4 Steps You Need to Take to Being Emotionally Strong
Emotional strength is not absence of emotion, or overwhelming emotion—it’s the resilience, self-discipline, and discernment that turn unruly emotions into tools to help us discern God’s purpose and our own hearts. Here are a few practical suggestions for transforming our emotions from a liability into a strength.
I was in a premarital class with my soon-to-be husband when our pastor gave us perhaps too much insight into his marriage . In arguments, he was a turtle—he’d retreat and go into his shell. But his wife was a skunk: when she was angry, he said, “she lifts her leg and sprays.”
His wife was a beautiful, dignified, godly woman. The mental image was, um, jarring.
But it became a little less funny after I got married. That’s when I realized that I, too, was a skunk.
Honestly, it sounds better to be a turtle, doesn’t it? You keep your composure, and your dignity intact. You retreat a few paces from conflict and disappear.
I went the other route—the leg-lifting route. For my first few years of marriage, I had no control over my anger, hurt, and resentment. When I got emotional, I blasted my husband.
I guess you could say I was emotionally strong…but not in a good way.
Back then, I thought my emotions were nothing but a liability. They were too intense, too out-of-control. My emotions felt like a runaway horse; I was stuck in its bucking saddle. Once my feelings passed, I surveyed the wreckage they caused—hurt feelings, abusive words, and my own shame—and wished I could just get rid of my ornery emotions once and for all.
But as I’ve matured, I’ve realized the problem was that I had strong feelings—it was my way of handling them. I once thought God wanted me to replace my emotions with rational calm. But now I see Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he gave me such big feelings. They are part of how he intends me to perceive the world.
Emotional strength is not absence of emotion, or overwhelming emotion—it’s the resilience, self-discipline, and discernment that turn unruly emotions into tools to help us discern God’s purpose and our own hearts.
Here are a few practical suggestions for transforming our emotions from a liability into a strength.
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1. Get acquainted with a Biblical view of emotions.
The culture surrounding early Christians took a very dim view of feelings. For example, most Stoics, an influential group of Greek philosophers, viewed detachment from feeling as their ultimate goal. Indeed, my early disdain for my emotions is not a Biblical perspective. Writer Matthew Elliot says, “The idea of extirpating the emotions is an idea unknown to the New Testament…Where the Stoic idea of happiness was a life free from emotion, Paul’s joy was an emotional celebration of God...” In a similar way, the Gospel writers portray Christ as vibrantly emotional. Jesus cracks a whip in anger in the temple, weeps at the loss of his friend, and celebrates at parties with radiant joy.
If we are called to reflect Christ, then we’re called to embrace our emotions, not eliminate them. Rather than trying to imitate Stoic detachment, we are instead called to bring our hearts under Christ’s lordship—allowing them to be transformed by God, along with every part of our being.
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2. Understand the real problem with our unruly emotions.
I once thought that feeling any negative emotion was a sin. Didn’t Paul tell me not to be anxious about anything? But praying against these emotions didn’t eliminate them. My unruly emotions didn’t go away, leading me to cynicism about my faith.
But having negative emotions isn’t the real problem. As Robert C. Roberts puts it in his book, Spiritual Emotions, “[We] lack personal integration and depth not because [we feel] strongly, but because [our] feelings are erratic and chaotic…because [we feel] strongly about the wrong things, or because [we lack] presence of mind, self-possession or self-control.” In other words, emotions themselves are morally and spiritually neutral. It’s our values, habits, attitudes that underlie our emotions that are the problem.
In fact, both Roberts and Elliott point out that emotions offer us powerful tools for wisdom. For instance, if we get emotional about something, we can assume we deeply value it—a powerful way of unmasking our self-deception. Unruly emotions are uncomfortable because they uncover our real value systems, priorities, and yearnings. If what we uncover makes us wince, then it’s an opportunity to bring those values or desires to God and ask for help. Rather than shutting off those emotions, then, we need to pay very close attention to them.
As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that my emotions can help me be more honest with myself. If I feel negative things, or dislike my emotions, I’m now prompted to examine the roots of those emotions to discover what they tell me about myself, other people, and my values. Used in that way, emotions are incredible tools for discernment and wise choices.
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3. Integrate Emotions into Your Whole Being
So if emotions can both get us in trouble and illuminate the truth, how do we turn them from a liability into a strength? I find inspiration in Christ’s command to love God with all of our hearts, souls, strength, and mind. Rather than regarding our emotions, thoughts, and spiritual lives as separate parts of ourselves, we must integrate them all. God intends us to use each part of our being to help illuminate and improve the others. Only then can we become resiliant people reflecting the complete image of God.
My emotions give me important information about the world, but if I don’t think through what they mean, or whether they are reasonable, they spiral out of control. But rational thought has its limits too—often people who depend too much on logic can be cold and unempathetic, or can argue their way into actions that harm others. Similarly, if we separate our spiritual lives from our thought lives or emotional reactions, we can easily deceive ourselves.
Talking with my therapist recently about how to balance my heart, soul, mind, and strength, she suggested some simple tools. First, journaling about our emotions can help us examine them using our rational mind, to test their underlying assumptions or value systems. Similarly, she said contemplative prayer can integrate our spiritual lives with our emotions and our thoughts. In my case, sitting in stillness and mentally repeating a Bible verse helps me invite God’s presence into my thoughts and feelings.
Finally, my therapist said that getting wise advice—from people with balanced emotional, spiritual, and thought lives—can help us move towards emotional strength. I often share my unruly emotions with my prayer partner or therapist. Often, just explaining myself awakens me to warped viewpoints. But when I can’t see my blind spots, trusted counselors gently help me consider a new perspective.
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4. Be Kind to Yourself
In her book, Permission Granted, Melissa Camara Wilkins talks about how she used to have a less-than-helpful personal mantra: I’m the worst. Whether it was cooking spaghetti, returning phone calls, or being able to get out of bed in the morning, Wilkins said, “I could see the truth about myself, and the truth was that I had a whole bunch of not-perfect going on inside…The least I could do was call it what it was: the worst.”
I read those words with a pang of recognition, especially when it comes to how I’ve talked to myself about my unruly emotions. Because frankly, I am often horrid to myself when I’m struggling emotionally.
Our feelings are full of contradictions, wrong turn signals, or confusing truths we’d rather not confront. We’d rather not have to think about what they mean, and so we tell ourselves to shut up instead. We tell ourselves no good person would feel that way. We tell ourselves to get our act together.
Sometimes, my self-loathing has felt like the only way to motivate myself to get my emotions under control. By emphasizing how sick and tired I was of myself, perhaps this time I would finally get reasonable. But guess what? We are never deeply motivated by hatred and shame. Instead, we yearn for safety, understanding, and wise direction.
Can I gently point out that Jesus, confronted with broken, grieving, confused people, felt compassion for them, knowing they were like sheep without a shepherd?
What if we tried speaking to ourselves like we would a struggling friend? What if we gave ourselves room to improve and grow—and trusted that God was going to help us do both? What if, instead of judging your every emotional mistake with harsh disdain, we tried to view ourselves with eyes of Love?
God’s strength is wholeness: the image of the Trinity is one of deep integration, togetherness, and communion. We will not get the strength we desire by cutting off chunks of ourselves.
In the end, we will become emotionally strong only through the love of God that surpasses all understanding.
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Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.