Processing Emotions

Obviously, in my blogs about Open the Window, I wrote a lot about the importance of processing emotions when events that initiate them occur. I talked of the importance of agency and recovery in allowing our emotions to be dealt with in a way that diffuses them from taking our thinking brain hostage later in life. It is often the difference between agency and recovery that keeps events from becoming trauma in one’s life.  

But what if you were not allowed or didn’t understand how to process emotions in their family of origin? In this case, you find emotions often haunt you years or decades after the precipitating event. In fact, that is one of the measures of a traumatic memory; it continues to surface with the exact impact and force as it did in the original moment. These memory capsules don’t fade with time and continue taking our thinking brain hostage when resurfacing.  

A friend recently asked me what the difference was between feeling an emotion and processing an emotion. In other words, how do you know that you are really processing an emotion rather than just feeling it as you did in the original moment? 

Let me suggest how I have come to understand this these past four decades. It began with the book, Healing for Damaged Emotions by David Seamands. Almost forty-two years ago, David, a pastor with great insight into the human mind, wrote of the need for believers to relive painful memories in a way that Christ could be present and bring healing to these memories. From research on how the mind works, we now understand much more clearly what is happening in his method. 

Let me suggest the beginning point of processing one’s emotions is with feeling that emotion and being aware of its presence in one’s life. It clearly doesn’t stop there, but it does begin there. Often people get trapped in a vicious cycle of feeling/experiencing emotions and live in them while thinking this is effectively processing the emotions…this is not so.  

The key to not allowing this vicious cycle to take control of the thinking brain, one must ground themselves as soon as one realizes the emotions are being experienced.  Grounding involves finding a secure place where you KNOW you are secure and can keep the fight, flight, or freeze hormones from raging. This can involve recalling scriptures committed to memory (like Psalm 23 or Colossians 3.1-17) and sitting in a very secure manner and place.  

Once our thinking brain is operating, we must seek to understand the origin of these emotions and identify the triggers from our past that are being pulled. At times, we may feel emotions with no connection to the memories which initially fostered these feelings. We may need others (professional or not) to help us know what memory capsules are being released and why. This involves deep investigative work, often with another. I believe the Spirit can give us great insights here. 

Processing the emotions then involves agency* and recovery (to borrow Elizabeth Stanley’s terms). It is asking ourselves what agency do we have in the present as well as what agency did we have in the past. In the case of trauma, abuse, or other stressors, we may not have had any in the past, but we can go back and ask, “what would we have liked to do had we had agency.”  This is where role-playing helps. We can ask ourselves, ”Where was God in all of this?” This was the point of Seamands’ book.

This processing allows us to inform these emotions and events by the truths we know. I believe this is where truths about us and life found in Scripture come in. These truths inform and renew those emotive memories with a perspective that transforms them.  It doesn’t become just cognitive; this is where the cognitive work comes in.

Here is an illustration of this from my life these past five years. Somewhere in the last five years, I woke up after very lucid dreams feeling lonely and abandoned. I remember journaling about this. These dreams and feelings continued for several weeks until I realized that I did struggle with abandonment. I resisted this thought because I had a great relationship with my mom. However, I believe this was God’s gentle push to deal with this issue in my life. I spent time to identify the events which led to this. Eventually, as I identified all events in my life which were traumatic I became aware of a number of dating situations where girls dumped me publicly and humiliating me before others.  

As I continued to process this, I realized how so many of my actions today were influenced by this fear of abandonment. It was one of the reasons I lacked self-differentiation. For me, it wasn’t just realizing what was at the root of this feeling that helped, but help came as I realized what agency did I have in those situations.  That is when the truth came through: I set myself up for abandonment through the way I approached dating.  

I actually chose girls who were real eye-candy. In other words, I intentionally chose girls who would add to my self-concept by their beauty. I, therefore, felt I needed to be the best looking, acting, smartest…guy to keep them. And I sought to be such. I was always trying to prove my “greatness” to them. And in each case, they found another guy who was better looking, acting, or more popular to dump me for. So, by the very nature of the rules I set up for the girls, I would date, I was asking for abandonment.

There was not the healthy concept being loved for who I was, warts and all. So, if I ever did let my guard down, it gave them a reason to move on. My sense of agency was used to create the perfect storm where I would be abandoned. Wow.

I fully realize many of you reading this may say you had no agency in the trauma, and you may be correct. Initially, I didn’t think I did either. In those situations where you had none, this is where having a professional experience this with you and giving you agency to say or do what was needed can be of great help.

As I dwelt on this through the Spirit’s perspective and the Scriptures’ truths, I felt released from the need to be the best…and the fear of abandonment. It was like I was let out of prison. I now continue to live in this truth. I know if I fell back into being the best basis for love, I would consequently experience the fear of abandonment.  

And to think I am in my 60’s wrestling through this. 

*Agency begins with what you let into your mind—meaning what comes in from your environment. If you are lacking agency, it’s likely your attention is being hijacked and you need to figure out how to restore it. Source:






One response to “Processing Emotions”

  1. Jeff Perkins Avatar
    Jeff Perkins

    Great insight here Greg. I really appreciate your vulnerability!

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