What You Can Learn From Your Painful Emotions

Contrary to what is natural, you need to learn to relate to, rather than ignore, your painful emotions.

Excerpted from
Boundaries for Your Soul
By Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller


What are boundaries? Your “boundaries” are the borders or limits of who you are and what you do, and what behaviors (your own and those of others) you will and will not accept. Your spirit, mind, heart, will and body all have boundaries. Understanding these limits helps you honor your individuality and the individuality of others.

To use an external boundary as an example, when you have a conversation with another person, you don’t stand so close that you step on her toes or so far away that you yell from a distance. Instead, you stand at arm’s reach so that the two of you can hear each other comfortably. As another example, if a good friend moves away, you may feel too far from him and need to find new ways to maintain your connection. On the other hand, if he were to crowd you emotionally, you would need to get some space. You may feel too far from an estranged relative whom you haven’t seen in years or too close to an overbearing one who visits too often and stays too long. Essentially, you can draw closer to people at will or move farther away in order to establish comfortable distance.

Likewise, there are two opposite, unhealthy ways of relating to your painful emotions. You can keep them too close to you, or you can push them too far away. If they’re too close, you risk being overwhelmed by them. If they’re too far, you risk being cut off from them, only to be influenced by them in harmful ways.

You may wonder why you would ever want to draw painful feelings in closer. Isn’t it better to keep them away? Think of it this way: Your painful emotions are being experienced by parts of your soul that need to be heard, honored and understood in order for you to be able to help them. Furthermore, the parts of your soul experiencing these difficult emotions have much to teach you when you get to know them. As with the people in your life, the key is to establish comfortable distance with these parts of your soul.

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So, how do you know when painful emotions are too close or too far?

When you’re too close to painful emotions, you might have thoughts like these:

Other people always let me down. (victimization)
I’ll keep giving and suffering for everyone else’s sake. (martyrdom)
It’s always going to be this way … I’ll never be happy. (hopelessness)

When you are too far from painful emotions, you might find yourself thinking things like this:

She made me get angry. She’s the problem! (blaming)
It’s too painful to talk about … I’ll just change the subject. (avoiding)
What hopes and dreams? Dreaming hurts too much. My life is fine the way it is. (denying)

If you’re experiencing victimization, martyrdom or hopelessness, you might be too close to painful feelings and stuck in a rut of old habits and beliefs. This way of life robs you of confidence and joy. On the other hand, if you tend toward blaming, avoiding and denying, you’re trying to keep your painful feelings far away. You’re disowning important gifts that the parts of you experiencing these feelings have to offer. What’s more, denied emotions don’t actually go away. Instead, they reappear in even more harmful ways. It’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole at the fair. You hit one pesky emotion down with a mallet, only to have it pop up again when you least expect it. To lead emotions effectively, you can focus on them, befriend them and invite Jesus to be near—then unburden them and integrate them with the other parts of your soul. We call this process taking a You-Turn.


Most clients come to us initially with the desire to talk about someone else—their spouse, boss, child, friend and so on. We get it: When conflict detonates a frenzy of emotion, the natural response is to become reactive and to accuse the other. Jesus addressed this tendency to blame others. In his Sermon on the Mount, he challenged the crowd to work on their own personal growth: “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5).

Jesus wants you to get to know the state of your soul. When you’re feeling angry, what else is going on inside of you? Is there another part of you that’s hurting? If so, it needs to be drawn in closer so you can give it the care it needs. Or, is there a part of you that has become reckless and needs some gentle boundaries? Notice the cues. Listen to your pain. When conflicted emotions threaten to derail you, seize the opportunity to evaluate your internal boundaries. What thoughts and feelings need your time, attention and redirection? These overwhelming parts of your soul present opportunities for your growth and healing. After all, internal conflict is growth trying to happen.

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But wait! That person said such cruel things! a part of you might be piping up. And that may be true. Whether or not you were provoked unjustly, however, it’s most helpful to notice how you responded to the situation. Taking a You-Turn helps you gain clarity about your own thoughts and feelings so you can respond intentionally instead of becoming overwhelmed.

So, to take a You-Turn, follow these Five Steps:

Step 1: Focus on an overwhelming part of yourself.
Step 2: Befriend this part you don’t like.
Step 3: Invite Jesus to draw near.
Step 4: Unburden this weary part.
Step 5: Integrate it into your internal team of rivals.

As you engage in this process, you’ll move from seeing your undesirable inclinations as problems to seeing them as allies on your path to peace and wholeness. You’ll become more curious about your troubling thoughts and emotions instead of disliking them. This compassionate posture toward yourself will help you develop what have been called “those wise restraints that make [us] free.”

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Excerpted from Boundaries for Your Soul by Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller. © 2018 by Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller. Used by permission of Nelson Books. ThomasNelson.com