How Can We Help People
Handle Their Emotions?
By Mark Sandford
---Emotions should be listened to and validated before going on to "fix" problems. If we don't do this, people will feel invalidated, like we are fixing the person instead of the problem. It can even feel like we are telling them their feelings are wrong. In order to validate emotions, active listening is essential. “Listen carefully to my words; let this be the consolation you give me”(Job 21:2, NIV).
---We need a repertoire of practical tools with which to carry out a session, rather than a one-size-fits-all, step-by-step formula. This allows for flexibility as well as the move of the Holy Spirit, and attunes the heart of the prayer counselor more to the emotions and needs of the one counseled. Thus, we are less formulaic than most inner healing ministries.
---Help build a vocabulary of words and word pictures that express emotions. God does this for the Psalmists, giving them words like, "My eyes are dim with grief" (Psalm 88:9), and word pictures like, "I am counted like those who go down to the pit" (vs 4). People who grow up in homes where emotions aren't expressed don't learn these simple skills.
---Help recognize when feelings provide an accurate assessment of reality. In such cases, we need to teach people to trust their emotions. For instance, a child might have felt that it was wrong that a molester touched her, but the molester told her that what he did was right. Her feelings were right in the first place, and that needs to be reaffirmed.
---Help recognize when feelings provide an inaccurate assessment of reality. We need to teach people to assess feelings in light of the Bible, true doctrine, sound judgment, our own spiritual discernment, and the discernment of others. For instance, it can feel right to have sex before marriage, because, after all, "We're going to get married soon anyway." This does not square with the Bible. Another example: past experiences can color present experiences. If I have been ignored all my life by many people (including my parents), and then a friend inadvertently ignores me (because he is having a stressful day), my emotions can tell me, "He doesn't like me." Not true; he does like me; he's just stressed out at the moment, and preoccupied.
---Even when emotions aren't valid measures of reality, listen to them. It's difficult for people to hear objective truth unless they feel heard. If someone is crying because she has felt unloved by neglectful parents and cannot accept that God loves her, she will not hear that God loves her unless someone first hears her pain.
---Recognize that there is no such thing as an unexpressed emotion. If we don't express a feeling in the right way, it will be expressed in the wrong way. If a child learns to suppress anger (for instance, about not being listened to) and never talks about it, it will come out years later. For instance, he may overreact with rage at someone who seems to not listen to him. Or he may turn his anger on himself, telling himself he doesn't deserve to be listened to. Or he may turn his anger into lust, filling the empty spot in his heart with pleasure.
---Help find words to express pain, even if the conclusions drawn about that pain are false. God does this in Scripture. For instance, look again at Psalm 88. God gives words to the Psalmist to express anger toward God, even in statements that are not true (“You remember [me] no more, [I am] cut off from your care”—verse 5). By authoring these statements through the Psalmist, God is not saying that these are accurate assessments of God; rather, He is saying that this is an accurate expression of what the Psalmist momentarily feels. By offering such aid, we prepare the heart to receive more accurate truths about what we lament. This is true in most Psalms; by the end of the Psalm, the Psalmist usually is able to speak truthfully about God. For instance, Psalm 22 begins with, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Because God listens to him (in spite of the fact that God has, in fact, not forsaken him), by verse 24 the psalmist says, “He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; He has not hidden His face from Him but has listened to His cry for help.”
---Occasionally, we just need to listen to emotions and forego looking for roots. In Psalm 88, the Psalmist does not achieve this kind of objective perspective by the end of the Psalm — this is the only Psalm where this is the case. This means that occasionally, we will have to spend the entire session listening to grief and woe, and we will have to wait for another session before dealing with root issues.
---In order to get heart and mind to work together, help people learnt to rest in God's arms. Small children who have been held a lot are much better able to regulate emotions and keep a true perspective on life. Adults who have missed out on this as children can find what they missed through soaking prayer, and by bringing to the cross in prayer any inner vows they have made (promises to protect themselves from pain — such as "I won't feel;" "I won't need;" etc.) that keep them from living a lifestyle in the arms of Father God. Expressing emotions is also an important step toward resting in God's arms.
© Mark Sandford 2018