You Are a Soul: Emotional Health

I have lived in Miami for the past ten years, but before moving to Miami I lived in Red River, New Mexico for the better part of three years. Red River is in northern New Mexico, about twenty miles from the Colorado border, and is absolutely stunning. The town is at 8,750 feet nestled in a beautiful valley between the mountains and the top of the ski area is at 10,500 feet. The summers never get above 80 degrees and there is no humidity. But the winters are an entirely different animal. It was not uncommon for me to wake up at 7 am during the winter to discover that it was -10 degrees outside. Humans are not meant to live in such conditions!

But the winters are not just cold, they are dark. The ski lift closed every day at 4 pm, by 4:30 pm the sun was going down, and by 5 pm it was pitch black outside. Red River is a small vacation town and most of my friends were just around in the summers, so I was pretty lonely during the winters. I also noticed that my spiritual appetite and interest was quite low in that season as well. I am pretty sure that I was dealing with some seasonal depression.

Integrated Beings

Looking back on it, I can see now that there were multiple dynamics at play for me during those cold winters. It was not only that I was really physically cold and the days were dark. It was not only that I did not have many friends and was relationally lonely. It was not only that I was spiritually dry and apathetic. It was not only that I was emotionally depressed. All of these realities intersected with one another.

Humans beings are integrated creatures and all aspects of who we are impact one another.

Sometimes the best thing we can do for our spiritual health is to take a nap.

Sometimes the best thing we can do for our vocational health is to spend a day in silence and solitude.

Sometimes the best thing we can do for our mental health is to exercise.

Sometimes the best thing we can do for our relational health is to spend time with a professional counselor, working through darkness in our past or areas where we are stuck emotionally.

We are integrated beings and we need to pay attention to all aspects of our life. In other words, you don’t have a soul. You are a soul.

What is Emotional Health?

Emotional intelligence and emotional health has gained some popular attention over the past ten years or so in Western culture. Dozens of books have been written about the benefits of being “emotionally intelligent”[1] in the workplace and most important relationships. Coaching platforms have emerged promising improved emotional lives. Tools like the Enneagram have helped millions of people grow in self-awareness and emotional health.

There have definitely been some positive steps taken towards emotional health, but the dominant cultural narratives around emotions and feelings are negative. Think about these common cultural messages about emotions:

  • “Don’t trust your emotions”
  • “She’s so emotional”
  • “He wears his heart on his sleeve”
  • “Lead with your head, not your heart”

The lack of value placed on emotions has not served the Western world well. A 2018 Gallup[2] study listed the United States in the top ten most stressed countries in the world, with 55% of Americans indicating that they “experienced stress a lot yesterday.”

Western culture resists emotional health. But the resistance does not only come from our “culture.” Resistance comes from within each of us. We resist moving towards emotional health when we refuse to grieve our losses. We resist moving towards emotional health when we hide our weaknesses and vulnerabilities from others. We resist moving towards emotional health when we avoid silence and solitude. We resist moving towards emotional health when we utilize defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from the inevitable pain of life.

Emotional health is a learned characteristic and ability. Every person has to proactively choose to grow and deepen in emotional health throughout the course of their life. This is my working definition of emotional health:

Emotional health is the ability to identify what we are feeling, navigate our inner world with confidence and compassion, and creatively respond to life’s changes and difficulties.

There are three main elements to this understanding of emotional health that need to be teased out a bit more:

  • Ability to identify what we are feeling – Emotionally healthy people grow in their ability to identify and name the emotions under the surface of their lives. This includes difficult feelings like anger, sadness, and depression, and also positive feelings like joy, excitement, and peace. The ability to face our emotional reality consistently is crucial for emotional growth.
  • Ability to navigate our inner world with confidence and compassion – Emotionally healthy people grow in their ability to navigate their inner world with confidence because they are familiar with the “terrain” and with compassion because they can accept themselves as they are. This kind of confidence grows from time in solitude and silence and processing difficult emotions successfully. This kind of compassion grows from exploring “negative” parts of ourselves and allowing a few others to extend empathy to us as we fail.
  • Ability to creatively respond to life’s changes and difficulties – Emotionally healthy people grow in their ability to adapt to changes and difficulties with creativity and grit. This includes being able to say “no” to emotionally unhealthy circumstances, negotiating unmet expectations, clarifying changing emotional needs in different seasons of life, and adding tools to our “emotional tool belt” to use for unique situations.

Growing into emotionally mature people takes time. In fact, it is a life-long journey, so do not be in a rush! Start the journey by exploring your iceberg.

The Iceberg

The iceberg[3] is a great image or tool that helps us begin to explore our emotional life. Human beings have a lot in common with icebergs. Only about 10% of an iceberg is visible above the surface of the water. The other 90% of the iceberg remains hidden, submerged beneath the waters. Our lives are similar to icebergs in that the majority of who we are remains hidden “below the surface.” Some of it is intentionally hidden, some of it has been neglected and forgotten about, and some of our life is unable to be fully seen.

Our willingness to proactively explore the 90% of our own iceberg is directly tied to our movement towards emotional health.

The Taste of Strawberries

Near the end of the third book of The Lord of the Rings trilogy,[4] hobbits Frodo and Sam are making the final ascent to Mount Doom to destroy the ring once and for all. They are exhausted from the journey and Frodo is weak, unable to continue. At this moment of difficulty and pain, Sam reminds Frodo of the Shire, their home that awaits them after they complete their task.

Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon, and the orchards will be in blossom; and the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket; and they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields; and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?

The vision and hope of a preferred future helps us face darkness within ourselves and in our world. It is very difficult for human beings to do difficult things without a sense of how the difficulty will lead to something better on the other side. Taking steps towards emotional health involves difficulty – facing our wounds, exploring our own iceberg, paying attention to our default emotions and reactions, and going on the descending path. If we go on this journey, what will life look like on the other side? Will it have been worth it?

The vision and hope of a preferred future helps us face darkness within ourselves and in our world. ~ Matt Alexander Click To Tweet

Bearing Fruit

Becoming emotionally healthy is not easy, but it is worth it. Like a healthy tree that bears fruit, as we move towards emotional health, “fruit” will grow from our lives as well.

Here are a few examples of “fruit” that grows as we pursue emotional health:

  • The ability to identify and name our feelings and emotions
  • Freedom to accept people as they are – the good, bad, and ugly – not for what they give us
  • Deepening self-awareness and increased self-compassion
  • A non-anxious presence in the midst of tense situations
  • Becoming a safe, mature person that others can process with about their pain, loss, and grief

A life of beauty, joy, and interior freedom awaits those who pursue emotional health.

This post is part of the You Are a Soul Series:

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[1] Two of the more prominent books in this category include Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Bradberry and Greaves; Emotional Agility by Susan David.

[2] “Americans’ Stress, Worry, and Anger Intensified in 2018” by Julie Ray.

[3] I was first introduced to this tool through Pete Scazzero and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. It is the fundamental image for this remarkable ministry and I highly recommend picking up all of their resources.

[4] The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.

About the Author

Matt Alexander

Matt Alexander has planted, pastored, and led in urban, suburban, and rural churches over the past 15+ years, including a missional church in Miami, FL called Rhythm. Currently, Matt serves on staff with the V3 Movement as a coach for missional church planters and a coordinator for on-going planting collaboration. Matt also coaches and trains individuals and groups in holistic soul care. Matt, Evette, Emery, and Aden live in sunny Miami and love to drink coffee, go on outdoor adventures, and kayak around the mangroves.

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