I would bet that many of us have a complicated relationship with emotions. Maybe we’ve seen the ugly side of anger from people we love, or we’ve struggled with anxiety or depression in some form in our life. Yet, we all long for peace.
For most of my life in some form or another, I struggled with managing my emotions — whether it was anxiety, the ups and downs of daily life, or the more difficult aftermath of traumatic experiences.
I eventually got to the point where I decided to see a therapist because I no longer wanted them to control me. In over six years in counselling or therapy dealing with the root of those issues, I’ve learned a lot about managing my emotions. And, I learned that in doing that, I’ve been able to step into a more true peace — the kind that’s promised.
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” He speaks like we are made for it—every single one of us. A peace that stands despite the ups and downs of emotions. But how do we get there?
St. Thomas Aquinas said, “grace builds on nature” — that is, God’s grace works with our human nature and builds off of it. So our spiritual life is very much influenced by our human or psychologically-influenced emotions. It’s a pairing of understanding who you are in God while also using the means God gave us.
So what does this look like practically?
Emotions can be tricky and uncomfortable. But emotions actually give us a lot of valuable information. They are more like messengers. And if we listen to them, we can know how to respond better.
For example, emotions tell us when we really care about something. They are like a flag that tells us what our values are, what we care about, if a boundary was crossed, or the truth of how we see and experience something. For example, feeling angry after someone did something might tell us that the event was important to us, and we felt hurt by how the person acted or didn’t act.
Emotions can also often tell us about a past experience that still informs the way we view the world. When we are “triggered”, or something happens to set off a strong emotional reaction in us, it can be tied deep down to some memory or worldview. The strength of the emotion is usually the indicator that it’s a trigger, and if we do some work, it can usually be traced back to an original difficult experience. This part can be really uncomfortable—but this is often where God does some of the biggest healing work in us to bring a deeper peace.
I personally experienced this the first time I got the ordinary flu after recovering from a year of severe chronic illness. When it happened, it triggered a whole host of strong emotions for me. In reality, I was healthy and would get over the flu just fine —but the memory of my past experience brought back old fears, beliefs, and grief. I was paralyzed by a belief that if I got sick, I would always be sick.
While uncomfortable, the trigger was actually an opportunity to heal the experience. Working with those feelings has been incredibly healing in my life, especially when working with a counsellor to learn more about emotional intelligence.
So how to put this into practice? Here is how I have applied the basic areas of emotional intelligence to help me grow:
Recognize your emotions. I put this into practice using a few different techniques. One is to simply name what I’m feeling in a given moment. Acknowledging a feeling can help diffuse its intensity. Another technique is practising “mindfulness,” which has been life-changing! It’s simply looking at thoughts and emotions as if you’re a bystander, watching them arise and go within without judgement. This may be difficult at first, but it can grow like a muscle.
This is a bit more work and I’ve found it very helpful to work on with a counsellor or therapist. One of the best ways to better manage emotions is simply letting ourselves feel our feelings. It was only when I began doing this that emotions actually became manageable.
When I feel sad, I let myself feel sad. When I feel angry, I let myself feel angry. And so on. Incorporating the mindfulness technique can be especially helpful, watching the emotion arise—and then letting it go, without pushing it away. Emotions do have an end. Feeling the feeling allows the emotion to diffuse somewhat, and then we have a better idea of deciding an action we need to take. Taking a pause when feeling a difficult emotion before responding is also very helpful.
When I got the flu again recently, I stayed present to my emotions: grief about what happened last year, anxiety that I would be sick for a long time all over again, and anger that I had gotten the flu at all. While frustrating, in staying present to those feelings and letting them come and go, the experience became one of deeper healing.
Because I’ve been more present to my own emotions, I’ve seen that it’s also allowed me to have more empathy for others, helping me understand their needs more—this has been especially helpful in my marriage and friendships! Being in tune with myself helps me be more present to other people.
With conscious effort, taking responsibility for my own emotions and inner wounds helps me choose a better response to them. This goes a long way in how I manage my relationships, especially my marriage.
When I know my own feelings and own them, I can see my husband’s feelings more clearly—and I can separate which are his, and which are mine. This can make managing conflict much easier, and with the help of marriage counselling, we’ve owned our communication patterns and managed our conflict responses much better.
Grounded in Truth
This is not a part of emotional intelligence, but a key part in finding healing—remembering that God promises not just a zen state, but hope and peace that surpasses all understanding.
Whatever our emotions are, the peace of His presence is always available to us, offering an anchor in the midst of stormy waves. I find it when I become still, and bring awareness of His presence with us in the exact moment. On days where I’m particularly struggling, it can help to call to mind scriptures that are comforting, like “Take courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), or “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you... Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
Now, I still struggle with the day to day, normal emotions of being human—but these practices ground me and keep me present to whatever I feel, freeing me from old wounds, freeing me to love myself and others, and freeing me to experience life and God in the here and now.
Looking to start exploring how to better manage emotions, or work through depression and anxiety? You can find a list of counsellors in your area.
We want to note that emotional health can be complex and may require help from professionals. These are guideposts from years of personal experience but no professional training.