’s the effect of Original Sin. Pope Benedict says that the ultimate fear every human being faces is complete aloneness, existential abandonment. “In the last analysis all the fear in the world is the fear of this loneliness…the loneliness into which love can no longer advance.” Deep down, underneath the scars of past and present wounds, we fear isolation, abandonment, loneliness. Someone contradicts us or ignores us and the wound is re-opened.
The good news is that Christ, the Divine Physician, not only heals our souls, but also our emotional wounds. We are never too stuck or too wounded for his healing grace. Christ wants us to be healed in this life. He has come to set us free!
This does not mean that all of our problems will disappear, for Christ warns us, “In the world you will have trouble” (Jn 16:33). Yet Scripture repeatedly reassures us (some say, 365 times!) to fear not. Fear is opposed to love, but “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). Not only does perfect love (God Himself) free us from fear, but our own efforts to love more perfectly (that is, to love with Christ’s love) can work toward dispelling our own fears.
We all want to feel safe and secure, to feel loved and validated for who we are. In our healthy relationships, this happens. But even our deepest human relationships are limited. Ultimately, only Christ can fill the “eternity-shaped hole” in our hearts and free us from fear, anxiety, and resentment. “Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness…in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment,” writes Pope Benedict. Through God’s grace and with the help of our loved ones who remain affirming, trustworthy, and loving, we can begin to transform our negative emotions of fear, anxiety, anger or shame into those of love, joy and peace.