Understanding Our Emotions – 7 – As We Think, We Feel
As we continue the series Taking a Look at Our Emotions, we look into the way our beliefs cause our emotions.
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Good day, all of you. This is Bill Jacobs with LifeResource Ministries. Elaine, who is right here with me, and I hope this finds you well.
When I was a few years into my first pastorate, I developed a health condition. I would vomit every ten to fifteen minutes, until there was nothing in my stomach, and then I would continue vomiting liver bile. I did that once for thirty-six consecutive hours. On a doctor’s advice, I kept a log of everything that happened to me and everything that I ate. He told me it could either be emotional or dietary. It turned out that it was caused by my emotions. But I didn’t feel emotional. I’d never had anything like this before and I was perplexed.
About that time, I began plans to build a house, and I remember the morning the contractor was supposed to start working on it. I drove out to my lot and I was waiting for him to arrive, and I remember thinking, “If this doesn’t kill me, nothing will.” And yet, I never had another attack after that.
I was explaining this to my mother-in-law one day, and she said, “Well, you know why that’s true, don’t you?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Because there isn’t any problem you’d have building a house that you can’t fix. It just might cost more money, but there’s nothing there’s nothing that’s going to happen that you can’t handle.” She said, “However, with people, it’s not that way.” And I worked with people.
So I started thinking about how I thought about my life, myself, God, my congregation and my family. And here’s what I came up with: Our beliefs cause our emotions – not the regular self-talk that goes on in our heads about this and that during the day, but the beliefs that we hold to be true – the beliefs that we begin to be taught by our parents and others, when we’re very young, that we absorb into ourselves and that becomes our sense of ourselves – our beliefs about how the world works – whether it’s safe or dangerous, whether asking for help gets any for us, or whether we’re on our own – various things like that.
There was a psychologist many years ago – I believe he’s passed, but his name was Elbert Ellis – he gave this example of a man who was standing in the busy street corner in New York City – he was a New Yorker – and he was waiting for the light to change, and all of a sudden, somebody ferociously jabbed him in the ribs. And as he was turning around to see who it was, he was raising his elbow to swing at them, and he realized that the man had glasses and a white cane. And all the anger that had been instantly generated disappeared – just melted away – when he realized it was an accident and not intentional. And he just that as an example to show that it’s our perspectives and our beliefs that completely control our emotions, not other people.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say – if you’ve been listening to this series – “I thought you said the limbic system creates emotions before thought.” I did, but let’s rehearse how that works a little bit. Data comes up the spinal column to the amygdala – located at the top of the brain stem. And there it assesses the data and then sends it for storage. How does it assess the data? What is the criteria for data assessment? Well, that’s according to our values, our perceptions, our beliefs and our past experiences. I’ll give you an example of how that works.
I once had a client…she was a dancer. She’d just graduated from college. And she had, all her teenage years, worked as an instructor at a dance school. One day her employer asked her if she would fill in for this other instructor who was going to be gone for a month. She told me that she recalled that she had a very competitive toward this other instructor. The fact that her instructor asked her to fill in for this girl made her feel, as she put it, like a tool – like a fill-in, like she wasn’t as good as – and she was very wounded by that experience. And then she told me that a few months later, her instructor was going to go somewhere and asked her to take her classes while she was gone, and she just felt so disrespected. And I said, “So I’m wondering if, maybe, your instructor didn’t think that you were the best possible choice to take her place, and valued your participation a very great deal.” She looked startled, and she blinked a few times, and then she smiled this big smile, and she said, “A real professional! What a concept!” Then she laughed. We had a good laugh over it, actually. That was the beginning of her change – her understanding – about herself as a viable instructor of dance.
Why did the dancer think she was being insulted by her boss? Well, before that experience, she had a whole string of rigid, critical dance instructors teaching her when she was a little girl. She had a father, who didn’t know how to connect to her and show her love and approval, and a mother who was very anxious and perfectionistic, so she was always making demands of her daughter that her daughter wasn’t able to fulfill. So, as a little girl, the dancer began to believe that she was inherently defective – not good enough, incapable of doing well in life – that she couldn’t trust her own inclinations. And her right side
amygdala filtered all her experiences through those filters and then assigned meaning to them. So, something that was most likely very much a compliment appeared to be an insult to her – completely backwards. And those beliefs that she kept in her mind kept her in a state of anxiety all her life. She had pretty serious digestive tract issues. She was angry a lot and anxious a lot. And she performed way below her potential in every area of her life.
