“It’s just the tip of the iceberg!” We’ve all heard the familiar iceberg analogy used to describe overwhelming emotions – whether joy or contempt, anger or fear.
Visualizing the massive, floating berg reminds us that we only see 10% of the emotion picture – the other 90% being hidden below the surface. Yet in an age that craves authenticity and physical well-being, emotional health in the church doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.
Side-stepping our Emotions
There are reasons for this, of course. In the press of life’s busyness and ministry “to-do” lists, it’s easy to think that the 90% simply doesn’t matter. Often, it’s only when there’s a problem impacting relationships that we start to think about someone’s emotional health.
When we do address emotions, the responses can run the gamut: “Hey, if I get a little emotional and someone gets their feelings hurt, what can I do about it? That’s their problem, not mine!” Or, we may see the opposite: “I need to suppress my emotions as much as possible and “be nice. I’d hate to appear ‘unspiritual.’” (Author Peter Scazzero calls this maintaining the “glittering image.”)
Note how in both cases emotions are viewed as suspect, primarily negative, and maybe even out of our control. Might there be a third, healthier way to understand and express our emotions, and if so, how do we find it?
Emotions – a Vital Part of Us
Before we dive deeper, let’s take stock: as much as we might choose to write off our emotions as unimportant, unnecessary appendages to efficiency, our emotions themselves tell us differently. We know we’re intended to be much more than superficial, one-emotion beings (happy all the time), or mere “Vulcans” of logic. (Remember how Star Trek played with this tension? It was never enough for Spock to respond with cold logic, even while all the scientific facts were coming in. It drove Bones crazy. A more “human” response – whatever that looked like – was always desired.)
The truth behind those quests also matters to us. Even if we were taught that emotions simply don’t matter (stoicism), or have been “burned” by them in the past – we should know that emotions have a way of making themselves heard, in a myriad of ways.
Take anger for example. Most of us know someone who is “blissfully ignorant” of how angry they really are. They like to pretend they’re fine, when really they’re a teapot that’s boiling over. Whether it seeps out slowly, or explodes loudly with a shrill sound, they always end up scalding those around them. (Maybe even the person staring back at them in the mirror?)
Unfortunately, the spillover of anger can also lead to poisonous responses from those it touches. Family members and friends grow hard, slowly becoming the very thing they hate: angry, disgusted, cynical. Before long, heated emails fly, and cold wars ensue. In the fellowship, morale begins to sink, negatively affecting the desire to love and serve. Before you know it, the church splits. Are we exaggerating? It happens, more than we’d like to admit. (See these Top Ten Symptoms of Emotionally Unhealthy Spirituality.)
Of course, there is an appropriate anger, such as when others are being hurt and we’re spurred to action on their behalf. But the emotion that becomes toxic anger is more often the common variety – and those who have it are often the last to know. So how do we begin to address it, and explore our “emotional IQ” in general? The first step is to become self-aware.
Become an Observer
Becoming self-aware begins by observing, taking note of your body’s physical responses (tense muscles, racing heart, fight or flight urges, etc.). We’ve all seen how stress can actually age a person more rapidly over time, and lead to things like high blood pressure and heart attacks.
In addition, we need to ask ourselves, “What am I really feeling?” Here is where emotions can function as both gifts and signposts, pointing us to look deeper into the “heart of the matter” (or the 90% below the surface).
A quick side-note: Contrary to the popular view of the “heart” as just a metaphor for a mass of complex feelings, the ancient view understood the heart as a kind of central “engine” which drives us – the primary source of all desire, emotion, love, and goals. Far from being a superfluous part of us (as we sometimes “feel” emotions are), the heart is actually linked to feeling as well as thought and brain function. Or, think of it as a perpetual spring of water (also an ancient, biblical description) which bubbles up, and outward into the things we say and do.
Emotions are a Gift
“Ignoring our emotions is turning our back on reality. Listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God. . . . Emotions are the language of the soul. They are the cry that gives the heart a voice. . .” Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy
We may take them for granted, but emotions are good gifts, part of God’s design to know (and enjoy) him and respond appropriately to the world around us. Jesus himself validated them, demonstrating a healthy range of celebratory joy, righteous anger, and overwhelming grief. The psalms as well are woven through with resounding joys, sorrows, humiliations, and hopeful longings. And yet we also feel keenly how emotions can be distorted, complicated by sin and even resulting in denial and disengagement.
So how can we understand emotions better, especially when our hearts are so often deceitful? (Jer. 17:9)
Signposts to Diagnose the Heart
As opposed to viewing emotions as urges to always be obeyed (the “just follow your heart” mantra of our culture), we can begin to examine our troubling emotions – as any good physician does – by asking good, diagnostic questions. For example: “In this situation where I felt so angry (and possibly distrustful, attacked, annoyed, hurt, or shamed – take note of these as well), what is it that I wanted or desired most?
Another way to say it is this: “What was the outcome that my heart was set on as a “non-negotiable,” a “must have” that’s now being blocked? What did I want most? (Try to be specific here). Was it validation? To be approved of, recognized for my accomplishments, or esteemed? Did I feel hurt when I wasn’t acknowledged, or given that raise? Did I feel shamed, or belittled? Unmet desires are often common flash points for anger.
Instead of playing the blame game (my outbursts are really everyone else’s fault), what if I took responsibility for my own desires and behaviors, recognizing that it was my own heart that determined that “I must have this.” It was me who decided then to respond in a caustic way, and treat others badly. Sure, someone else’s actions may have provided the occasion or “temptation” for an outburst, but I still had a choice.
Why It Matters: Inner, Outer, and Others
Why does this inner heart analysis matter? Because unless we get to the root causes of our emotions, we’ll effectively stay enslaved to them and our responses. We’ll never be truly free to respond well to others – with the kindness and consideration we ourselves would like – when we’re needing to have our controlling desires met for our well-being and happiness. More likely, we’ll become thin-skinned, feeling cheated and angry when we don’t get what we want.
Increasing our “emotional IQ” depends on this vital inner diagnosis. Rather than being enslaved to our emotions, we can actually learn to follow them to their source, and examine them. Doing this can help us respond more appropriately to our amazing, yet often perplexing world – from an appreciation for other’s work, to gratitude for glorious sunsets. Rather than suppress, we can also face the more distressing matters in our lives with the empathy and kindness we long to have from others, and even grieve well when that is the appropriate response.