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Dealing with Difficult Emotions –
Finding Emotional Freedom

Chaplain Joy L. Smith, M.A.
 Mental Health Counselor - Spiritual Mentor

I was newly divorced, now on a flight to Portland, Oregon, in search of solace and healing.  I had married at 17.  Eight years later, life with my husband was over.  It felt like my heart was torn; I was barely able to function.  While in flight, I looked out the window on the right side of the plane.  I saw a shadow-image of the airplane projected onto the sky.  That was unusual, but what captured and amazed me was the fact a rainbow formed a complete circle around the shadow of the airplane.  I could hardly believe what I was seeing!  Then, I heard these words spoken deep within, “You will never experience anything as painful as this, again.”

Mom and Dad made this trip possible by keeping my three small children under their wing while I took this trip.  Dad was a Director for Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International (FGBFI).  He had a friend in FGBFI who was gifted, able to help people heal from their emotional wounds.  I was traveling to the home of Jim Gallagher and his wife, Grace, to experience their healing work.  For a week, I attended group sessions in which Jim worked with emotionally disturbed people.  Jim and Grace prayed for me, off and on, throughout the week.  I felt like a different person, as I traveled home to resume my responsibilities as mother, provider, and homemaker.  Surely my healing found a good beginning place.
Divorce felt like a tragedy in my life.  Certainly, it took years to heal from it.  That healing took place in tandem with my coming to know my worth, while building a healthy self-image.  Later, after decades of giving and receiving within the ministry of healing, I eventually studied to become a chaplain.  Part of my ministry with people, as a chaplain and a mental health counselor, involves teaching coping skills to people whose life experiences left them with considerable pain within their souls and spirit.  As we work together a person’s level of emotional freedom increases.

Everyone has difficult emotions to deal with, at points in life.  For sure, when a divorce takes place it does not just cut the heart.  Divorce rips through a person, leaving ragged tears.  For both parties involved, hopes for being healthy and happy together have ended.  In other instances in life, a lesser degree of pain can come within our interactions with people who we trust and love.  At times individuals who are important to us may say, or do things that dig deep into our souls.  We don’t expect these people to hurt us, yet they do.  Afterwards, they may say, “I’m sorry.”  Yet, if those words are said blithely you may perceive the person truly does not feel sorry.  It then becomes a matter of checking it out, by asking, “I hear your words, but I don’t think you feel the feeling.  Could this be true?”  Or, “I hear those words, and my feelings are hurt.”  This confrontation helps the person think about their actions and perhaps to even grow in sensitivity to the feelings of others.

Unfortunately, if we have poor self-image, we are likely to blame ourselves when challenges come up in relationships, thinking, “I must be wrong.”  Or, “I must be bad.  Otherwise, these things would not be thought of me, or said about me.”  This can result in living with a distorted core belief of, “I am not loveable,” which is crippling.  The outcome of this belief is that a person rarely, if ever, confronts family, or friends.  In the end, low self-esteem causes us to slip even further into self-doubt, preventing us from responding in healthy ways within relationships.

Many of us grapple with low self-esteem and are perpetually blaming ourselves for words said by others that are adverse and hurtful.  There are people, however, who are blessed with healthy self-esteem through the efforts of caring parents who built that esteem into their children’s lives, early on, through caring touch and loving words.  Yet, for a large number of people, myself included, good self-esteem comes through a lot of personal effort as we mature and do our emotional healing work (which is also called “inner healing work”).  Meanwhile, before coming into the blessed stance of having good self-esteem, caring friends or family members may try to affirm us and encourage us to think highly of ourselves.  This can help.  Still, for the most part, good self-esteem comes through our own hard work.  It is a gift we give to ourselves.

