What if your emotions aren't your enemies afterall? What if they actually help? This holiday season, I'm taking you on a deep dive into my proven 5-step method for finding joy and peace by bringing harmony and wholeness to your inner world.
Today, we'll walk through the first 2 steps that are crucial to developing a healthy relationship with your emotions. Here’s what we cover:
1. 3 truths about emotions
2. A counterintuitive first step
3. How to speak on behalf of an emotion vs. from it
4. The surprising solution to negative emotions
5. How to finally move from self-condemnation to self-compassion and why this is Biblical
Do you have questions for Dr. Alison? Leave them here.
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Music by Andy Luiten
Sound editing by Kelly Kramarik
While Dr. Cook is a counselor, the content of this podcast and any of the products provided by Dr. Cook are not specific counseling advice nor are they a substitute for individual counseling. The content and products provided on this podcast are for informational purposes only.
Related Podcast Episodes
Episode 70: Mastering the Art of Emotional Intelligence—How to Harness the Power of Your Emotions to Improve Your Relationships
Episode 39: Boundaries for Your Soul—How to Navigate Your Overwhelming Thoughts & Feelings
Episode 57: Should I Turn the Other Cheek? Why It’s the Opposite of Being a Doormat & How to Stand Firm in the Face of Gaslighting, Manipulation, and Toxicity
Hey everyone, and welcome back to this week's episode of The Best of You Podcast. I am so glad you are here. We are starting a brand new series this week. It's going to be the next four weeks leading into Christmas. We are in the midst of the holidays, and so I'm gonna walk you through five steps to navigating overwhelming emotions.
This is based on my book, Boundaries For Your Soul: How To Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings Into Your Greatest Allies. These five steps come directly out of that book and they're pretty deep steps. Each one warrants almost a whole episode.
This takes some work to really look inside of yourself and begin to establish a healthy relationship with the different emotions or the different parts of you that inevitably get triggered or activated, especially during the holiday seasons, but really at any time in our lives. What I want to do in this series is really dig deep into each of these steps, because each one is sort of a whole world in and of itself, as a way to equip you with tools this holiday.
So every single episode, you'll have a new tool to begin to manage the feelings that stir up inside of you, especially the hard ones. Especially when there's anger or irritation or annoyance or anxiety or frustration. Or even sadness or grief or fear. These are normal emotions to experience anytime, especially at the holidays, because the holidays tend to evoke a lot of these different emotions inside of us.
This series is designed to help you look at this as an opportunity. An opportunity to grow in extending compassion toward yourself, to grow in regulating your emotions, which is a skill we all need. If you go back to episode 70, I did a deep dive into mastering the art of emotional intelligence, one of the skills required to be an emotionally intelligent person.
It doesn't mean stuffing your emotions. It doesn't mean criticizing yourself for having emotions. It means learning to regulate emotions. It means learning how to tolerate the experience of emotions, even the negative ones in a healthy way, and allow them to inform your decision making so that you can set healthy boundaries on behalf of yourself, so you can speak up on behalf of yourself, so that you can take charge of the plans you're making.
This month of December is an opportunity to pay attention to your own internal landscape, to the cues your emotions are sending you so that you can lead yourself wisely. Because as you lead yourself wisely, as you show yourself compassion, as you pay attention to the cues your emotions are sending you and give yourself the care and attention that you need, you will create that same kind of oasis of emotional and spiritual health for everyone around you.
It spills out, when you nurture the inside of your soul from a place of curiosity and compassion, the oasis that you create spills out to everyone around you. Okay. So we're going to start with some quick, basic truths about the role of emotions.
Number one, emotions in and of themselves are not bad or good. They're not bad emotions or good emotions. Emotions just are. They're cues that your body sends you, and they're important cues. They're cues that help you understand how you are responding to the environment around you. As you notice an emotional cue inside of you, there's a signal.
Something is happening here. Something is happening that is activating my nervous system that I need to pay attention to in order to respond in an appropriate, healthy way to the environment around me. When you notice something like anxiety or overwhelm or stress or negativity, what most of us try to do is we try to brush it aside. Or we try to numb it.
