Five ways to handle troubling emotions

By Kathy Berken

It doesn’t take much to feel frustrated, helpless or anxious these days. All you have to do is turn on the TV, open your phone or live with somebody!

I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ advice about the uselessness of worry and wondering how realistic that is for the average person like me: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life … do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt 6: 25-34).

Easier said than done, even when Jesus wisely says to “. . . seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [such as clothing, food, shelter] will be given to you as well” (33).

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Let’s start there. Whatever makes you feel frustrated, helpless or anxious, take those situations to God in prayer. Be in God’s presence. Sit with one emotion, put a name to it and face it head on. Imagine being wrapped in God’s arms, protected from any danger, and experiencing that one emotion for as long as you can. Pay close attention to the places in your body where you feel it: your stomach, heart, head, back, chest, etc. It’s normal to cry, tremble or feel pain. Whatever it is, stay with it a while and know that God’s arms are wrapped around you, holding you and loving you.

Above all, resist the temptation to deny the experience, the emotion or the situation that may be causing this feeling. The most challenging aspect of this exercise may be to accept fully the feeling as a real part of you at this very moment. If you have to say, “I feel very frustrated right now,” then say it with whatever volume necessary to express the feeling! When you have fully imagined, experienced and accepted this emotion, take a deep breath and remain in God’s presence for as long as you can. Here are five ways to make peace with these emotions without denying them.

1. Remind yourself that you are not your emotions, your perceptions or your thoughts. These things are temporarily attached to you; they are not your true identity. Rather, you are a child of God, a soul illuminated by God’s eternal presence, living moment by moment in faith, hope and love. No emotion, no perception and no thought has ever stayed with you forever.

2. Gather some rocks and clean them. Use non-toxic markers or chalk and write one emotion on each that you want to lessen or replace. Put these rocks in a backpack along with a pad of paper and a pen. Walk to a river, lake or corner of your back yard. Remove the rocks one by one, read aloud the word on each rock, then toss it in the water or bury it in the yard. Then in large letters, write on your notepad an emotion to replace the discarded emotion.

3. Write a letter to God about these emotions, by hand, with a pen and paper. You can send it to your spiritual director or confidant, burn it or save it.

4. Create an intention and repeat it every day at the same time (upon waking or going to bed, brushing your teeth or taking a shower). Bring that intention to your conscious awareness and make it part of your daily prayer. Keep it short. Over the years, I’ve said: “God, help me see your face today” and “God, I want to be aware of your presence today.”

5. Use Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages,” an idea from her 1991 book, “The Artist’s Way.” Many people have found this daily writing ritual helpful in dealing with their emotions.

Regardless of the simplicity of it, I still appreciate Jesus’ wisdom: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (27).

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)


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