What Strength Isn’t: Repressing Emotion

In this post, I’m following on the theme of what strength isn’t and trying to clear up some common myths and misconceptions.

Right now, I want to talk about the fact that strength isn’t the absence of strong emotion.

This one is really key. How many of us have bought into the lie that strong people are always calm, temperate, moderate and rather detached from emotional highs and lows?

This is certainly a stick I used to beat myself with. Whenever I used to experience strong emotions like sadness, anger or anxiety, I used to think there was something fundamentally wrong with me for feeling this way.

The society we’re living in worships an image of an ideal life that is light, breezy and carefree. In the endless stream of photoshopped Instagram pictures, there’s not much room for deep, complex, and often bewildering emotions.

Even more tragic is how often the church airbrushes the Bible to create an ideal Christian believer who is cool as a cucumber, emotionally detached and lacking in passion and drive. How quick we can be to judge those who express strong feelings as being spiritually immature.

Scriptures like Jeremiah 17:9 (“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked”) are twisted to elevate an intellectual version of the faith, and to discourage us from paying close attention to our feelings.

The truth is that real strength is about being deeply in touch with and attuned to our own emotional states, and comfortable with the full range of human emotion.

We only have to look at Jesus to see a man who was comfortable expressing strong emotions. He demonstrated passionate love for others, as well as deep pleasure. He was not afraid to express anger, even turning over tables in his outrage at sin. Jesus never hid his sadness and wasn’t ashamed to weep in public. Jesus lived his life with deep passion and emotion, and he encouraged his followers to do the same.

A common lie that we often believe is that if we pay too much heed to our emotions, we will end up being controlled by them. We wrongly assume that the key to remaining emotionally strong is learning how to rein our feelings in and not allowing ourselves to be swayed by them.

What many people don’t realize is that when we try to repress our emotions, we’re more likely to be controlled by them, not less. Strong feelings that are left unprocessed have a bad habit of bursting out in unexpected ways, or wreaking havoc in other areas of our lives – our health, our relationships, our alcohol intake, our diet.

If we are looking for a model of healthy, biblical emotional expression, we would do well to learn from the Book of Psalms. The psalmists were experts at naming their own feelings, in all of their darkness and complexity.

“My tears have been my food day and night”

– Psalm 42:4

“Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?”

– Psalm 43:5

“Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me,

And horror has overwhelmed me.”

Psalm 55:5

But the psalmists didn’t give up hope or remain stuck in a pit of despair. As they processed their feelings and brought them before God and trusted friends, they allowed the Holy Spirit to come in and bring healing. The psalms that begin with anxiety and despair finish with hope and rejoicing.

This method of emotional processing – having the courage to name our feelings and sit with them awhile, but then allowing them to pass without holding on to them, and moving forward into a place of peace – this is true emotional strength.

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