Tuesday Truth: Make a Friend of Your Feelings

Young African American boy with curly hair reflected in the store window.
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“At least I was quiet and didn’t bother anybody,” Derek snickered, under his breath.

“What?! What did you just say to me? You were high–during the baptism? You were high at church…?”

“Well, I guess I’m in the right place to get forgiveness, then,” Derek snidely retorted. Derek’s mom’s face was red, and the veins in her neck and forehead were poking out. I was getting nervous about her blood pressure, but before I could say something to her, she shot back, shouting, now:

“This is not a game, Derek! This is serious! How can you not care what is happening with your life? It’s like you’re a zombie and someone else is living your life…but they’re destroying you and everyone who loves you, too!” Derek’s mom’s was so upset that I had to get between them. I asked Derek’s mom to step outside the office and give me an opportunity to get to the bottom of what was happening.

Apparently several days before, Derek had fallen asleep in church, while he was supposed to be celebrating his younger brother’s baptism. Derek, a 17 year old, and his younger, 15-year old brother, had been seeing me for about a year now. Derek’s father had died of a rare pancreatic cancer, and Derek and his brother hadn’t dealt with it well. Derek’s younger brother had dealt with it better than Derek, though, and he was making a lot of progress with his own depression and his feelings of anger, following the grief and loss of his father.

But Derek, on the other hand, had begun, about a year ago,  to start using drugs—marijuana. Looking back on it, his mother noted that Derek had never been one to be quick to talk about his feelings. She told me that even when he was in primary school, Derek didn’t like speaking about his feelings–and even singing songs about feelings made him uncomfortable. He was quick to distract himself for hours on end, playing by himself, with his Legos, drawing, or coloring, but as he got into middle school, he began listening to music, spending hours online, watching YouTube, or other social media, or playing video games. Then, when his mother lost her job, she dropped all their monthly subscriptions to their cable and all the rest of their on-demand video streaming services. Then,  she basically sold all their tech in order to simplify their life.

This was the exact push that the younger brother needed to take counseling, and an improved relationship with God more seriously. For Derek, however, this lack of distraction was the final nail in his coffin, so to speak. Derek turned to substance use as a way to distract himself and medicate his pain.

“Feelings Are our Friends!”

The reason why Derek’s brother was doing better than him was simply because he was devoting his time and energy to feel his feelings, not distract himself from them. Both Derek and his brother had experienced the very same horrible, traumatic event—they just dealt with it differently.

In all my years of being a counselor, I’ve never met a anyone who purposefully enjoyed going through pain; the reality is that, as humans, we all will do whatever we have to do to not feel pain. And, unfortunately, that’s exactly what Derek was doing. He didn’t want to feel the pain of the loss of his father, so he didn’t talk about it. And because he didn’t vent those feelings—but instead sought to lock them down, they just grew and morphed and became more and more unmanageable. So, it got to the point where the only way that Derek could get through his days was to be high all day.

Checked Out

“You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God” (2 Timothy 3:1-4, NLT).

Have you ever met someone who lives their life simply to party and have fun? It’s like that the only thing that they’re thinking about. The proper definition of that is hedonism. In fact, I’ve been seeing this happen more and more in our culture. We live in a harsh world where harsh things happen, and for some—in fact, a growing number—the response to the stress and the hurt and the trauma is not to feel feelings or just to check out.  John Stonestreet, in his perspective on teens, mental health, culture, and worldviews, writes:

“It’s 2024, but there are still life lessons to be learned from TV’s Blossom. Recently on her podcast, [actress] Mayim Bialik described how she talks to her kids about drugs and alcohol: While [alcohol and weed] may not land you in an overdose situation in the hospital, they are the most insidious things, because … our media tells us that they are good, smart, wise and okay, and we’re given every excuse to numb. … I don’t care if you tell me weed’s not addictive. Not feeling pain is addictive. For a generation raised on glowing screens, the 24-hour news cycle, and millions of other distractions, mentally “checking out” is intoxicating. That’s why teenage marijuana use is at it highest in 30 years, leading to an increase in mental health issues, including paranoia and hallucinations. We must help the next generation know it’s normal to feel bad or bored sometimes. Numbness only delays the pain. ”

As difficult as it is to address the difficult things in our lives, it’s more difficult for us if we don’t address them.

Thrilled…to Death?

In his ground-breaking book, Thrilled to Death: How the Endless Pursuit of Pleasure Is Leaving Us Numb, Dr. Archibald D. Hart explores the idea of the profound loss of pleasure in our daily lives and gives steps for restoring it. Dr. Hart contends that too much pleasure is actually bad for us.

