I Stopped Avoiding Negative Emotions

Written by Jiaming Zeng, USA

I’ve always disliked being emotional. Perhaps it started when I watched my parents fight as a child. I never understood how a simple discussion over loading the dishwasher or cooking dinner could explode into a fight that might last for days.

I blamed my mother for being too emotional. And I concluded that emotions aren’t practical, and drama only exists because people can’t logically reason about a situation. I came to view emotions as a sign of weakness, a sign of losing control, and a failure to follow logic.

If I were honest though, I don’t like emotions because they are hard. Even when I can identify the emotion I’m experiencing—such as anger or jealousy—I may have no idea what sparked it. And too often, it’s just a feeling I can’t pin down.

Over time, I have come to avoid emotional confrontations, preferring instead to remain calm and composed. This was especially true for negative emotions. While joy and happiness are easy to accept and celebrate, anger and jealousy can be hard to swallow. I fervently disliked my negative emotions. As with any “good” person, I felt they were “bad” or sinful.

Yet I was grossly mistaken. Pushing aside feelings of anger or jealousy does not make them disappear. In fact, those tingling feelings that refuse to go away have an important purpose: they often point to deep truths that we might not be able to articulate ourselves. Often times, it is our anger or grief or annoyance that exposes truths—whether about the world or about ourselves—that we prefer not to face. Sometimes these are godly emotions, such as righteous anger (Mark 11:15-16) or genuine grief (Psalms). But other times, these unwelcome emotions reveal the sinful part of our hearts: the pride, self-centeredness, and shame we unknowingly carry.

But instead of reflecting on the truths our emotions might be pointing us to, too often we are prone to either acting out on our emotions or bottling them. And even when we try to rule over our emotions, so often “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). We cannot do this alone. I’ve tried.

When my sister was applying to college, she repeatedly sent me half-finished essay drafts days before her deadline, and I would drop my work to help her finish them. During that time, I frequently lost my patience, complained constantly, and caused days of family drama.

“You know, you don’t need to be that angry,” Mom would say, infinitely more logical now that the situation doesn’t involve her. Sometimes, I tried to force the anger away or reason my way around it. There was no lasting solution. The anger would simply resurface with the next essay and feed on itself like a vicious cycle.

In short, there was no way I could overcome the anger on my own. As King David sings, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). Instead of relying on myself, I needed God to be the surgeon of my heart.

I prayed and reflected on my anger, and I realized to my shock that my anger was far less justified than I had imagined. I thought I was simply mad about my sister’s procrastination. But it was not out of concern for my sister that I was angry. Instead, I was selfishly angry because she was taking up my time, and I felt that it was unfair that I’m expected to help her while no one was expected to help me.

That was, of course, not true. Many people have selflessly helped me when I needed it and, above all, God has always helped me even when I refuse to acknowledge Him. This realization led me to bring my selfishness before God. I acknowledged His sovereignty and thanked Him for the gift of being able to help my sister. This shift of perspective helped my anger subside, and I was able to help her with more patience and composure. Instead of self-justification, I needed to let God remove my hidden self-centeredness and fill the hole with His love and mercy.

When we are caught in our own emotions, we often react poorly towards the people around us. My sister’s irresponsibility was not okay. However, instead of causing days of family drama, I should have reprimanded her with grace and forgiveness. Only when we see a situation through the lens of God’s love and grace can we see the most wholesome way to respond. Our negative emotions are a compass, pointing to those situations that most require the mercy and love of God.

Anger (or jealousy or grief) might not go away after the first prayer, but we can get up the next day and ask for God’s help and forgiveness again. Through this process, God slowly changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

In addition to communicating our emotions to God, sharing them with friends and mentors can also guide us in the right direction. It may be a long and painful journey, but we must have patience and remain rooted in the promises of Scripture. For the “testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete” (James 1:3-4).

Often, God does not simply take away our “negative” emotions. Jesus was not afraid to show anger and grief at the appropriate times. The ability to experience and express the full range of emotions is how we can genuinely relate to each other and is an integral part of being human. We do not have to ignore or feel ashamed of our emotions, but can be empowered by them; emotions are a way for God to search and transform our hearts, point us towards the truth, and guide us in our relationships with others.

Ultimately, emotions are an avenue for us to experience the truth and grace of God. Coming face to face with our own pride, selfishness, and shortcomings gives us a deeper understanding of the abundance and beauty of His love. Let’s allow His love to transform our hearts, so that we will be able to better show love, empathy, and forgiveness to the people around us.

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