One of those two things. We try to talk ourselves out of it. Logic our way out of the emotion. I shouldn't feel that way. It's stupid to feel that way. I'm a bad person for feeling that way. We try to guilt trip ourselves out of feeling that way, or we just try to distract ourselves or numb ourselves from feeling the way we feel.
But what we really need to do is simply notice, pay attention. Oh, that is so interesting. I'm not feeling excited about the holiday coming up. I'm not feeling excited about this family gathering. I'm feeling stressed out. I'm feeling sad. I'm feeling really frustrated. I wonder what that's about. We need to pay attention to those emotional cues.
As we pay attention to those emotional cues, we get healthier. We learn to make wiser decisions on behalf of ourselves and on behalf of the people who are in our lives, because when our boundaries are healthy, we're going to show up in a healthier way with the people that we love.
The goal of this work of paying attention to our emotional cues is not to silence our emotions or to make them go away. We want to experience a full range of emotions. That's what makes us human. Jesus experienced a full range of emotions. We see this throughout the scriptures. We see Jesus experiencing the full range of human emotions.
As we attune to ourselves, the goal is to experience that full range of emotions without being taken over by those emotions. Because it's a paradox. When we try to stuff or silence our emotions, they actually get bigger and hijack us in the moment. So if you're feeling anxious, you don't want to be at a family gathering, you wish you didn't have to go.
Instead of paying attention to that, you just try to ignore it or bypass it. You end up spending five hours at this family gathering because you didn't say, hey, I'm going to put a limit on the amount of time I can be there because I know it's not going to bring out my best self.
Then you're sitting there and you've silenced those emotions. Guess what? Someone looks at you sideways or someone says something that lands on you a little wrong and all of those emotions explode. They erupt in that moment. If we don't do the work on the front end of paying attention to the emotions of building trust with our own emotions, those emotions will come out.
They're going to hijack us in the moment and they're going to come out way bigger than if we had simply attuned to them and cared for them all along the way. So this is incredibly important. This emotional maintenance, paying attention each day. What am I experiencing today? What am I noticing? What am I feeling?
If I don't pay attention to that, it is going to come out somehow. This is a daily practice of noticing, of becoming more aware of your emotional states. You can make these emotions allies on your journey toward health. Your emotions will help you establish healthier relationships with yourself, with God, and with other people.
Today we're going to take on the first two steps, because they go hand in hand. The first step is to focus on an emotion. Now that can sound counterintuitive at first. You're like, why would I want to focus on my emotion? Especially if it's an emotion I don't like.
But the reason that it's important to focus on an emotion is this: think about if you were to look at an object under a microscope. You take the object and you put it under the microscope so that you can see it better. When you do that, the minute you take that emotion out in front of you and look at it, you've created distance from it.
This is a process that psychologists call differentiation. You differentiate from that emotion. So suddenly, instead of just feeling so angry, when you focus on the anger, you say, oh, there's anger. Oh, I'm angry. What is that anger about? You get a little distance from that anger.
You take that anger out and you put it in front of you. You're looking at it from a healthy distance so that you can see it more clearly. So often what happens is the emotion takes us over. I'm just so angry. I'm just so angry, anxious, or sad.
You're already triggered or activated. You're aware that there's negativity inside your soul. You can even do this as I'm talking with you right now–notice, where do you feel that emotion? Where do you feel that activation in your body? How do you know that there's negativity inside of you?
Whatever it is, just notice that feeling of activation that feels unpleasant. In that very act of noticing it. In that very act of going, man, I just don't feel good right now, I'm angry, or I'm frustrated, or I am just so exhausted, you are noticing something really important.
You're noticing that cue. Focusing is simply taking that one step further, like that microscope going, wait a minute. I'm going to examine that for a second. I'm anxious. Isn't that interesting? Where do I notice that anxiety? Oh my gosh, I'm so tense. You start to ask yourself questions.
Where do I feel it physically? My body is just so tense. Or, man, I just feel it in the pit of my stomach. Or I can just feel this charge of energy, you know, coursing through my veins. Like I just feel so adrenalized.
You begin to notice–what is that feeling and how does it show up in my body? Then you might take it one step further as you focus on that feeling. Is there a thought or an image that comes to mind when I focus on it? You might even close your eyes and just imagine, do a body scan and kind of notice in your body, man, I feel like I'm revved up like an engine.
