Feelings vs. Emotions

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Early in our marriage Nan and I were really good at conflict. Well, let me restate that. We had a lot of it and it had a lot of energy. The problem was, not much of it got resolved, or at least got resolved without a lot of hurt feelings and lingering wounds. Why? We failed to see a distinction between our feelings and our emotions (along with a whole list of other things related to our immaturity and family of origin baggage).

As one of the basic concepts I use in counseling, I like to define the difference between feelings and emotions and how it leads to making different choices during conflict. Most people use the words interchangeably, but I believe it is valuable to separate them. It is an important distinction when making the decision to talk out rather than act out our issues.

We can think of feelings as an inward process and emotions as an outward expression of those feelings. I encourage people to feel their feelings, but to control their emotions.

If we do not allow ourselves to acknowledge our feelings, then we will not know what it is that we need. But if we move directly from our feelings to expression (action, behavior) we may end up in sin and regret. The step in between is called processing or evaluating.

Because feelings (no matter how intense) do not necessarily reflect reality (because I feel it, doesn’t make it true), I must not be led by them. Instead I must be led by my values. For those of us who are Christian believers it means we must be led by the Holy Spirit. Galations 5 says:

22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.

I must decide in advance what my values are so that I can know if my behavior during a conflict is consistent with them.

If I can remain congruent (my emotions reflecting my values) then the result will be righteousness and no regrets. It may not feel as good (the flesh wants satisfaction), but the soul will be at peace.

Once I have been able to process my feelings and determine what I need (it often requires time away from the conflict), then I can bring a “sanitized” version to the struggle, and hopefully talk out the problem in a calmer way. Then I can ask for what I need instead of making demands or resorting to other maladaptive behaviors. Even if only one person is able to do this, it will still be progress.

Sometimes when I preprocess my feelings with the Lord or another individual, I find that my interpretation is inaccurate or exaggerated and I no longer need to bring up the issue at all, and thereby avoid unnecessary conflict.

Galations 5: 19 When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, 21envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

  24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. 25 Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. 26 Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another. 

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