Feeling All the Feels

Helping our Kids Process Their Emotions, with StoryMakers.

At only five years old, my younger daughter is more self-aware than anyone I know. She will regularly tell us how she feels, why she feels that way, and what needs to change for her to feel differently. Last year, we left a friend’s house late after dinner. In the darkness of the car, her scratchy little voice rang out over the music and other voices, announcing, “I was quiet at that house because there were a lot of new people there and I felt shy.” I have often been quiet and felt shy among new people, but could not have so succinctly identified my feelings and their connection to the setting.

Her declaration may not seem so miraculous to most people. Some of you may think this is just totally normal behavior. For me, though, being able to recognize and name my feelings is hard. Thirty-eight years of life have built up like thick callous armor so I cannot recognize my emotions as readily as my five year old. A few years ago, my counselor asked me to describe what anger physically felt like. I could not. It felt like a test question I had never seen but should definitely know the answer to. A few weeks later, a motorcycle cut me off in traffic. Instantly, I remembered that anger feels like a tightening in my jaw, a tension in my chest, and a desire to scream.

Our inability to recognize and name our feelings hinders our ability to process them. My motto about it all was borrowed from Marge Simpson, “Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them.” But by not processing feelings, especially the “bad” ones like anger or hurt, the ignorance allows them to fester until they unconsciously seep out the cracks, usually in resentment and meanness.

During the first few months of the pandemic, I found myself nauseated, tired, weepy, and dizzy. The only other time I had felt these bodily sensations so strongly was when I was pregnant. For much of April, I thought I might actually be pregnant, which was not part of my plan and was not true. What else would cause these symptoms? I went to my doctor and got my thyroid checked, just in case. When she called to tell me everything was fine, I could not accept it. Why did I feel so miserable? Finally, in May, after reading an article about loss, I realized these were all physical manifestations of grief. I had not even considered an emotional reason for my nausea and fatigue.

Some of this is a natural defense mechanism. When you go through major depressive episodes or live with mental illness, you become skeptical of your feelings. Not leaning into my feelings of despair or unhappiness was a kind of life-preserving, coping device for me. My emotions threatened to overwhelm me, so I buried them until I had no connection to them at all.

Growing up in my very reformed Presbyterian youth group, I regularly heard Bible verses about the body and the flesh leading to death. Without much guidance, I wrongly came to believe that the Bible frowns upon emotions and feelings, especially the negative ones. Feelings belong to the body and the body leads to death.

But during a depressive episode, I started reading the Psalms. There, I found emotions and feelings all over the place. Anger, sadness, fear, joy, excitement. The writers of the Psalms bring their emotions straight to God in vivid and direct language. Sometimes they even describe the bodily sensations that go along with these emotions:

“I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning. My back is filled with searing pain; there is no health in my body. I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart… Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me, my God. Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Savior.” (Ps 38:6-8)

These feelings in my body (whether positive or negative) when rightly identified allow me to bring my whole experience to God. It has taken a great deal of counseling and regular reading of the Psalms to help me reconnect to my emotions and see feelings as helpful and good, rather than something to punish and shun.

I am grateful my younger daughter hasn’t yet learned to push her feelings down until she’s walking on them, because that means she can take all her emotions to God — especially when she is scared, lonely, angry, or happy. For adults like me, who struggle with how to feel our feelings (let alone how to guide our children through this) StoryMakers has created a new tool for any of us who work with children, or have children. The color-coded prayer wheel will help them understand their feelings and how God is a safe place to take those feelings. Engaging with their emotions and guiding them in prayers based on their day to day lives allows us to teach children, as Paul writes in Romans 11:36, that “from God and through him and for him are all things.” All of our experiences, emotions, and thoughts are welcomed by God and we can bring them to him in prayer, whether we can rightly identify them or not.

To download the StoryMakers Prayer Wheel click here!