Four questions to help shape your feelings

Eternity recently introduced this ‘Well on the Way’ series as an opportunity for me, a Christian clinical psychologist with three decades of professional practice, to offer readers some key principles for emotional health, along with practical tips. These are principles to maintain our core emotional health, it should be noted, rather than treatment strategies for psychological pathologies.

And here they are – my three key principles for emotional health:

1.     Self-talk that is respectful, constructive and biblical.
2.     Lifestyle balance that includes relaxation, exercise and prayer.
3.     Healthy relationships.

Under each of these principles, I will explore several sub-topics. In this first article about self-talk, I want to dig into a core idea in both the Bible and psychology, that:

Core idea 1: Our thinking shapes our feelings.

Person thinking

Our conscious, present thought stream (‘What are we having for dinner? Should I apply for that job? Why has this happened in my life?), as well as our less conscious, less rational, deeper beliefs about ourselves and the world (‘Are people safe? Can I trust my emotions? Am I loved?’) profoundly shape our feelings about life.

Of course, the Bible was all over this concept before modern psychological science got there! It consistently tells us to guard our minds (Isaiah 26:3, Romans 12:2, Philippians 4:7-9) and our hearts (Proverbs 4:23).

Healthy people have some predictable things happening emotionally. They have a decent degree of confidence – to make decisions, take initiative, take risks and be vulnerable. They have a decent degree of acceptance about themselves – their body, personality, strengths, weaknesses – so they can enjoy being the person God has made them to be. And they have a decent degree of assertiveness and proactivity to set goals, solve problems and cope with setbacks.

But we can all find ourselves in less healthy zones from time to time when those poisonous patterns of thinking creep in. When fear, shame, powerlessness or helplessness (to name a few!) start to become plausible or dominate our inner world, we are heading for the notorious “black hole”. We become more fragile, over-sensitive, self-doubting, insecure and scared  ….  and the black hole can become profound.

So, practical tip 1 for emotional self-care is to use these four simple journalling questions when we notice ourselves feeling wobbly or confused. This approach does more than introspect. It helps me control my emotions, so I make wise decisions. So here they are.

1.  How am I feeling?

It sounds very simple, but putting words or labels on our feelings can take a bit of learning. Sometimes it helps to give it more focus, such as “How do I feel about myself?” Or “How do I feel about my marriage/parenting?”

Thankfully, the Scriptures give us an extraordinary handbook on our emotions called the Psalms, where we see every emotion known to humans expressed and processed. The Psalmist does not avoid or deny his feelings!

But how do I begin to identify what I am feeling?

It’s a process of listening to ourselves and testing out word concepts to find ones that fit. For example, “I’m feeling sad, but is it disappointed-sad or grief-sad, lonely-sad or scared-sad?” Ashamed or insecure, fearful or vulnerable, inferior or rejected?  It can help to Google lists of feeling words or emotion charts to broaden our emotional vocabulary.

But having found an emotion or two that fit, my second question is this:

2.  What is the thinking behind my feelings?

This is the “Pandora’s box” question that lets us honestly and openly pour out all our confusion while seeking to get in touch with the ideas and beliefs shaping our feelings. This will engage with your expectations, your experience, your assumptions and most importantly, your beliefs about yourself and how you are treating yourself.

This will force you to look at your expectations of others – all those “shoulds” about life and other people’s behaviour – and your expectations of their roles and yours. And it may well touch on how you are feeling and thinking towards God at the moment.

This leads logically to my third question:

3.  Is my thinking constructive and helpful? If not, how can I change it?

I think of this as the therapy question because it usually takes some psycho-education to assist people in seeing the differences between healthy, constructive thinking and the opposite. It’s often about discerning truth from lies.

Healthy thinking starts with respecting ourselves. It involves giving ourselves permission to be human and to have an entire range of normal human emotions that are neither right nor wrong. Our emotions are like colours of the rainbow in their breadth and indicator lights on the dashboard in their function. They tell us what is going on underneath the bonnet.

Two core definitions shape my psychology practice:

Anxiety is listening to fear.

Depression is listening to powerlessness and negativity.

Both are profoundly unhelpful and unhealthy, and we need to be vigilant. The Bible gives us hundreds of “don’t fear” instructions (Deuteronomy 31:6, Joshua 1:9, Isaiah 43:1-2), with guidance on how to talk back to ourselves and remember what the Lord has done (Psalm 42:5 is one example).

We are doing excellent self-therapy when we can challenge poisonous ideas (lies) and feed ourselves some opposite truth.

4.  What are my choices from here?

Do I need to think differently, talk to someone or get advice? Knowing “I have choices” is tremendously empowering and strengthening. I always have choices – in how I think and what I do.

A recent publication from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has followed 700 men for over 80 years (Waldinger & Schulz, The Good Life – Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness; Simon & Schuster, 2023) concludes that “when it comes to living a long and happy life, it is the quality of your relationships that matters most,” and that emotional awareness and control (as described above) are crucial to doing that.

So keep these four questions somewhere handy to test-run next time your emotions are confusing you.

Sue Bartho is a clinical psychologist who runs Well on the Way Psychology in Sydney. To read more articles in this series, click here