That dress makes you look fat,” my kindergarten best friend uttered as we stood in line for the drinking fountain.
Dumbfounded, my eyebrows scrunched together; instinctively I looked down to survey my appearance. Suddenly my dress didn’t seem so pretty, so colorful and free as when I had put it on that morning. My confusion morphed to hurt and then finally landed in shame. Tears threatened my vision. My entire body felt the urge to run and to hide, but I knew that if I stepped out of line, Mrs. Bradford would ask why. Instead, I bit my bottom lip as if my life depended on it.
Don’t let her see you cry.
It was my turn to take a drink, so I turned toward the white porcelain fountain. I lingered a little longer than normal as tears dripped down, mixing with the swirling water and disappearing into the drain. Finally feeling like I’d contained the hurt, I straightened, bit my bottom lip, and returned to the classroom.
My education in the art of repression began early.
The lessons weren’t given overtly—a sideways glance here or a hurtful comment there. Much of my learning came quietly without fanfare, so much so that I didn’t realize it was happening. But throughout childhood and adolescence, I began to develop the unspoken habit of hiding my emotions, not only from others, but also from myself.
Somewhere along the way I had absorbed the message that emotions were not to be trusted. Sadness, melancholy, frustration, and anger seemed to cast an especially large shadow, so I did my best to ignore the waves that churned within me. But a rising tide cannot be contained for long.
My story is not unique. Who hasn’t tried to hide their tears or stuff their anger? Who hasn’t resisted the current of anxiety or been ashamed to voice their hurts? Many of us have learned to view emotion through the lens of reason, as if the brain has a hierarchy, the left side is king, and the right side needs to be kept in its rightful place.
But God didn’t create us to be divided. To “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” requires a synthetic approach to the experience of being human. We cannot elevate one part of ourselves to the detriment of the other. Yet that’s exactly what emotional repression does.
In Anatomy of the Soul, psychiatrist and author Curt Thompson put it this way: “Emotional states are not opinions to be countered. They are true experiences that require attention. . . . If we ignore, deny, or debate these feelings, we are ignoring God’s messengers.” God speaks the language of emotion.
Not to be misunderstood, Dr. Thompson goes on to emphasize that emotions themselves are not God and should not take a place in our lives reserved for God himself. However, ignoring emotion only leads us to a breakdown of the self and of our relationships. Sooner or later, the dam breaks.
My habit of repression turned ugly my freshman year of college. The emotions that had been sloshing around inside reached their max, and I began to experience severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. I’d wake up in the middle of the night from a deep sleep only to emerge in sweat and panic. Ignoring my body was no longer an option. It took counseling, loving friends and family, a prescription, and several years to find my baseline once again.
But it wasn’t until the harshest season of my life—facing the death of my infant son—that I really began to see emotion not as a hindrance but as a pathway to deeper connection. Ravaged by grief, I was too raw to repress, to hold back the flood that threatened me every moment of every day.
Emotion flowed freely. No filters. No prettying up for God or for other people. I wasn’t trying to be authentic; I simply didn’t have the willpower to be anything other than what I was. Grief blanketed me. Tears kept a constant stream. Laughter popped up at inappropriate times, and I did not try to hide it, but rather welcomed the relief.
Without my guard up, I realized God was using emotion to tell me something—and for the first time, I paid attention. I began to welcome emotions as they arrived, and what I discovered wasn’t exposure or insecurity, but freedom. A space to breathe.
I wish we didn’t wait until the walls crumble to hear the whispers. What might life look like if we gave ourselves permission to listen to our emotions? How much deeper might our relationship with God be if we heard the ways our bodies speak to us and through us? Consider the freedom we might experience if our feelings were considered equal to our logic, a collaborator rather than a competitor. How much do we miss by resisting our emotions?
More than we realize.
We often think of God as far removed, his arms crossed as he looks down on the earth. But God is not distant, and he is anything but stoic. Emotion is a secret language of the soul that originated in God himself.
Throughout the Bible, we see God’s emotional responses on full display: his tenderness and compassion, his rage and elation, his broken heart and his steady hand. Perhaps the emotion of the divine is best seen through Jesus, God with us, who both pulled little children close and flipped over tables in fury. We can even see the exchange of love, sorrow, pleasure, and pain within the divine community, when the Father spoke words of pleasure over his Son or when Jesus pleaded and wept before the Father in the garden of Gethsemane.
God himself communicated with an emotional currency, and as bearers of his image, that currency is embedded in us. Emotion is a gift intended to draw us deeper into the Father and into a life of being fully known. Emotion is not an enemy but an ally, and that positive relationships begins by paying attention.
The transition from repression to recognition may not come quickly. Even after my raw season, my first reaction to big emotion is to throw a blanket over it. I’ve had to learn who, when, and where is safe to let feelings flow. Oversharing is certainly not the antidote to repression.
But by paying attention, naming the emotion, and letting God and others into the waters with us, we begin to hear emotion as whispers of Love, “messengers” of what our minds, bodies, and spirits are trying to tell us. We see a fuller picture of ourselves and of the God who made us. We learn to name the hurt, rather than to walk away. We welcome the current as an avenue of grace, healing, and wholeness, and find a daily invitation into a deeper love.
Cover image by Stephanie Hau.