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My new spiritual practice: Separating thoughts from feelings

Lynne Baab • Thursday May 4 2017

My new spiritual practice: Separating thoughts from feelings

A year ago I was feeling stressed by several things, so I started seeing a therapist twice a month. My times with him have been very helpful, and in these next few blog posts, I want to reflect on what I’ve learned. In fact, I want to argue that what I’ve learned is actually a spiritual practice.

Last year I could tell I was stressed because of the thoughts swirling in my head: What if this happens? What if that happens? How will I cope? Why am I not trusting God more with these things that are stressing me? What’s wrong with me that I’m not coping with stress better? Why am I spending so much time thinking about negative future outcomes?

These thoughts – and the variety of feelings that accompanied them – would swirl around in my head off and on during the day and especially during wakeful periods at night. I was steadily gaining weight without being aware of overeating. The only way I could explain the weight gain was to see that the spinning thoughts and feelings were creating stress within my body, and I was soothing the stress with a bit of extra food every day.

I would try to stop the swirling thoughts and feelings, but I had no success in doing that. Then I felt guilty for not being able to focus my thoughts and feelings on something more positive. I felt continuously guilty for not trusting God more.

After listening to me talk for several months about these thoughts and feelings, my therapist, John, suggested that I learn to separate the thoughts from the feelings. No one had ever suggested this to me, and I now see this as a spiritual practice, a choice that needs to be made over and over. In this series of blog posts, I’ll tease out what that looks like in practice.

What’s the difference between thoughts and feelings? Feelings are a normal, healthy part of daily life. Of course I would feel scared, sad, and angry from time to time because of challenges in my life. Everyone does.

But the catastrophic thoughts – What if this happens? What if that happens? How will I cope? What’s wrong with me that I’m responding this way? – are demonic, according to John. They are literally demons that pursue and enslave me. They damage my life.

John suggested dealing with the thoughts like a person would deal with distractions during meditation or contemplative prayer. Imagine them as leaves floating down a river. Let them go. But the feelings are to be felt.

John gave me suggestions for dealing with the feelings, and I’ll write about that for the next two weeks. On the fourth week of this series, I’ll write about dealing with the thoughts.

Always before, I saw coping with my swirling thoughts and feelings as a black or white thing: either I’m disciplining my mind to have positive emotions and thoughts, or I’m being honest and feeling/thinking about the negative stuff. The choice was optimism or honesty. And I wasn’t able to pull off very much optimism!

Now I have a different perspective. I see that “honesty” is not the right word to describe catastrophic thoughts about the future. My thoughts focus on things that haven’t happened yet, so they cannot be honest or dishonest. Catastrophic thoughts are simply unhelpful and dysfunctional, which makes them demonic. And indeed, they do demonstrate lack of trust in God.

However, “honesty” is the right word to use to describe the process of acknowledging feelings. When I feel sad, scared, or angry about things in my life, I need to know what to do with those feelings. Those feelings are indeed present. They are a part of me. I find that as I learn more about how to feel them, I am more able to bring those feelings into God’s presence and experience God’s peace and hope.

(Next week: Feeling the feelings and why I view that as a Christian spiritual practice. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

One year ago on this blog:  "Sabbath Keeping a decade later: What I do on the Sabbath."

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