Hart, is a clinical psychologist and expert in behavioral psychology. Backed by recent brain-imaging research, he shares that to some extent, our pursuit of extreme and over-stimulating thrills hijacks our pleasure system and robs us of our ability to experience pleasure in simple things.

We are literally being thrilled to death! Hart explores the stark rise in a phenomenon known as anhedonia, an inability to experience pleasure or happiness. Previously linked only to serious emotional disorders, anhedonia is now seen as a contributing factor in depression (specifically, non-sadness depression) and in the growing number of people who complain of profound boredom. This emotional numbness and loss of joy are results of the overuse of our brain’s pleasure circuits.

Vent the Pain

Realistically speaking, this doesn’t sound like a fun way to live your life—in fact it doesn’t sound like much of a life at all. As difficult as it is to address the difficult things in our lives, it’s more difficult for us if we don’t address them. In fact, research shows that not expressing feelings affects our body, mind, and soul. We can’t separate one from another.

“A sound mind makes for a robust body, but runaway emotions corrode the bones” (Proverbs 14:30, MSG).

Now, there are all sorts of effective ways to vent feelings, but I don’t know of one better than good old-fashioned talking. And, as created-for-community-beings, we naturally do this, don’t we?

We bellyache to our friends about all of our lives. We’re quick to post about this and that on all sorts of social media, but many of us don’t take the opportunity to speak to God about our problems—I mean really speak to him about it. And we should. Now, there’s nothing wrong with talking to our friends or our counselors about our feelings—in fact, a great place to start, but that’s exactly what it needs to be: a start.

We need to make sure that we take our heart hurts to God. But many of us don’t, and not because we can’t. We don’t do it for a bunch of different reasons, but chief among them are really only two: we don’t think that He cares; and if He does care, we feel like it’s somehow disingenuous and disrespectful to unload on God. But, the Bible is replete with examples of just that. People going directly to God with the soul-crushing hurts of their lives.

Psalms of Lament

The Bible is filled with many different types of writing, but the one that I love the most is called “lament.” Lament is a major theme in the Bible and particularly in the Old Testament Wisdom book of Psalms. To lament is to express deep sorrow, grief, or regret. The psalms of lament are beautiful poems or hymns expressing human struggles. The psalms of lament comprise the largest category of psalms, making up about one third of the entire book of Psalms. These psalms are prayers that lay out a troubling situation to the Lord and make a request for His help.

There are forty-two individual psalms of lament and like the whole book of Psalms, the psalms of lament follow a pattern that begins with suffering and ends with glory. Usually, these songs start on a negative, complaining note, but they end on a positive, faith-filled note. The beauty of belly-aching is that after you get done, you usually feel better; just like you do after having a good cry, but you have to feel the feelings, because (like I always tell my clients) “feelings are our friends!” God agrees, and all He wants is for you to begin the process of venting the pain. So, tell God about it.

A lot of the Psalms were written by David; and, in this Psalm, David is thinking out loud and he recognizes his soul-thirst, and his need for God:

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?
Day and night I have only tears for food,
while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”

My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

Now I am deeply discouraged,
but I will remember you—
even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,
from the land of Mount Mizar.
I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.
But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.

“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief,
oppressed by my enemies?”
Their taunts break my bones.
They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God! (Psalm 42, NLT)

 

In Psalm 142, David, while hiding in a cave, comes to this wise conclusion:

I cry out to the Lord;
I plead for the Lord’s mercy.
I pour out my complaints before him
and tell him all my troubles.
When I am overwhelmed,
you alone know the way I should turn.
Wherever I go,
my enemies have set traps for me.
I look for someone to come and help me,
but no one gives me a passing thought!
No one will help me;
no one cares a bit what happens to me.
Then I pray to you, O Lord.
I say, “You are my place of refuge.
You are all I really want in life.
Hear my cry,
for I am very low.
Rescue me from my persecutors,
for they are too strong for me.
Bring me out of prison
so I can thank you.
The godly will crowd around me,
for you are good to me” (NLT).

Both Psalm 42 and 142 are wonderful examples of the beauty and power of lament. So, today, if you’re hurting, don’t conceal, but reveal your feelings; and make sure that you unload on God, I promise you, you’ll feel better after you do it, and you’ll begin the process of building a positive life habit of actually dealing with your emotional pain in a way that is healthy and not hedonistic.

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Side-bar: Want to learn more about Dr. Hart’s thoughts about solving the pleasure problem? Take a look at this YouTube video. 

 

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