Or I just feel so angry, I want to crawl out of my skin. I want to lash out at somebody, but I'm trying to hold myself back or I feel so scared. I want to disappear and go away. Or I just feel so worried. My thoughts are like a spinning wheel. Begin to notice or focus on what it is that you're feeling.
Again, the goal here, as you focus on this feeling, you're getting a little distance from it. You're moving from being inside the feeling to having a tiny little bit of healthy distance from it. Okay. That's where that anger is. I feel it. It's not comfortable. I don't love feeling that way, but there it is. I'm naming it.
I'm calling it into being. It's true. It's what's happening. I'm not going to gaslight myself out of feeling this way. This is how I'm feeling. I might as well get curious about it. Curiosity is a huge part of this step of focus.
It's getting curious about what you're really feeling. How familiar is it to you? I've been feeling this way a lot lately. Isn't that interesting? I wonder what that's about. When did it start? Have I been feeling this way for months or did I just notice it today? And if I just noticed it today, what was it that triggered this emotion?
You're engaging in a process of curiosity as you notice this feeling that's been activated inside of you. As you get curious about this experience of activation, this powerful act of differentiating from it gives you just a little bit more control over it. You start to control your emotions versus the other way around.
You're the wise parent in the room. This is all based on the internal family systems model of therapy. I've talked about it a lot here. I did a whole six part series on this model, starting with episode 39 back in February called Boundaries for Your Soul. It's a whole series.
You can go back and listen to that series for a more in depth overview of the different components of this model, but the key thing that you need to know is as you put your focus on this negative emotion, this negative experience of activation inside your soul, you're creating healthy distance from it, which empowers you to manage and lead yourself through the experience of that emotion instead of that emotion leading you.
I want you to hear the difference when you differentiate from emotion and you gain a little bit more control over it. It allows you to speak on behalf of that emotion in a constructive way, as opposed to speaking from the emotion. We talk about this in Boundaries For Your Soul. I want to give you some examples of that. It's super powerful when you are aware that you're getting angry and you feel it in your body and you focus on it and you're like, I am angry right now.
Let's say you're with a spouse or you're with a family member and you're starting to feel heated inside and you start to become aware of your anger. If you're speaking from anger, you might get really loud. You might yell. You might get sort of passive aggressive. Here's an example of speaking from anger.
“Fine. Just have it your way. It's always your way anyway.”. Door slam. Right? That's what it sounds like when you speak from anger. Now, here's what it would sound like to speak on behalf of anger. You're getting a little heated. Tensions are starting to run high.
“Listen, I'm noticing I'm starting to feel angry and I don't think I'm going to be able to participate constructively in this conversation right now. I'm going to excuse myself until I can calm down and we can have a more constructive conversation.”
Then you leave. You exit the room. So you're taking command. You're saying, I'm going to lose it right now. I'm noticing that I'm angry, but you're saying that from a calm place inside.
Here's an example. If you're feeling sad, sometimes we kind of sink into the sadness and when we speak from it, the other people around us don't know exactly how to help us. So it might sound something like this: “I don't really care what we do. I don't know. It doesn't really matter.”
Now, imagine you spoke on behalf of that sadness and you said something like this: “Listen, I'm noticing I'm feeling really sad. I'm just kind of down and discouraged. So I don't really know how to make plans tonight. Could you help me figure out a good plan that honors the fact that I'm actually feeling really discouraged.”
Suddenly you've invited that other person into helping support you in that feeling versus speaking from it. When you focus on an emotion and differentiate from it, you remind yourself that this is just one part of who you are. It's not the whole story. You are not only your anger. You are not only your depression. You are not only your anxiety.
It's a way of reminding yourself–there's a part of me that's angry. There's a part of me that's really sad. There's a part of me that's really anxious. It might even feel like a really big part of me. Sometimes you can only get a paper's width of distance from that emotion.
But even just a little bit of distance reminds you it is not all of who you are. That emotion is not all of who you are. That little bit of differentiation gives you the ability to speak on behalf of it. Oh man, there's that sadness. There's that anger. There's that anxiety. There's that grief. There's that fear. There it is.
I see it out here in front of me now. It's not just coursing through me, and I can invite you in to see it with me too. This is what's happening right now inside of me. I have a name for this feeling. This feeling is present in this conversation. That becomes a healthier way of communicating with other people, which increases the likelihood that you'll be heard and understood.
