Emotions and interpretations

I’ve been reading Joe’s blog, the one he and his wife kept while he was going through cancer treatments, up until he died several weeks ago. I just started at the beginning and am slowly making my way through. In his near-daily reflections there’s a lot that I remember hearing in therapy, and it’s good to be reminded.

One post I read today tells a story from Joe’s past when he was feeling burnt out as a therapist and went to complain to a friend. The friend told him he needed to remember who he is in Christ, and assured him of his confidence that the Lord would help him.

My mind has been chewing on the story today, in the background as I play with Amy, make the bed, do the dishes, contemplate how sleepy I am, wonder why I keep getting fraudulent calls purportedly from American Express.

One of the things I learned from Joe is that emotions themselves have no moral value. Whatever you feel, it’s valid — it’s true — it’s real — that is, the feeling is valid, true, and real.

And so, if you’re feeling burnt out, frazzled, in the pit, surrounded by rotten turnips, you can acknowledge those feelings and experience them in their full reality.

At first glance, Joe’s story seems to be contradicting that — you might be tempted to think his friend was telling him to buck up and deal, stop feeling sorry for himself, stop complaining — telling him he was wrong to feel the way he was feeling.

But that’s not quite it. The correction isn’t directed at Joe’s feelings, but at the way he was interpreting them and thus the way he was interpreting reality.

And that totally meshes with what I learned through DBT, particularly the prompting event worksheet. That worksheet has you name your emotion(s), describe your physical and mental state during the emotion(s), list the interpretations you apply to the emotion(s), and then challenge those interpretations as needed.

Most of us resent being told to stop feeling a certain way. My hunch is that most people who give such advice might be confusing feelings with their interpretations.

Another thing. Part of my response to this post of Joe’s was / is to be annoyed with God, and a little dismayed. Isn’t there ever a time when I’m allowed to complain, allowed to acknowledge that not everything bad in my life is my own fault? WITHOUT having to also acknowledge my participation in the bad, my need of repentance, my waywardness? And I have to remember that it isn’t that God is out to make me grovel, to keep me down, to take all possible joy away from me — and that it is exactly his goodness and mercy that allow me to see my sin without despair and excessive grief. Humph. Sort of.

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One thought on “Emotions and interpretations

  1. Marcy, you asked in your posting, “Isn’t there ever a time when I’m allowed to complain, allowed to acknowledge that not everything bad in my life is my own fault? WITHOUT having to also acknowledge my participation in the bad, my need of repentance, my waywardness?”

    Not everything is your fault or even involves you other than it hurts you. We are impacted by the choices, good and bad, of other people, some we don’t even know personally, have never met. But when their bad choices (or sin) impact us, I believe that is the time we can complain – not in a whiny way, but we can take all this to God and rant and rave to Him, and sometimes to other people, depending on who they are and our relationship to them.

    It is true our reactions to what others do is our responsibility, but we are not responsible for what they do that truly hurts us.

    But, yes, the interpretations of our feelings are many times what gets us into emotional twists. However, don’t shy away from “complaining” to God. He’s a big Fella, and He can take it – with love. 😉

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