Listen to Your Feelings – they might have something important to tell you

One of my favorite movies is the 2002 science fiction film Equilibrium. Written and directed by Kurt Wimme, the film is set in a future society called Libria. In Libria it is against the law to feel.

The main character of the film, John Preston (played by Christian Bale) is a law enforcement officer tasked with destroying objects that could incite emotion, including art, poetry and classical music. He is also required to kill rebels, known as “Sense Offenders”, who choose to experience illegal emotions.

The citizens of Libria have been brainwashed to believe that feelings are the cause of war, suffering and conflict. Accordingly, the citizens willingly participate in their own enslavement by taking a daily injection of a drug, known as Prozium II, which suppresses all emotion.
One day, when Preston accidently misses his dose of Prozium II, he gradually begins to be awakened to beauty through works of art he was hired to destroy. Gradually he begins questioning the disordered sense of morality that had previously motivated his actions. Using his skills in martial arts, Preston works to overthrow the leader of the police state and assist the rebels in restoring human emotion to society.

In many respects, the dystopian society represented in Equilibrium is much like our own. This might seem like a strange observation for me to make. After all, we live in a time that has elevated emotion to a point of idolatry. Under the guise of “being true to yourself,” we often treat our feelings as being self-authenticating. This has even infected the church, where all too often people are ready to assume that if something feels right, then that must be proof of the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Still, there is another sense in which we have become like the citizens in Equilibrium who look on feelings as their enemy. Instead of learning to manage, control and talk about our emotions, it is easier to simply eradicate them, drowning out our feelings with noise, addictions and distractions. As the great Christian mystic Thomas Merton (1915–1968) observed, our continual saturation in noise keeps modern man alienated from his inner self. If we do not take time to slow down and experience inner stillness, then often we do not even know what we are feeling. But suppressing our emotions only invites them to become dysfunctional. Gender stereotypes have also contributed to emotion-suppression, as countless men feel they cannot share what they are feeling for fear of appearing “sissy”, while many women fear being rejected if they become too transparent concerning their emotional vulnerabilities. (See my earlier post “The Virtue of Vulnerability.”) Yet still, our media tells us in countless ways to “listen to our feelings,” and “follow your heart”, an apt illustration of the spiritual principle that we destroy whatever we worship idolatrously.

It is easy to react to the subjectivism of our culture by becoming like the citizens in Equilibrium and embracing a rationalism that denies both the role of feelings and the importance of beauty within the moral ordering of our lives. Yet it is through an emotional attraction to beauty that we are motivated to make moral judgments and to order our lives according to transcendent realities. Through the sense of beauty we are moved out of indifference to become emotionally invested in pursuing one outcome rather than another. For example, when Eve succumbed to the temptation to disobey God (Gen. 3:6), it was because the beauty of the tree and its effects (“pleasant to the eyes… desirable to make one wise”) captured her imagination with greater force than the beauty of remaining faithful to the will of God. That example might lead us to disparage the role of beauty in moral decision-making, and yet the same principle also works in the other direction as the Holy Spirit sanctifies our feelings and imaginations. Through a sense of Christ’s beauty, we become emotionally invested in following Him. For example, when we observe character traits in Bible characters and saints that are worthy of emulation, when we identify certain things as honorable or shameful, when our praise of God is rooted in heart-felt admiration, or when we order our actions based on a longing for outcomes that lie outside the scope of the present life but which are attractive to our imagination—all these things partly arise from a sense of “the beauty of holiness.” (Ps. 96:9) A rightly-ordered sense of beauty is thus central to the moral imagination of the believer.

Tune-in To Your Feelings

In 2016, I was hired to write curriculum for five different universities to use in their Master’s programs. The topic I was asked to research had to do with integrating mindfulness practices into the classroom and using mindfulness to help students and teachers develop skills like emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the term psychologists use to refer to a person’s ability accurately to perceive emotions in himself and others, and to use this information to act wisely. An emotionally intelligent person is able to correctly identify how she is feeling and to self-regulate her internal states, as opposed to simply being carried away by the latest emotion. Someone with emotional intelligence is also able to perceive and understand what other people are feeling, even when the other person’s feelings may be very different to his own.

After spending months reviewing the research on emotional intelligence as part of my studies on mindfulness, I came away convinced that a person’s overall success in life, a person’s general wellbeing, and the quality of a person’s social interactions, are all largely determined by our level of emotional intelligence.

Christian theologians and mystics have understood this for centuries, long before the term emotional intelligence was first coined in the mid-sixties. For example, Psalm 42 demonstrates a high level of emotional intelligence, as the Psalmist is able to correctly identify how he is feeling and then use that knowledge to make wise decisions, namely the decision to turn to God for help

A twentieth-century Christian witness to the important of emotional intelligence was the Eastern Orthodox monk, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica (1914-2003). Elder Thaddeus was sought after by pilgrims from all over the world since he always seemed to know what to say to help them, even without knowing anything about their backgrounds or the context to their problems. A constant theme in Elder Thaddeus’s ministry was watch your emotions, and cultivate an attentive awareness of what you’re feeling.