It's really different when you say, listen, I'm feeling sad today and it's informing how I make decisions. Someone else is probably going to respond to that with some empathy. Or when you say, listen, I'm starting to get angry, I need you to know this, that other person has been cued that if they continue with that behavior, you're going to be angry.
Now they may continue with that behavior because they don't care. But then that's on them. You've alerted them to your emotional state. Finally, it enhances trust. You are able to trust yourself because you're able to articulate the emotion that you're experiencing. You build trust with that emotion. You honor it. You create a space for it without being taken over.
So learning to focus on an emotion and speak on the half of it is critical to emotional health. The process of focusing on an emotion leads us right into this second step. These two steps really go hand in hand, and that is the step of befriending.
When you focus on an emotion, you name the emotion without shame and when you name without shame, you are able to take it one more step and befriend that emotion. You're welcoming in that emotion, you're extending hospitality to it, and this is radical. I'm convinced that this process of learning to befriend your emotions and extending hospitality toward them is the essence of transformation.
It unleashes a radical act of healing and transformation when we surrender to that moment and say, oh my goodness, I don't want to be angry, but I am here. What we're doing is we're honoring our God-given design. This is the way God designed us. He designed us to have these emotions as cues to help us navigate through life.
When we notice those emotions without shame and befriend them, we are honoring our God given design and we are surrendering to the truth of that moment. I am anxious. I wish I wasn't, but I am. I am anxious. I can name that. I can take a look at it without shame. I can even extend compassion to that anxious part of myself. This is radical stuff. This is gospel love.
This is the way Christ enters in and loves every part of who we are. When we get to that point where we can notice that we're anxious and we can be present to that anxiety inside our own souls with radical self compassion. That part of me is anxious right now. I don't hate that part of me. In fact, I welcome that part of me.
It's there for a reason. It's part of my God-made self. I'm going to extend the compassion of Christ to that part of me. That anger that is present to me right now. That is a part of who I am. I am aware of that anger. I can extend the compassion of Christ to that part of me that's feeling that way. This is beautiful, deep, transformative love.
This is not saying it's okay for me to go act out and be a jerk. I am not saying that. I am saying that when you begin to name these different feelings without shame and extend the compassion of Christ to these different parts of yourself, you will transform.
You will experience the love of Christ so deep within your soul that you have no choice but to be transformed. I don't know any other way to put it but gospel transformation. When you begin to extend the compassion of Christ even to the parts of yourself that you don't like.
I want you to imagine those parts of you that have given you so much trouble. Maybe it's the part of you that just so desperately wants to numb or shut down or. Maybe it's the part of you that just cannot let go of a grudge or resentment. Maybe it's the part of you that just compares all the time. Maybe it's your inner critic that just beats you up. I want you to imagine that part of you as another human.
Someone in the world that has just been so beaten down and beaten up and criticized by others that it is just barely hanging on by a thread. This is a part of you that has just received no love, no care, no loving kindness, no compassion. Can you imagine extending the love of God and the compassion of Christ to this part of you that the world has despised and that frankly, you have often despised?
You feel like this part of you causes all of your problems. What if this part of you is in need of your care? What if this part of you is in need of the compassion of Christ? As you begin to extend that kind of radical hospitality to the parts of yourself that you don't like, you will experience deep transformation inside.
You move from a state of self-condemnation where you are just constantly beating yourself up and judging yourself and condemning yourself, which is a state that so many of us live in. You move from that state of self-condemnation to a place of warm, welcoming hospitality.
I see you there, anger. It's okay. You can have a seat at this table. I'm not going to let you take over because there's more to me than you, but you are welcome to have a seat at this table. I see you there, fear. I get it that you're here. You are welcome. You get to have a seat at this table too. I am not going to let you take me over, but you can be here.
You serve a function for me, and I'm glad that you're here. I see you there. That part of me that just wants to indulge in all the food and all the drink and just wants to have lots and lots of fun and not think about the hard stuff. I get it. I see you there.
You get to have a seat at this table too. We want you there, fun part of me. You get to have a seat. I'm not going to let you take over either because we also have these other parts of us, but you get to have a seat at this table. you know what? I see you there, sadness. I see you there, grief, you are precious parts of who I am and you get to be here too.