As Dr. Gerald May states in Care of Mind Care of Spirit, “We carry with us basic attitudes of trusting or mistrusting, fundamental self-appraisals of value or worthlessness, and deep seated fears, aspirations, longings, and repulsions that are our heritage from childhood.”  These strong psychological determinants are often called baggage.  And the baggage can easily get triggered within our relationships, our work experiences, or sometimes within the church we attend.  Our inner baggage can even get triggered at the grocery store!  Remember the last time someone rammed your cart, blocked the isle, or behaved in some other non-caring way?  

Most experts in the field of psychology agree that by age six our personality traits and attitudes were already essentially established.  So, there is no doubt that the majority of us suffered some damage to our self-image, our sense of self-worth, very, early in life.  For me, the meaning I brought to the pain from my childhood was twofold:  I believed, “They didn’t care enough.”  And, “I wasn’t good enough.”  These two beliefs can get triggered in a moment, on any given day, when a circumstance happens to touch a memory that resurrects old pain.  Yet, it only takes a couple of moments to tell myself, “That is my old stuff coming up.  I reject the tendency to project that belief onto this current situation and I release the feeling attached to it.”  The belief that God is in control of all things, and able to heal anything and everything, allows me to step out of that noose.

Most of us carry beliefs we need to let go.  One such belief is that what others say about us must be true.  What is true, however, is that you don’t have to take in what is said about you by another person.  Yet, with low self-esteem, we are inclined to do so. 

Another handicapping belief is that we need to set people straight—on the spot.  Far too often when we feel hurt, angry, or afraid we are apt to react immediately.  This is because we take in the words of others before evaluating whether, or not, we need to own those words.  Reacting, versus responding, before emotions are understood and under control, can become a major element of dissent in a relationship.  For instance, if a co-worker spouts off saying, “You are not pulling your weight around here!”  Take a moment to evaluate, asking yourself, “Is this true?”  If so, you can take a deep breath and own up to it, saying, “I’m afraid you may be right.  I plan to do better.”  Or, since extraordinary circumstances can interfere with our work, an explanation may be in order, such as, “My dog got lost and I had to spend three hours looking for him, otherwise I knew the coyotes could get him.  I apologize and will get back on schedule with the work load.”  (This presumes that you called your boss earlier to explain you emergency.) 

On the other hand, given the instance of what feels like an unwarranted, aggressive personal attack, you still do not have to react, even though feelings may run hot and high.  A response that allows you to have boundaries with the person can be given.  For instance, “I am sorry you believe that.  I don’t see that as being true for me.”   This allows the person to see her or his statement to you as not gaining your acceptance.  For sure, you do not have to accept what is not true. 

It is, however, important to deal with the feelings of anger, hurt, guilt, fear, and shame that arise within difficult incidents.  When a difficult feeling is present, be sure to allow a little time to do some deep breathing. This provide our brains with a fresh load of oxygen, allowing us to do our best thinking and speaking, in the event the matter has to be handled immediately.  Otherwise, a healthy self-esteem will see us stepping away from a situation, while promising to talk about it later.  This allows space for identifying what was felt and determining how to respond. 

Once you are alone, ask yourself, “Was it hurt that I felt?  Did I feel insulted?  Betrayed?  Or, was I afraid?  Did I feel ashamed, blamed, or scorned?  Once our emotions are identified, allowing us to understand what is going on inside ourselves, we can choose to revisit the matter later with the person, or not.  When we do choose to revisit an incident it is important to avoid saying, “You made me feel angry” (or, controlled, misunderstood, or whatever it was that you felt).  Placing blame through that mode will meet with resistance.  A much better way is to say, “When we last talked I felt blamed” (or, whatever it was that you felt).  In this way, you own your feelings, taking responsibility for them. 
There is an important premise involving our emotions that is essential to grasp.  Although it is a must to value the feelings that arise from within, we do not have to act on them.  What gets us into trouble is the fact that we are often reacting to our feelings.  An entirely different outcome can be experienced when we respond to a matter after first dealing with our emotions.  Remember, we can revisit situations.

