Recently I read an “inner healing” sales pitch that promised “Freedom From Negative Emotions” and cringed.
I cringed because I know that lots of people are probably thinking, “Sign me up for that!”.
Visions of a life free of problems and a constant state of emotional bliss sure are tempting, but the truth is, that’s not life.
Life isn’t all “up”.
In fact, that’s the lure that many drug addicts ruin their lives chasing after.
God gave us the ability to feel negative emotions so that we can navigate life in a healthy way.
In fact, He feels them too. He doesn’t let His emotions control His actions… but He feels them!
Emotional maturity does not mean only being happy and living on cloud nine. It means that you have the ability to navigate all the emotions without getting stuck.
Emotional maturity involves being open to feeling any emotions that you might have at any given moment. It’s also about learning to recognize the difference between our “feelings” and our “triggered reactions”.
In my book, The Bridges of Chara, I compare our emotions to islands that we travel to on a regular basis in the context of life. I describe how an emotionally mature person will “build bridges” back to joy from each of these negative emotions making them each a safe place to go when needed.
Over the course of the small group discussions and introspective homework, many people discover that they have learned to skip past emotions that they “don’t like” and land on a “favorite” instead. This is more of a triggered reaction than an actual, legitimate emotion.
How about an example?
Earlier this year I had the flu. I spent the better part of 10 days on the couch with a fever. One morning, my husband found me on the couch…again- and started complaining loudly about the way the laundry was piling up. He was acting really mad at me, and his body language and voice tone all conveyed nothing but anger.
My 21-year-old son said something to the effect of, “Dad, she’s sick, get off her case”, and then my husband silently and begrudgingly grabbed his wrinkled clothes from the dryer.
Later that day he called me and apologized. He told me that he had realized that seeing me in this weak state was reminding him of his mother’s last days before losing the battle to cancer. He doesn’t do “sad” and he also doesn’t like to feel afraid. He realized he was afraid of losing me, and “jumped” right over to anger island instead of feeling fear.
This story is an example of someone who is in the first step towards emotional maturity! Being able to recognize that his anger was a triggered reaction instead of a valid emotion is that first step.
The next step for him in his emotional maturing, was to admit he was afraid of losing me too. Once he admitted it, he allowed himself to feel it, which instantly allowed me to feel it with him. This is all that he needed to help him build a bridge away from fear and back to joy. If he had stayed in anger, I never would have understood why he was angry because it didn’t make any sense! But his fear was real and very understandable and easy to synchronize with.
His next step toward full emotional maturity will be to feel the very real sadness of losing his mother. Without feeling it first he won’t be able to avoid this trigger again in the future.
Emotional maturity is all about allowing ourselves to feel the emotions of life and then return to joy—that inner place where we know we are not alone—and God or someone else is glad to be with us no matter what.
“Freedom from our negative emotions” will never lead us to peace because deep inside we’ll know the truth. Pretending our negative emotions and painful places don’t exist only robs us of the chance to build a bridge to that place I call “Chara” where people can be genuinely glad to be with us.
Without negative emotions, emotional maturity and joy will always elude us, because we’re denying ourselves the chance to let others be with us in our pain.
What does “neurotheology” mean? Dr. Andrew Newberg wrote Principles of Neurotheology and was interviewed by NPR in 2010. He called neurotheology “the relationship between the