Emotions are part of our physical nature. Angels do not have feelings or emotions, because they are purely spiritual beings. Our emotions are important to understanding our physical needs (such as hunger, pain or the need to sleep). But also, emotions are vital signals about important situations in the world or with other people: for example, I feel love and joy when I am with those I love, and I experience fear or hatred in the presence of evil.
Christ, who was true God and true man, also had feelings: he became angry with the Pharisees (Mark 3:5) and the money changers outside the temple (Mt 21:12), he cried when Lazarus died (Jn 11:35), he was in agony and distress in the Garden of Gesthemane (Mt 27:46). His emotions were always perfectly appropriate to the situation.
Our emotions are not bad; in fact, they are critically important. People who suffer brain damage that negates their emotional responses become unable to make decisions! Emotions help us make decisions and they give us insight into potential dangers in the environment. They are critical to our interpersonal relationships, they are signals that aid us in interpreting the world and other people, and they aid us in communicating and problem-solving.
Much of our emotional tendencies (even our moods) are due to our God-given temperament. Some people are, by temperament, more “emotional” than others. Some people seem naturally more sensitive to what others think and to what they feel. Some people are naturally easy-going and calm; others are intense; still others are easily angered or emotionally volatile. Differences in temperament profoundly affect how each of us reacts to the circumstances of our life.
The choleric tends to have quick, intense and long-lived reactions—making him decisive, driven, and passionate about his pursuits. He tends to be impulsive, and a bit prone to anger. He tends to be less sensitive or emotionally attuned, more goal-oriented and results-oriented. The choleric is your classic “type A” personality.
The phlegmatic temperament is emotionally even-keeled, easy-going, and calm. The emotional life of a phlegmatic is steady and understated, he is never too high or too low, his reactions are always low-keyed. He rarely gets angry or raises his voice. He is quiet, cooperative, and well-balanced.
The sanguine, on the other hand, has quick and intense—but short-lived—reactions. His emotions are up and down, but he does not hold a grudge. He is the proverbial “people person”—talkative, outgoing, and sociable. The sanguine is affectionate, fun-loving, and enthusiastic. He struggles for self-control, as his emotions and lively curiosity often get the better of him.
The melancholic is 180 degrees from the sanguine. Where the sanguine tends to be positive and up-beat emotionally, the melancholic often struggles with negativity and discouragement. His emotions may be slow to rise to the surface, but they are deep and long-lasting–and very vehement–when they do appear. He tends to be very introverted, thoughtful, sensitive, and self-sacrificing.
Our temperament is a gift from God that we should seek to understand and to accept. We may struggle to curb our tongue or to reign in our temper. Or, we may struggle to speak up when we would rather fade into the woodwork. We may struggle to contain our frequently changing emotions. No temperament is better than or preferable to another—each has its own peculiar strengths and weaknesses. Many saints had to struggle to control (if not overcome) their own difficult temperaments. Saint Vincent de Paul, for example, described himself as “naturally of a very bilious temperament and very subject to anger” and Saint Francis de Sales had a very passionate temperament.
But whether we are emotionally volatile or quite calm and laid-back by temperament, we all—at times—struggle with the appropriateness of our emotional responses. Because of Original Sin, our emotions are not always appropriate to the situation.
We have all experienced those moments (or days) when our emotions seem out of control: we burst into tears over a critical comment, our mood is up and down but never peaceful, we sulk over an insensitive comment by a colleague, we are filled with bitter envy at your friend’s new car, or we lay awake at night worrying. At such times, we feel that our emotions are inappropriate to the occasion, some how “out of balance.”
In the midst of an emotional outburst or an anxious melt-down, we may be quite aware that we should be responding differently–calmly and with self-control. We have a strong suspicion that we are over-reacting; yet, we give in to our emotions anyway. We may later regret the feeling we had, the intensity with which we responded, or the angry or hateful words that accompanied it. At times like these, we are tempted to suppress our emotions, ignore them, or otherwise attempt to control them so they do not affect us.
But this is not always the best choice.
In emotion focused therapy, this appropriateness or inappropriateness of emotions to the situation is called either adaptive or maladaptive. If the emotional response is adaptive, it adds value or creates a sense of well-being. If maladaptive, the emotional response is unhealthy, intense, and debilitating over time. In emotion-focused therapy, the goal is not to treat our emotions in either of two extreme ways: to either completely suppress them, or to allow them complete sway. Neither is healthy. Rather, we are encouraged to examine our emotional response and judge whether it is beneficial to us or not. Is this emotional response appropriate to the situation? Is it healthy, beneficial? Or is my emotionality negatively affecting my relationships? Am I feeling less balanced, less organized?
The key is not to suppress, ignore, or control the emotion (which is more difficult, and usually has unhealthy repercussions), but to examine the emotional response, using my intellect and reason. Can this feeling be used as a guide, or is it something that should not be followed. This sort of rational, well-balanced approach is very Catholic.
We can learn about ourselves through this process. For example, Monica was feeling overwhelmed being at home all day with the toddler and the new baby. When her husband Craig came home from work, he announced, “I’m starved! I didn’t get lunch today, because I was in meetings all day! What’s for dinner?” Monica bursts into angry tears, because she hasn’t even started dinner. She feels anxious, resentful, and ashamed, and lashes out at Craig, “You have no idea how hard it is for me, just trying to get the laundry done and the house picked up! How could I go to the store when the baby cried all day and Joey was having a temper tantrum every time I tried to get him dressed?” Instantly she regrets her angry words and her over-the-top response. She suddenly realizes that she over-reacted because the situation had triggered a memory of her parents fighting when she was a small child, and Monica’s feeling anxious and responsible for keeping the peace. She realizes that she should not take it out on Craig, and it is healthier to acknowledge what originally caused her pain. Perhaps, if these maladaptive responses occur frequently, Monica might want to seek counseling to deal with the troubling memories of her childhood.
Intense feelings of neglect or rejection or abuse from the past can be activated by a present situation, giving rise to feelings that are not really appropriate to the present situation. By reflecting on our emotional response, we can learn much about ourselves, our relationships, and about life.