Drawing on principles that had helped him to overcome anxiety in his youth Elder Thaddeus taught people to watch their feelings and to ask questions like, “Am I feeling empty or sad right now? If I am, why? What’s going on inside of me right now?” Elder Thaddeus taught that by being conscious of our emotional life, we can become attentive to actions and thoughts that might be proceeding out of previously unidentified feelings, in addition to becoming aware of subliminal thought-patterns that may be upstream of our feelings.

“Our thoughts, moods and desires set a path for our life”, Elder Thaddeus once observed. He continued:

“If our thoughts are quiet, peaceful, and full of love, kindness, and purity, then we have peace, for peaceful thoughts make possible the existence of inner peace, which radiates from us. However, if we breed negative thoughts, then our inner peace is shattered…. Look at us: as soon as our mood changes, we no longer speak kindly to our fellow men, but instead we answer them sharply. We only make things worse by doing this. When we are dissatisfied the whole atmosphere between us becomes sour, and we start to offend one another.” (Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, p. 71 & 88.)

The type of emotional self-monitoring described by Elder Thaddeus is crucial if we are ever to achieve the type of self-rule that the Bible impresses upon us (Prov. 25:28). By pausing in the stream of life to be attentive to our moods and emotions, we can take a deep breath and ask ourselves questions like the following:

  • When did my mood change to become darker? Was it because of unhealthy thoughts?
  • Have I taken something personally that I ought to let go?
  • Does my lack of peace stem from any thinking errors, such as comparing myself to others or inappropriate self-criticism?
  • Is the reason I’m stressed right now because I’m trying to control a situation I’ve already handed over to God?
  • Is the reason I get easily annoyed by a certain person because I am harboring unresolved hurt that I need to deal with?
  • Are the emotions I’m feeling right now because of a rigid insistence on my need to be right, or a refusal to view things from someone else’s point of view?

The goal in asking these types of questions is to bring self-awareness to our feelings instead of merely being carried away by them. Often we simply feel one thing, then another, then another, without always realizing where these feelings are coming from, and without understanding why we react like we do. As a result, we have a hard time identifying and managing our emotions. Before we can even ask questions such as the above, we need to learn to be in touch with our feeling. Without emotional self-knowledge, there can be no true self-mastery. By recognizing what we are feeling with honesty and authenticity, we can begin consciously to foster spiritually healthy conditions of feeling (i.e., appreciation, praise, joy, peace, etc.) and to treat negative emotions (i.e., self-pity, grumbling, criticism, desire for worldly things) with the contempt they deserve.

Put another way, getting in touch with our feelings is a way to increase the distance between stimulus and response, and thus to cooperate with divine grace in the soul’s purification. When there is no gap between an emotion getting stimulated and our response to that stimulus, then we often remain oblivious to the deeper context for why we react in the way we do. Developing a self-directed emotional intelligence enables us to begin managing and working through what we are feeling in much the same way that the Psalmists do in many of the melancholy laments. Developing emotional intelligence is a way to recognize—as opposed to simply being carried away by—negative impulses that may not be spiritually and psychologically healthy, or at least may need to be acknowledged and worked through.

One way of working through troubled emotions is to let them come to the surface and breathe a little, like the complaints issued by the Psalmist in Psalm 41 and 42. It’s easy to feel ashamed of our emotion and retreat behind a stoicism that says, “I’m not lonely,” “I’m not scared,” “no one can ever hurt me”, “I will never let myself become vulnerable again.” In such a state of denial, we may find it hard to be real with God about our needs, struggles and temptations. Even though God knows us better than we know ourselves, we still feel embarrassed coming to Him and saying, “Here’s how I’m feeling right now Lord, and it sucks.”

One of the reasons that Psalm 42 is my all-time favorite chapter of the Bible is because it continually zigzags back and forth between a painful transparency of troubled emotions (“My tears have been my food day and night…why have You forgotten me?”) and a child-like trust in God. I believe there is an important connection between these two aspects: the act of being vulnerable with the Lord about our darker feelings enables us to become receptive to the comfort and healing He longs to provide. Let’s look closer at Psalm 42. Notice how the emotional self-monitoring (“I pour out my soul within me…my soul is cast down”) is integrally connected to wise self-talk (“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”) and appropriate decision-making (“Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him”).”

As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?

My tears have been my food day and night,
While they continually say to me,
“Where is your God?”

When I remember these things,
I pour out my soul within me.
For I used to go with the multitude;
I went with them to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise,
With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.

Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
For the help of His countenance.

O my God, my soul is cast down within me;
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
And from the heights of Hermon,
From the Hill Mizar.

Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime,
And in the night His song shall be with me—
A prayer to the God of my life.
I will say to God my Rock,
“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”

As with a breaking of my bones,
My enemies reproach me,
While they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.

Tune-in To Those Around You

So far in this article has been focused on the importance of tuning into our own emotions. But that is only one half of the picture. A Christ-centered emotional intelligence also involves learning to tune into the emotions of others.

We all know from personal experience how important it is for someone to listen to us. Have you ever shared a deeply personal emotion or experience with another person and come away feeling like they just didn’t get it, and that however many different ways you tried to explain yourself the other person just wasn’t connecting with you? Maybe you came away from the conversation feeling stupid. We’ve all had experiences like that. But you’ve also probably had the experience of sharing something with a person who seemed to immediately “get it” without you needing to go into a lot of detail. Maybe the person seemed to have an intuitive sense of where we were coming from and could even articulate what you were trying to say better than you could yourself. The simply act of the person listening probably made you feel validated, almost like the person was giving you permission to be you.

Through empathy it becomes possible for two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each other’s struggles, sorrows and joys.

The difference between these two scenarios—the one where you were made to feel stupid and the other where you felt validated—often hinges on cognitive and emotional empathy (both key componence of emotional intelligence). Emotional empathy is what we call the ability to feel what another person is feeling even if we have not personally had the same experience, while cognitive empathy enables a person to know how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Both types of empathy enable us imaginatively to extend ourselves into the other person’s frame of reference, which is ultimately an act of attentive love and self-donation. Through empathy it becomes possible for two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each other’s struggles, sorrows and joys.

When we are not able to tune into other people’s emotions, then unnecessary conflict often arises. Consider that in many relationships between partners or within families, we can be drawn into conflict over trivial matters that, in and of themselves, should never have become matters of provocation. Insignificant things may get blown out of proportion because they trigger deeper areas of unresolved conflict, hurt, confusion, frustration or insecurity. Maybe the real issue behind a conflict is actually deeper feelings that have never been properly worked through or even acknowledged (a point I discuss here.) On the other hand, if both parties in a conflict are working on becoming more attentive to their own emotions, and if they are also trying to lovingly “tune-in” to what the other person is feeling, then they can take a step back and recognize the emotional dynamics at work.

Attentive listening involves putting ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. This often involves creativity, as we work to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. Sometimes we can achieve this by stopping a conversation in the middle and saying something like, “Is such-and-such what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, but I want to check if that’s correct?”

Your attention span is directly related to your ability to grow in others-directed emotional intelligence. When our attention is constantly scattered by incoming stimuli, we find it hard to accurately perceive the needs of those we love, to empathize, or be fully present for others. Ultimately we will find it hard to offer to others the type of self-donation that lies at the heart of Christ-like love. As Elder Thaddeus observed, “If we listen to our neighbor with only half our attention, of course we will not be able to answer them or comfort them…. We are distracted. They talk, but we do not participate in the conversation; we are immersed in our own thoughts. But if we give them our full attention, then we take up both our own burden and theirs.”

I am becoming increasingly convinced that in our age of distractions, inattention and scattered focus, the greatest gift we can offer someone is simply to listen. As Simone Weil once observed “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” When we really make ourselves present to another by truly listening, this is healing. Yet we easily underestimate just how valuable a gift we offer when we simply listen to another person.
Conversely, we often fail to appreciate just how much we damage relationships through refusal to listen. This has been proved by Dr. John Gottman, famous for being able to observe a 15 minute conversation between a couple and then predict if their marriage will end in divorce within ten years. Gottman conducted extensive studies aimed to identify the common causes of marital breakdown. He found that one of “the four horsemen” that almost certainly destroys any marriage is stonewalling—refusal to talk and refusal to listen. (In case you’re wondering what the other three marriage-killers are, they are criticism, contempt and defensiveness.) For any relationship to work, both parties need to know they will be heard. Many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say.

Let me close by quoting Carl Rogers (1902–1987) on the healing power of listening, from his book A Way of Being.

“I find, both in therapeutic interviews and in the intensive group experiences which have meant a great deal to me, that hearing has consequences. When I truly hear a person and the meanings that are important to him at that moment, hearing not simply his words, but him, and when I let him know that I have heard his own private personal meanings, many things happen. There is first of all a grateful look. He feels released. He wants to tell me more about his world. He surges forth in a new sense of freedom. He becomes more open to the process of change.

“I have often noticed that the more deeply I hear the meanings of this person, the more there is that happens. Almost always, when a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, ‘Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me.’ In such moments I have had the fantasy of a prisoner in a dungeon, tapping out day after day a Morse code message, ‘Does anybody hear me? Is anybody there?’ And finally one day he hears some faint tappings which spell out ‘Yes.’ By that one simply response he is released from his loneliness; he has become a human being again.”

Further Reading