Because we allow our emotions to fall out of our mouths through words spoken suddenly, before getting in touch with what is going on inside ourselves, we encounter more upsets in life than would ordinarily take place.  Still, we are not to be doormats allowing others to walk on us.  So, a large part of taking good care of ourselves in life involves skills for dealing with difficult emotions.  Learning to recognize what is going on inside ourselves is essential to that process.  Socrates was right-on with, “Know thyself.”   And, so was Ralph Emerson right with his words, “To thine own self be true.”   This is the path that leads to being respected by others, and knowing when to give a wide berth to any person who cannot allow others their boundaries

How to heal your soul (psyche) by validating your emotions

Few people realize that validating their emotions is one of the best things they can do for their physical health as well as their emotional health.  This subject is introduced above as relates to interactions with others.  However, outside of those occasions, we help ourselves tremendously if we learn to routinely pay attention to our feelings as they arise and acknowledge to ourselves what they are about.  This calls for developing a habit of noticing when something happens about which you don’t feel good.  Then run a check, asking:  “What is it that I am feeling?” Am I hurt about this, or sad?  Am I frustrated?  Irritated?  Disappointed?   Am I angry?  Does this cause me to fear?  Is guilt what I am feeling?”  The subject of guilt is complex due to the fact there is both true guilt and false guilt.  For that reason, this subject is addressed separately.  For further help, click the “Quick Aid” button on the home page to find the entry titled “Are you Suffering from False Guilt?”

It is essential to realize that anger and hurt go together.  When we are angry there is also hurt involved.  When we are hurt, there is always an element of anger that accompanies that pain.  Underneath hurt and anger lies fear.  For those of us who pray within the process of our inner healing work, it is very effective to speak to God specifically about these emotions.  For example:  "God, I feel angry right now.  I also know that I am feeling hurt.”  After acknowledging what we are feeling, we can then release each feeling individually saying, “God, I give you this anger that I am feeling.  It is about ______________ (be specific, as you identify what is beneath the emotion).  I set my will to forgive this.  And, I, now, release the pain of it to you, God.”  Next, move from the emotion of anger to the hurt that is felt.  Cover this emotion just as thoroughly:   "God, I know I am feeling hurt, as well as angry.  Please help me release the hurt that I am feeling, so that I can be free of it.  I am feeling hurt because ______________ (be specific, as you identify what is beneath the emotion).  I set my will to forgive this hurt and to release the pain of it to you, God.” 

I found that as I work this process, it helps to envision the Lord holding a big sponge against my torso.  Then, I mentally “see” all this emotion moving into the sponge, which soaks it up.  To further experience this exercise involving the use of mental imaging for the sake of emotional healing, click on the “Quick Aids” button on the home page.

The Lord is called our elder brother in Scripture.  We can envision God’s work in our lives through picturing Jesus at work in the process.  This aspect is excellent as the act of imaging something mentally allows the healing work to reach the unconscious mind, which works with pictures.  We see this through the way the unconscious sends us dreams.  So, this part of our being needs pictures in order to get on board with what we want.  Creating mental pictures that show the unconscious mind the desired goal will bring the desired results more readily in many cases.

 Next, it is important to deal with the fear.  Fear is the fulcrum of our anger and our hurt.  “God, I'm sensing that the fear behind these feelings is about ______________” (fill in the blank).  Our fear usually involves a concern that we are losing something, or someone through a situation at hand.  Here is a truth that few people know:  Feelings follow thoughts.  Upon feeling an emotion, it is of considerable help to check out what we were thinking just before the emotion arose.
Often what we fear is loss of respect, or loss of appreciation.  For me, the fear is sometimes about feeling that I am being devalued, or not being treated respectfully.  Other times, I fear being misunderstood.  It takes concerted work to go to that depth of self-understanding, but doing so truly does pay off.  We can bring amazing levels of healing to our psyches (souls), and our bodies by identifying our emotions as they arise.  Then, the practice of releasing them is just as important. 
It helps to think of an upside down triangle while doing this work.  The illustration below shows that when we have anger, we have hurt.  And, when we have hurt, we have anger.  Both are present when either one of these emotions are felt.  Remember, healing takes place much more surely when we engage the unconscious mind with pictures, visualizations, and even diagrams.  (For more help on this subject, see “Tips for Working with Emotions” by clicking the “Quick Helps” button on the home page.)