Now, I wish that you could all meet that young woman. She is a beautiful, slender, graceful, coordinated person with a very gracious and kind heart. She is talented in so many things. At 23, she’s completely financially independent because of her incredible artistic ability. And she believes things about herself that are just not true – lies that kept her upset and feeling discouraged about her ability to be and do good in the world. And all of those beliefs come from the losses she has suffered. She lost the connection to her parents, and she lost a true perception of her abilities, and, I believe, all those have been fostered by our enemy who loves to keep us down and functioning way below our potential. It’s a terrible catastrophe.
Now, going back to my own situation, what are the lies that I was telling myself? Well, I think I told myself that it’s a terrible catastrophe when people I’m responsible for have problems. And I am responsible for them. And that means that I’m ineffective as a shepherd of God’s people. And that means I’m a terrible person. So, you know, I was in an identity crisis, I found out later. I am not responsible for the people in my congregations. I’m not the owner of the sheep. I’m just the sheep tender. I’m responsible to support and encourage them, but I’m not responsible for the results. And I’m also responsible to tell them when they’re over the line – you know, to fend off the bears and wolves. I’m responsible to offer good guidance. And then they’re responsible to follow it. I’m responsible to feed them, so I should give good sermons to them when I have the opportunity. And they’re all responsible for their own actions, just like I am for mine.
So it’s not a terrible catastrophe when they don’t follow my guidance or appreciate my support. It’s just a part of God’s learning experiences for them and for me. So I learned that I was having an identity crisis. I had myself confused with God! He’s the one that’s responsible for all those things. Not only was it okay for me to just be a person, it was necessary. And while I was in the midst of it, I thought vomiting every ten minutes for thirty-six hours straight is a terrible thing, but now I think it’s just one of the best things that ever happened to me, even though it was hard. It’s so much easier to be realistic about my own abilities and to let God work His plan in my life and the life of others I encounter, including my family, my client and my friends, than it is to take responsibility for all of them.
Would you like a scripture? Here are a couple. Let’s go to Proverbs 26:2.
Proverbs 26:2 – Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, a curse that is causeless does not alight.
There’s always a reason why things happen. Just as the burning in my esophagus was real, so was the cause of it. I just didn’t know what it was. And that pain caused me to start looking for the problem. If I hadn’t had that, I’d probably be still on a God trip, like I was before.
Here’s another one: Proverbs 23:7.
Proverbs 23:7 – For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. Eat and drink, he says to you, but his heart is not with you.
I took that out of context, but the point is this: The way we think is who we are. I was the person who had himself confused with God. I was the one who thought I was responsible for stuff I had no control over. And I was the one who could make himself sick with it. As we think in our hearts, so are we.
So I was in the habit of thinking a lot of anxious thoughts. How to break the habit, though? That was the question. Well, I had to learn how to think truthfully about myself, God and others, and I found this scripture – Philippians 4:8.
Philippians 4:8 – Finally, brothers, whatever is true…. We could just stop there.
Whatever is true – that’s what I had to start doing. I had to quit telling myself lies and believing things that weren’t true about myself and others. I had to start thinking what was true.
Okay, once I knew how to think, how was I going to think that way? I had to break a habit and build a new one. How was I going to do that? Well, I found something – this was back in the 70s, when discovered this – the ABCDE approach to habit building.
A stands for activating event. Example: a family in my congregation that was having a meltdown…I would throw up after being around them. So that was what was activating me – at least, one of the things.
B is the belief that I had about my role with them and the other people in my life – all of them. So, to be a good pastor, a good person, a good Christian, I had to cause that family to overcome its problems. That really is God-talk, isn’t it?
C – consequence. Still vomiting.
D – dispute. I’m going to dispute the bad thought every time I catch myself thinking it – the untrue thought. How would I dispute it? Well, I would fight it with the truth. “I’m not in control of these people.” God be praised for that. We were all happy about that – that I wasn’t in control of them. I would fight the battle with them wanting to pull it together
immediately – it may not be what God wants. He usually gets His way. So, if it’s not being overcome right now, there’s probably a reason why not. Another one was, to think that wanting them to pull it together might be a foolish demand on my part, that being the case – that I don’t know how God is working. His ways are higher than mine. And the other thing that I thought – when I would catch myself thinking all of this stuff – was that I’m just the shepherd, not the sheep owner. I’m there to encourage, and help, and show the way, but I can’t make people go the way they’re supposed to go.
