Most Christians have a pretty ambivalent relationship with our emotions. We just don’t know what to feel about our feelings. Sometimes, emotions can be the source of a great deal of joy, satisfaction, and well-being. Other times they can wreck us with anxiety, despair, anger, and angst. Of course, there are still other times when we get upset with ourselves for being upset, angry at ourselves for being angry, or depressed about how sad we feel.
Emotions are a part of our body, of course, and, as such, the Theology of the Body tells us that–just like the rest of our body–emotions are intended by God to work for our good and the good of others. But what about the times they don’t? What is the best way to think about our emotions and how can we do a better job managing them?
Emotion: What is it…Really?
It is surprisingly difficult to get consensus on what an emotion actually is. Biologists will tell you that emotions are just neurochemistry. Psychologists will tell you that emotions are the results of the thoughts that run through your head. Anthropologists will say that emotions are the way individuals know they are connected to some groups and disconnected from others. All of these theories get at some aspect of emotions and some of these theories describe what emotions do, but none of those descriptions really do anything to tell us what emotions are.
The new science of interpersonal neurobiology (the study of how relationships affect the mind and brain) has proposed an interesting answer to the question, “What is an emotion” that cuts across all the different professional distinctions and gives the average person a simple but useful way of thinking about emotions so that they can get better control of them.
What is an emotion?
Emotions represent shifts in the degree of integration between or within the body, mind, and relationships.
Let me explain.
Warning…Warning…Disturbance on Level Three!
Think of your emotions as the security office in one of those caper movies, you know, like, say, Oceans 11. In a sense, your emotions are like that room filled with cameras, indicator lights and buzzers that let you see how well (or not) everything is working–and working together (or not)–from moment to moment. Only, instead of a bank vault, elevator shaft, and the boss’ office, the security system represented by your emotions is the system that monitors how well your body, mind and relationships are working both on their own and with each other. In other words, they “represent shifts in the degree of integration between or within the body, mind, and relationship. Let me give a few examples…
Let’s say you feel “emotionally close” to someone. What does that mean? It means their thoughts and feelings are meshing well with your thoughts and feelings. In other words, you are experiencing a high degree of integration between you and the other person and, as a result, you experience emotions that correspond with that integration, like happiness, affection, even love.
On the other hand, if you have a serious disagreement with that other person about something, your thoughts and feelings aren’t meshing well. As a result of this lesser degree of integration between you, you might experience anger that they don’t see things the way you do or you might fear that the relationship is in jeopardy.
In both of the above instances, your emotions are monitoring the degree of integration or disintegration you are feeling in your relationship with someone from moment to moment.
Let’s take another example. What does it mean to be “emotionally healthy?” Your degree of emotional health has to do with the degree of integration you experience between (and within) your body, mind and relationships. It represents how much your mind consistently desires and motivates you to do things that are good for your body and your relationships.
For instance, if your mind produces strong urges to do things that would endanger your sense of bodily integrity (for example; drink too much or take drugs that impair your functioning or risks that endanger your well-being) you have poor integrationbetween your mind and body. As a result, the “security officer” played by your emotions may send out a warning sign in the form of sadness, desperation, or emptiness.