Emotional Freedom Chart

Why bother with this work?

Dr. Gordon Mate, author of When the Body Says No, states clearly that the body does not bide well if we ignore our difficult emotions.  For this reason, I have felt impelled to reverse any tendencies within my psyche (soul) that could be leaving me vulnerable to illness.  I see how within my childhood the “big people” in my life were angry.  In addition, they were emotionally distant.  No one could know of the pain I held internally.

Dr. Mate states that children who hold their emotions in rigidly are taxing their nervous systems.  When the adults in their lives discourage their expressing difficult emotions, children have no other recourse than to hold in their anger and sadness, ever so tightly.  Dr. Mate connects serious illness in some instances with the fact that the nervous system only has so much energy to expend for “pushing down powerful emotions that cry out for expression.” 

It is wise to keep in mind that, no matter what our age, our bodies are stressed when we are unable to acknowledge our emotions.  Whether we do this work privately, or with a counselor, it is important to address our pain in life.  However, only close friends, and certain caring family members, are interested in hearing about our difficult emotions.  Others have their own to deal with. 

Dr. Mate makes a case for believing we will live longer and enjoy better physical health, if we honor and identify our emotions.  He writes, "The single greatest risk factor for death--and especially for cancer death--was what the researchers called rationality and anti-emotionality or R/A.”  This state of being happens for a person when only good feelings are allowed, to the exclusion of dealing with our difficult feelings.  With “rationality and anti-emotionality,” most of a person’s thought life is lived out in the left hemisphere of the brain, where logic and analytical abilities formulate.  For the most part, it is the right hemisphere of the brain that involves our emotions.  So, it is the right hemisphere of the brain that many people are inclined to stifle, to a great degree. 

Dr. Mate calls this a "hyper-rational, non-emotional coping style.”  Unfortunately, this pattern of denying difficult emotions results in considerable personal loss: Loss of emotionality, receptivity, and creativity.  For some, there is even a loss of health.  (Dr. Mate’s web site can be found at http://drgabormate. com/.

It is common to negate our emotions, telling ourselves we “shouldn’t feel that way,” or ignoring difficult feelings by gulping them down, hoping to keep them deep inside ourselves.  Having boundaries with ourselves, means we change the habit of ignoring our feelings.  However, this takes convincing ourselves we have a right to feel--and to be convinced they we need to attend to these feelings.  There is no need to be afraid of them, or ashamed of them, as feelings are neither right, nor wrong.  They just are.  Feelings, both those that make us feel good and those that make us feel not-so-good, are part of being human. 


The topic of dealing with difficult emotions must include the subject of boundaries in order for us to know how to take care of ourselves within our interactions with others.  Having boundaries with ourselves, and with others, is all about good self-care.  It is about watching our thoughts and emotions, while monitoring our behaviors.  For instance, if we follow our desires, without considering the consequences, we invite havoc into our lives.  That is not good, as we then suffer some very difficult feelings, such as remorse, self-disgust, and outright guilt.  Certainly, life is easier for people who were taught as children to have boundaries both with themselves and with others.

I had no boundaries as a child.  That fact weighed heavy on my soul regarding an experience that I now see as spiritual abuse.  I was ill, yet was ashamed of being sick.  At church our congregation prayed for people to be healed.  And, although sometimes I was healed when prayed for, other times healing did not come.  I was 18 when my struggle with blood clots began.  Many prayed for me, yet the problem continued. I believed God was disappointed in me.  My father misunderstood the premise of faith healing, during those years.  Consequently, he told me I didn’t have enough faith, else I would be healed.  Because of this, I inwardly whipped myself.  I could not stop the self-castigation, which set up a pattern for confusion and self-doubt.   

