Getting to Know Our Emotions from the Inside Out

Getting to Know Our Emotions from the Inside Out

Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out opens this week. The film’s fanciful premise invites moviegoers to “meet the little voices in your head”—specifically, our emotions, personified as Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. RTB editor Maureen Moser and I sat down to talk about emotions, their importance, and the role they play in our minds and hearts. (This article might contain spoilers.)


Maureen: On Reflections you talk a lot about critical thinking. How should critical thinking balance out with emotion?

Ken: God gave us the capacity to think and analyze. These are critical tools in discovering truth. John Calvin said that because God made us in his image, we are able to hunt and gather the truth. At the same time, God also made us with robust emotions. We are capable of feeling things very deeply.

It’s the combination of both things that make us who we are, so to speak. If you go too far in one direction, you can crash and burn. For example, overly analytical people are sometimes perceived as lacking empathy and concern for others. And, of course, people who let their emotions run away with them run a greater risk of making very unwise choices.

People often play with our emotions. Television, movies, and maybe especially commercials stir up emotional reactions. Logic and critical thinking, on the other hand, help us to reflect on the way we feel. When it comes to keeping it together and thinking about a situation in a Christian way, our initial response can be feeling driven, but then critical thinking needs to help us step back and analyze. Why did we react that way? Was it the best way to react?

That being said, I don’t think logicians—and I’m certainly a logician myself—should refuse to accept the fact that we’re emotional people. We just want to reign it in every once in a while when we think it goes too far in the emotional direction. We need to recognize that we have the capacity to feel deeply and to think critically.

Culturally speaking, it seems emotions tend to run high these days, especially with social media allowing instant reactions to a constant news stream.

Yes, I think what adds to the problem, especially when it comes to social media, is that whatever we post on online is going to be out there for a long time. So, if you do post an instant reaction to something and later wish you hadn’t, it’s too late.

Emotions are very good; they reflect who we are. However, they need to be guided and directed by proper parameters. Is there too much emotion in society? I tend to think that we do allow our emotions to lead us in ways that need more analysis. There are hot points in all of us. It’s good to identify those points.

On the other hand, looking at both sides of this issue, I think there are also a lot of people who think that if you show no response to something, then you must be unfeeling and uncaring, when really you’re just trying to think it through.

Coming back to Inside Out, two of the emotions, Joy and Sadness, get stuck together for a little while. Joy has never understood why Riley (the girl they inhabit) needs Sadness. She tries to contain Sadness or make sure most of Riley’s memories are happy ones. Eventually, she’ll realize that people need to feel sorrow. So, let’s talk about sadness; why is it important?

Our worldview tells us that God’s good creation has gone terribly wrong because of the fall. Our relationships—with God, other people, nature, even ourselves—have been negatively impacted by the fall. There is a time to take stock of one’s life and to reflect on pain and suffering.

I was thinking just recently that people who really struggle with mental health and emotion issues, such as depression, often have a profound awareness of circumstances that lead to sadness. I’m trying to make a positive statement here. I think the people I’ve known who have hurt a lot in life emotionally have a unique story to tell because of this awareness. (Obviously, brain chemistry challenges and other mental health issues do need to be addressed properly.)

Perhaps some of us who don’t struggle in those ways are oblivious to the sorrow that goes around. We might run through life and insulate ourselves and not allow sadness in—but it’s good to take it in. There is a time to grieve, to feel sorrow.

Suffering and challenges are sometimes the greatest teachers in life. Yet it does seem that we live at a time when we’d rather speed past all the difficulties. We tell ourselves to “think positive.” Certainly optimism and positive thinking are good things, but I wonder if avoiding reflection on sorrow, pain, and hurt doesn’t hold us back from personal growth. And, of course, neglecting grief or failing to reflect on difficult things doesn’t mean those things go away. They stay in your mind and your soul—and they may make a come back when you least expect it. It’s healthier to address issues of very relevant sadness. C. S. Lewis said it well:

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

So, I would hope that in everyone’s life there would be time and reflection given to challenges and sorrows. God made us with this wide range of ability to feel different things. In a Christian sense, you can have joy even when you’re not terribly happy. For example, I’m joyful about the Trinity even when I’m struggling with something of great severity.

How about the emotion of anger? We are told to not sin in our anger. How can Christians handle this volatile feeling?

Well, Jesus certainly experienced anger. We have the scene where he goes into the temple and overturns the tables. Anger can be a good thing. There are times when anger is appropriate. But as you point out, Paul tells us, “In your anger do not sin.” That’s hard! I know within myself when I reach a certain level of anger, it’s very difficult to stay in control and act in subtle ways. It just goes!

Some people feel a lot of guilt over their anger or think they can never be angry about anything. Repressing it is no better than letting it explode; it’s best to learn how to use anger in a productive way.

I wish I had more insight to offer you about how to be angry. As we talked about earlier, when we’re feeling deep emotion, it’s hard to stay balanced. Perhaps we sometimes have to experience the emotion and then step back to evaluate. When I get negative comments from people online, I try not to act on my first impulse. I think about how I can respond in a courteous way—but it’s not always easy.

Reading recommendations: Mental Health: A Christian Approach by Mark P. Cosgrove and James D. Mallory Jr. and Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? Insights into Personal Growth By John Powell.