As much as we sometimes hate to admit it, we need emotions. ALL of them. They are a powerful and essential part of the human experience.
But for many Christians, there has been a historical tendency to downplay or suppress certain emotions, often guided by a belief that only joy and positive feelings are acceptable in the eyes of God. Joy=good! Anger=bad. Love=great! Frustration=negative. When we feel these “negative” emotions, they often come served with a side of guilt and shame.
In our podcast interview with Drs. Bill & Kristi Gaultiere, authors of Healthy Feelings, Thriving Faith, they challenged this kind of thinking and took us through what emotional health really looks like for Christians and missionaries alike.
As missionaries, we often live in emotionally charged environments. How can we develop a healthy relationship to our emotions and the emotions of others?
1. Recognize the Value of Emotions
Emotions are a gift from God! They are a way he created for us to deeply connect with him and others. They serve as powerful indicators and motivators in our faith journey. We have to let go of misconceptions that label certain emotions as negative or unspiritual. It’s time for us to embrace the full spectrum of human emotions, recognizing that they offer valuable insights into our inner world and our connection with God.
By acknowledging the importance of emotions, we create space for emotional growth and spiritual development.
Emotional health is not about eliminating “negative” emotions. Emotions aren’t good or bad. They are created by God, so they are neutral. It’s all about how we use them! When we understand their purpose, we can let God transform them into opportunities for growth. As missionaries, this allows us to relate to the diverse range of emotions experienced by the people we serve, fostering empathy and compassion in our ministry.
It all begins with recognizing that emotions are an integral part of our humanity and spirituality.
We aren’t called to be ruled by our emotions, but neither are we called to ignore them or punish ourselves for feeling them. We serve a God who feels! Throughout Scripture we see God and Jesus feeling things deeply and even being moved by those feelings into action. In Psalms 18, we see a God who is angry at the injustice he sees and who takes action to rescue. In Mark 14:34, Jesus was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” He felt that sorrow and wept, and then he chose to take action to save us.
2. Develop Emotional Intelligence
Developing emotional intelligence, or EQ, is a game-changer in our missionary work. It’s like having a superpower that includes self-awareness, empathy, and the ability to skillfully handle our own emotions and relationships. When our EQ is well developed, it empowers us to forge deeper connections with the people we serve, building trust and open lines of communication.
In the missionary field, being able to pick up on and empathize with the emotions of others is like striking gold. It transforms us into better listeners and makes us more attuned to the needs and struggles of those we’re ministering to. This empathetic approach doesn’t just strengthen our relationships; it also opens doors for us to share the message of Christ more effectively.
Developing emotional awareness is about taking a moment to think about what we’re feeling in different situations. It’s expanding our emotional vocabulary beyond just “happy” or “sad.” This helps us pinpoint more complex emotions like frustration, disappointment, or sorrow, giving us a better grasp of our inner emotional landscape.
Think of it as learning a new language – the language of your emotions.
3. Understand Your Enneagram Type and Emotions
The Enneagram, which is like a personality framework, can be an incredibly helpful tool to identify your core emotions and how they express themselves uniquely. Dive deeper into your Enneagram personality type to gain insights into how your type processes and responds to emotions. Each Enneagram type has a core emotion and specific emotional patterns. By identifying your type’s core emotion (e.g., anger, shame, or fear), you can better understand the lens through which you perceive and express your feelings.
Explore resources and literature specific to your Enneagram type, delving into the unique challenges and growth opportunities associated with your emotional patterns. The Enneagram isn’t just about understanding your personality; it’s also a way to decode how your personality processes emotions and responds when things get stressful. Understanding your Enneagram type and its relationship with your emotions is a transformative step in developing emotional health as a missionary.
4. Understand Your Emotional Defense Mechanisms
Each Enneagram type has its unique way of dealing with emotions. It’s like having a go-to strategy that you might not even be aware of until you start paying attention.
We need to each recognize our default defense mechanisms. This could be a pattern you’ve repeated for years without realizing it. For example, if you’re a Type Two, you might tend to deflect your emotions by focusing on the needs of others, often neglecting your own. On the other hand, if you’re a Type Five, you might retreat into your thoughts and intellectualize your feelings, keeping them at arm’s length.
Once you’ve pinpointed your primary defense mechanism, the next step is to understand how it influences your behavior. For instance, if you’re a Type Eight and your go-to defense mechanism is aggression, you might find yourself becoming confrontational when you feel threatened.
None of this is to stay you are stuck always feeling a certain way. You always have a choice! Knowing your knee-jerk defense mechanism can actually be transformative because it empowers you to choose healthier responses when faced with challenging situations. For example, instead of reacting with aggression, you can learn to respond with assertiveness and a deeper understanding of your emotions. This self-awareness helps you break free from the limitations of your default defense mechanism, allowing you to navigate emotions more skillfully and build healthier relationships.
5. Embrace Emotional Honesty
Emotional honesty is being truthful with ourselves about what we are feeling. As a missionary, you may have faced the pressure to maintain a facade of unshakable faith and positivity. However, true emotional health is built on authenticity. Embrace the reality that it’s okay to experience a wide range of emotions, including doubt, fear, and frustration. These emotions don’t diminish your faith; they are an essential part of your journey.
God can handle your emotions! If you doubt that, read the Psalms and listen to David pour his heart out to God. And then remember that God called David a man after his own heart. You can’t overwhelm God.
But in the spirit of honesty, yes, our emotions can overwhelm people, so we need to choose wisely who to share the really big ones with. Create a safe space where you can express your emotions honestly, whether through journaling, prayer, or conversations with trusted friends and mentors.
Being emotionally honest with yourself allows you to process your feelings and prevents emotional suppression, which can lead to burnout and spiritual stagnation. Moreover, it fosters a deeper connection with God as you bring your authentic self before Him, trusting that He accepts you as you are. This vulnerability can also inspire those you serve to open up about their own struggles, creating a more genuine and supportive missionary community.
Emotional health isn’t a luxury for us as missionaries; it’s an essential component of faithful and impactful service. We believe that recognizing the importance of emotions, developing emotional intelligence, and exploring tools like the Enneagram can enhance our ability to connect with people, communicate the gospel effectively, and navigate the challenges of our calling with grace and resilience. In the world of missionary work, emotional health isn’t just a good idea; it’s a necessity. We’re all in this together, and together, we can embrace emotional health for more effective and fulfilling ministry.
For more on this topic, listen to our interview with Drs. Bill & Kristi Gaultiere, and purchase their book Healthy Feelings, Thriving Faith. Also, check out their ministry Soul Shepherding, which provides spiritual direction and a wealth of mental and emotional health resources for those in ministry.