I had never heard of the concept of having boundaries with others; there was no choice for rejecting what people said to me.  I had no concept that I could confront anyone.  Therefore, I took in a lot of negatives.  In retrospect, I can see how this eventually became grist for my growth.  I had a great need for spiritual and emotional healing and learned to seek that through prayer.  For certain, my early life pain created a great thirst for God’s love.  Slowly, I grew in my ability to sense God’s love and acceptance.  The book of Romans carries a treasured promise: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to [God’s] purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASB version).

Like many people, I was three decades into life before learning how to validate myself enough to begin setting boundaries with others.  First, I had to discover what I truly felt before being able to know who I truly was.  This process evolved slowly.  Eventually, with God’s help and God’s guidance, my inner healing work enabled me able to set boundaries with others, specifically through coming to realize my self-worth.  This brought about a much more healthy and happy me.

The drawing below was done by a caricature artist at a party attended a few years back.  The only thing this artist knew about me was that I aCaricature of Chaplain Joy Smithm a chaplain.  Yet, in less than 10 minutes, I saw a portrayal of the spiritual journey.  It’s like the ride takes place on a tricycle, with training wheels.  As much as we would like it to be a Harley experience, when it comes to healing the wounds of the past that affect us today, that just isn’t there for us.  No. We do this slow mo!

Self-validation is crucial to allowing forgiveness to take place within every hurtful and angry-making experience in life.  I tell my clients, "If you want to be emotionally free, forgive everything that has ever hurt, or harmed you.  And, forgive every person who has brought pain to you in life.”  Those who take this teaching to heart, and do the work of forgiving all, not only enjoy more freedom in life, they have more energy.  Most people do not know what a large amount of their energy is expended, within each 24-hour period, when they do not forgive (let go and release) what, and who, has hurt them.  Holding down old buried pain takes a lot of energy. 

Forgiving, at times, is a very hard thing to do.  But we can do hard things.  It takes being motivated through believing that doing this work will create better mental and emotional health, therefore a happier life.  However, forgiving is a process.  We will work with painful experiences over and over again, until the hurt, the anger, and the fear are relinquished, or at least subsided.  Within this process, those difficult memories will come up less and less, until they lie at rest in our souls, forgiven.  In some instances, forgiving can take decades of persistent efforts.  It all depends on how deep the pain is and what meaning we have placed on the cause of the pain.  For sure, the process gets easier as each effort is made. 

Doing inner healing work brings slow, but sure results.  The process is compared to peeling an onion, as the layers of pain and confusion come off one-by-one.  And, at points it is imperative to cry.  These tears not only carry relief, but also a sense of there being a rainbow up ahead, one that carries the promise that we are getting well. 

No one really wants to do this healing work, at first.  Yet, once we gain a taste of the freedom that comes through healing our physical and emotional wounds, we are not likely to turn back.  An article on this site titled “Tears – How They Help the Body and the Soul” extends the science behind why tears are important.  Tears help us release difficult emotions, yes! Yet, what is equally true is that tears have a positive effect on our physical health, as well.

Here is a given:  If a person sets his, or her will to practice dealing with difficult emotions, along with continual forgiveness work, joy springs forth from the soul.  Why?  Because, we can't cap our difficult feelings without also capping most of our good feelings, as well.  So, as we reckon with feelings that aren’t so fun to have, versus pushing them down deep inside, we find our joy coming forth.  Soon, more and more excitement, enthusiasm, gladness, and peace of heart are present.  Here is the key to living a life of emotional freedom.  This is where we live on “the celebration side,” wherein joy and gratitude rule our days.  Voile!  The Harley experience comes to be.

(For more help on the subjects of setting boundaries and identifying difficult emotions, click on the “Quick Aids” button on the home page of this site.)

Chaplain Joy

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