I'm going to care for you and I'm going to welcome you. You are each cherished, valuable members of my internal family, and you each get to be here at the seat of this table of my life. I'm going to care for you in partnership with God's Spirit. You are welcome. I extend to each of you the compassion of Christ.
As you begin to relate to these different parts of your soul from this place of compassion, notice what happens inside these different emotions. They start to soften. They don't feel so extreme. These parts of you feel seen and heard. You notice, I'm feeling a little sad, or you notice, I'm feeling a little anxious. Okay. That's all I really wanted. I just wanted that validation.
I don't have to get so big to get your attention. These different parts of you, they start to soften just a little bit. instead of these extreme polarizations inside where you just feel the extremes of the emotions, you start to notice a beautiful vitality. A textured complexity of, I have a lot of different parts of me.
One moment I'm sad, one moment I'm joyful, one moment I'm so mad, and then the next moment I'm... kind of laughing about it. Because this is what it means to be alive.
This is what it means to be a multifaceted human made in God's image. We are meant to experience the whole range of emotions. We're complex beings. We can experience a couple of different emotions at the same time.
As we tend to those emotions, each one being granted a beautiful place at the table, we become more whole. Sometimes one of those emotions needs more care than another. Sometimes we're really hurting and then those other emotions come in and help out. Maybe we need to give our anger a little shot at setting a healthier boundary on our behalf.
Because a part of us has been really hurt. So let's talk about how to deploy some healthy anger to set a healthy boundary with someone who hurt us. Or maybe we're feeling really fearful and the rest of our family needs to get on board and be like, man, she's scared. What can we do to help bring her some encouragement?
Maybe that fun filled part of me needs to help that fearful part of me remember that she's not alone, that there's more to us than just fear. You start to tell the story of all of who you are, not just any one single one of these parts. This is what it means to extend hospitality to all the parts of your soul.
We do not change and become more whole in the context of criticism and self-condemnation. That is not the gospel message. We change and we become more whole in the context of Christ's compassion, and it starts with learning to extend that radical transformational compassion to the parts of your own soul that you don't like.
I'm telling you, this is powerful transformation. What is a part of you that you've hated, that you've tried to will away, that you have criticized and judged and condemned? I want you to consider inviting that part of you to have a seat at the table of your soul and to extend the love of Christ even to that part of you.
When Jesus said, I'm telling you to love your enemies, let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for then you are working out your true selves, your God created selves. That's from Matthew 5:43-45, the message version.
What if Jesus meant to extend that radical compassion, to the parts of you that feel like your enemies? Now, listen, remember Jesus is no fool. We talked about this back in the episode on turning the other cheek. We don't extend love to our enemies out of a position of being doormats, we extend love to our enemies because love is transformational and powerful.
It's our most powerful weapon. Always remember that when we extend love and compassion to these parts of ourselves that are giving us a hard time, we are saying, I see you. I see what you're doing. I'm not stupid. I'm not naive. I see what's going on here. I love you so much that I'm going to sit here with you until you start to soften and until you trust me and until you see that I have nothing but good for you.
You have to do it in relationship to the one who made you and the one who knows you and the one who wants what's best for you–that's the power of love. Now, listen, our external enemies, sometimes they do not want to sit with us and be transformed by the power of God. Then we got to send them on their way.
But those internal parts of us, we have a lot of power to say, I see you, I see what's going on here. I am not blind. I am not naive. I see what's going on here and I am willing to do what it takes to be with you and to hear you out and to hear all about how much pain you've experienced until you are ready to be transformed all the way from the inside out.
Imagine what it's like to sit with a child who's acting out and what do they need the most from you? Any child who's acting out needs your love before they need your correction. They need to feel connected to you before they will receive your correction. It is the exact same with the parts of our soul.
Those parts need to experience connection to you and to the God who made you before they will receive correction. It's a process of saying to the part of your own soul, I see you, I see what's going on with you. I am not going to leave you. You cannot push me away. You cannot scare me away.
I will sit here with you long enough until you experience enough of my compassion that you trust me to help you go about this in another way. You see, these parts need our compassion to change. We change in the context of compassion and connection, not in the context of criticism and condemnation.