Have you ever been in a stupid argument? When I ask this question in my seminars on emotional intelligence, I typically receive a resounding yes.
But most folks are at loss to explain why their emotions can be powerful enough to hijack their reason in situations like this. They could use some help—not just for understanding their feelings but also for regulating them.
Art Bennett, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and his wife, Laraine, a columnist and freelance writer, provide this help in their marvelous book, The Emotions God Gave You.
For Good or Ill. Although a number of wonderful books on emotions have become best sellers in recent years (for example, Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence), they lack the Catholic perspective that human beings are made in the “image of God.” The Emotions God Gave You fills this gap. While integrating concepts from contemporary psychology, it is grounded on the premise that everything God has made—emotions included—is very good.
The reason it doesn’t always feel that way is because, as St. Thomas Aquinas explained, the human person is a rational animal with an immortal soul. As animals, we experience our emotions automatically moving us toward pleasure and away from pain. But as rational animals with spiritual souls, we have a unique ability to direct our emotions so that they move us toward good and away from evil. “Our emotions are morally neutral,” the Bennetts point out. “However, what we do with them can be judged to be good or bad.”
When our emotions are properly ruled by reason and grace, they serve the highest good, which is love. When, as a consequence of original sin, our emotions sabotage reason and become unruly, we do the very things we hate (Romans 7:15).
Journeying Inward. The Emotions God Gave You invites us to become compassionate observers of ourselves and others. It outlines a journey that explores subjects like the difference between emotion and mood, the consequences of anger and resentment, the effects of temperament and past experiences, and how much we can trust our feelings.
As good tour guides, the Bennetts end each chapter with insightful questions for “going further.” For example, after explaining how past wounds can affect our emotional balance, they ask: “Is there an emotional wound from my past that sometimes governs how I react today? How can I best work through these wounds?” Without shrinking from hard realities, they are encouraging and optimistic. “God gave us our emotions. He wants us to manage them for our own good—and for his glory!”
This journey does not end at a bridge to nowhere. Numerous references to Scripture, Catholic teaching, and the Catechism offer abundant provisions for dealing with the unresolved issues that can provoke uncontrolled emotional responses.
When You See Red. One entire chapter deals with the emotion that clinicians see as the most difficult to manage: anger. When we use anger to resist evil and pursue good, we harness our emotional energy in a positive way and strengthen our virtues. But when we react with rage, rudeness, resentment, or passive aggression, we are forming vices that fragment relationships and endanger ourselves and others.
So, practically speaking, how do you govern a passion like anger? You cultivate compassion, which counteracts anger, for both yourself and others, the Bennetts emphasize. They give examples, and they offer advice on how to express anger appropriately.
This is not a superficial treatment. The authors delve into the roots of anger, giving practical help for dealing with inner wounds. They teach how to recognize “fight or flight” defense mechanisms that inhibit the appropriate expression of emotional energy. And, whereas most secular authors limit their treatment of wounded emotions to medications and psychotherapies, the Bennetts gently lead readers to the healing presence of Jesus.
One of their stories concerns a man whose emotional difficulties stemmed from a lack of attention from his father. As a child, he had blamed himself for being unworthy of fatherly love and attention. Seeing the connection between this childhood misperception and his ongoing feelings of guilt and depression was a step to healing. Most importantly, this man came to the point where he could forgive his father and see himself as unconditionally loved by his Father in heaven.
Press On! Quoting liberally from saints and spiritual writers, the book’s final chapter encourages us to go further— all the way to agapé love, or “loving with detachment.”
And so we discover, when our minds are enlightened by the Holy Spirit, that the highest expression of emotion is to love—“to will the good of another” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1766). With so many other voices preaching a different message, it is satisfying and crucial to hear the truth: Self-giving, self-sacrificing, forgiving love is the path of wholeness and holiness.
Dr. Fernando André Leyva, president of Montgomery Clinical Services, in Maryland, is a consultant, teacher, and speaker with more than twenty years’ experience as a trainer and clinical psychologist.
The Emotions God Gave You: A Guide for Catholics to Healthy and Holy Living, Art and Laraine Bennett (softcover, 160 pp.), is available from The Word Among Us at 1-800-775-9673 or online at www.wau.org. If you’d like to read an excerpt, please visit our Web site and click on “Books.”