And then E stands for effect. Everybody is able to learn what they need without my internal demands. That’s how I started to believe. And, that I’m able to help and support people without vomiting – that was another effect that started to happen. I got over that completely. It’s been since…what? ’75? So that’s what? 40 years? It does work, if you work it.
Now, let’s think a little bit more than outside the scope of my particular problem and just look at some generalized thoughts about the kind of thinking that causes problems.
The first one we could call demandingness, or a good word for that would be absolutism – sort of that inflexible, dogmatic, extreme beliefs that are usually signaled by words like should, must, have to, or need to. “I should be able to help them,” “I must help them, if I’m a good person” – that sort of thing. “My congregation should follow my advice” – should would be with a capital S. So, instead of that, I started thinking, “God has a plan and I should just watch and learn.” It took quite a bit of pressure off of me.
The second area that we can think about is the demand for love and approval – and that would be from nearly everyone we find important – you know, “Oh, she doesn’t love me. Eat worms and die!” Instead, maybe we could think, “Loving someone involves risk.” And so we have to be prepared to suffer loss, if we’re going to be a loving person. The Bible tells us that perfect love casts out fear. People become courageous when they have perfect love.
A third one might be the demand for success or achievement in things that we find important – you know, somebody might say, “I must pass the graduate record exam,” instead of, “If I keep trying, I can probably pass it.” That’s a lot more realistic, isn’t it? I know when I went to take my LPCC exam, one of the best bits of advice I got was from my mentor, who said, “Well, just think of it as taking the first one for practice.” Of course, I got fortunate and didn’t have to, but it’s so much easier to not be so demanding, like we have all the power in the world and can make things happen the way we think they should happen.
And then there are some ways of thinking about things, too, that can be generally categorized. One I like to think about is awfulization or catastrophizing, disasterizing – 100% believing that something is terrible or awful or a catastrophe when the Bible tells us everything is a mixture of good and evil – not just all bad or all good. So, lose that. The GRE, for example – “It’s a catastrophe that I failed it.” Well, maybe we should think down the path that God is with us and that He’s going to be able to help us, even if we don’t pass it. One way or another, things will work out for the best.
Another one is low frustration tolerance – beliefs signaled by words, such as intolerable, can’t stand it, too hard. “It’s just too hard. The graduate record exam is just too hard.” You know, if you analyze it, to think down that path is to believe that God puts more on us than we can stand, and He clearly says that He does not ever do that. So, we have to lose that kind of thinking, if we’re going to be realistic and think the way God thinks.
The last one I want to mention here is global rating – beliefs in which you condemn or blame your entire selfhood or somebody else’s basic value in some important way. That’s signaled by words like loser, worthless, useless, idiot or stupid – either aimed at us or somebody else. You know, life is not cut and dried, black or white. It’s always a mixture of good and bad, right and wrong, and partial successes and partial failures. And sometimes, the things that we think are the worst are not the best – you know, like my vomiting episodes. So we need to kind of not think that we have so much control over everything and just take things as they come, and take people as they are, and learn what we can.
Let’s go back to the dancer for a minute and learn one more thing. Remember that she grew up with a lot of negativity from her family and, also, from her instructors. The instant she believed something different about herself, she also had a completely different and more healthy set of emotions that perfectly matched that belief. But I doubt she could have come to that without help, because she grew up with that negative outlook. Sometimes, when it’s like that, our view of self gets stuck and we need help to get out of it. We all like to think we can solve our own problems, but she had tried and tried and tried to where her health was being ruined and she finally gave up and sought help from someone. And that was the key for her. And, you know, I’ve thought a lot about this. Why can some people think their way through things? And I think a lot of it has to do with when it begins. If it starts too early, we need help from somewhere else.
So, either way, there’s no need to suffer discouragement, depression or anxiety caused by what we believe. Now, we can think our way out of it, and if we find, in that effort, that we are stuck, there’s even help available when that’s the case. So, if we take the steps we need to, we’ll no longer hold ourselves back from serving God and experiencing a joyful life.
So, that’s my story about how I’m learning day by day to think in a godly way about myself and other people. I don’t always do that perfectly – in fact, I think most of the time I probably don’t – but I’m still trying to learn. And, in doing so, I learn that my emotions follow my beliefs. If I change my beliefs, I change my feelings. As we think, so we feel. And sometimes we can do that on our own, and sometimes we need some help.
So, that’s it for today. You can check out our Website, liferesource.org, for more elements of this series and lots of other material. We’re in the series now, Taking a Look at Our Emotions. That will continue for a while yet.
This is Bill Jacobs for LifeResource Ministries, serving children, families and the Church of God.
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