Lisa saw a Christian counselor a few weeks before her wedding. “Everyone expects me to be ecstatic, but I’m so stressed out,” she told the counselor.
As the two talked about this, the bride-to-be mentioned that her parents didn’t approve of displays of emotion. At that moment, Lisa realized she would be afraid to share her true feelings in her upcoming marriage.
“But you’re judging yourself,” the counselor told her. “You need to care for that little girl inside of you and tell her it’s OK to show how you feel. It’s healthy to let your husband see your emotions.”
During those pre-marriage counseling sessions, Lisa learned to identify her feelings and care for her heart. In doing so, she also strengthened her marriage.
We all need to care for our hearts — identifying, understanding and dealing with our emotions. If we care for our heart, it allows us to show up and care for our spouse. If both people are caring for their hearts, there’s a great potential for them to connect in a powerful way.
But how do you care for your heart?
First, give your heart a voice
Recognize that feelings are nothing more than information from your heart. Emotions are the voice of your heart! And remember, God is the One who created your heart and emotions. He “fashioned the hearts of them all” (Psalm 33:15). God gave us a full range of emotions — sadness, disgust, grief, despair and more. Each emotion matters and provides us with information about ourselves.
If you read through the Psalms, you’ll see over and over again how David expressed the voice of his heart. His heart was sad or in sorrow. It was glad and filled with joy. David expressed his feelings, and God called him a man “after my own heart.” He named his feelings, and you can, too.
Identifying feelings by naming them aloud is powerful. When you name a feeling aloud, you move your brain activity from the fight or flight system and the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala) to the rational part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex). When the amygdala is activated, your physical body responds: Your heart rate goes up and your cortisol levels are high. But as you name your emotion and activate the rational part of the brain, your body de-escalates. You become more peaceful; your heart rate and cortisol levels return to normal.
So the next time you notice you’re experiencing an emotion, state it. If you’re feeling invalidated, say “I’m feeling invalidated.” And then watch what happens physiologically in your body.
Think of your car’s dashboard. You can put duct tape on a warning light and try to ignore it, but that doesn’t change anything. The warning light is telling you the car needs gas or something else is wrong. The need is still there, even if you ignore it.
It’s the same with emotions: We need to identify what they are and what we need. Do we need a hug from our spouse? Do we need to connect emotionally? Once we identify our feelings, we can clearly communicate what we need to do.
Validate your emotions
As you become aware of the voice of your heart, learn to validate your emotions. Years ago, I realized that I was expecting my husband, Greg, or other people to affirm that my feelings were acceptable. When they didn’t, I was left wondering if my feelings were “wrong.”
The truth is that feelings aren’t “right” or “wrong” — they just are! So don’t judge, minimize or ignore your feelings. Validate them. Just be curious with yourself about what you are feeling and why.
It’s important to say to yourself, “It makes sense that I’m feeling this way right now because of what I’ve been through or what has happened.” Doing so can help de-escalate the emotion.
Of course, we don’t want to be led completely by our emotions without using our brain. We function best when we acknowledge our feelings, and then use that information to make healthy changes.
I often say to my clients, “God gave us a heart and a brain for a reason … we use both in combination.”
Become aware of your self-talk
We’re not usually aware of the sheer volume of conversation we have with ourselves. Often our inner voice becomes our critic. Not all of our inner words are negative or critical, but those are the words that get us stuck in a rut. The more we tell ourselves negative things, the more those neural pathways in our brain become well-worn, and the more our brain will utilize them.
Change your negative self-talk
After you become aware of your self-talk, you have the opportunity to change it. Catch yourself in the act and begin to talk to yourself as you would to your best friend. Change “You stupid idiot — why did you do that again?” to “I did my best, and what I do doesn’t determine my value.” Be gracious and kind when you talk to yourself.
Recognize “sensitized” emotions
As you become aware of your heart, notice that you often have a physiological response within your body to “sensitized” emotions. These are emotions that become more intense due to something experienced or internalized early in life.
Some psychologists suggest that these emotions might be formed when a child is as young as 4 years old. Often, we aren’t even aware of these emotions. Becoming aware of them keeps Satan from wreaking havoc in our hearts and minds.
For example, let’s say a woman grew up with a very successful sister and saw her parents constantly praising this sibling. The woman’s parents didn’t say she was stupid, but she felt unimportant, and she internalized the lie that she isn’t valued.
Now this women’s sensitized emotion is triggered when her husband says something such as, “Hey, I asked you to run to the bank on Tuesday, but you didn’t do it.” That’s all he said, but it triggered his wife’s internal message: I don’t measure up.
Become aware of what you do or how you react to some of the “sensitized” emotions. Do you get angry, isolate and withdraw, try to read your spouse’s mind, or try to fix the problem?
Ask “What do I need?”
After you identify your feelings and name them, ask yourself, “What does this tell me that I need or want in this moment?”
Don’t hesitate to seek help from a licensed Christian counselor. I’ve learned so much about caring for my heart through counseling. In fact, it’s what led me to the job I love — being a Christian counselor and helping others care for their hearts.
As you grow in caring for your heart, you’ll become much better at caring for your spouse’s heart. I often say, “As you sit with your own heart, be amazed at how much easier it is to sit with other’s hearts.”
Identifying feelings and caring for your heart are worth the effort; doing so benefits you and strengthens your marriage.