Can People Change Their Feelings?

by James Rudy Gray

It would be understating the obvious to say that a person is made up of mind, emotions, and will. However, counselors are often faced with what seems like an insurmountable problem: helping individuals change how they feel.

Can people change how they feel? William Glasser points out that the psychiatric establishment basically says "no." Therefore, their treatment protocol is drug therapy. Dr. Glasser insists that happiness is mental health and unhappiness is the opposite. He further stresses that when a person is unhappy, he develops many different kinds of symptoms to deal with that basic condition of unhappiness. For example, depression is the most common symptom people choose in order to cope with unhappiness. Depression is a way to restrain anger. In fact, some of the anti-depressants can lead a person to angry expressions.

It seems to me there are three basic answers to the question, "Can persons change how they feel?

"No. People are generally helpless over their feelings, and need medication."

"Yes. People simply need to change the way they think." While there is some truth in that, it falls short.

"Yes a person can change the way he feels by knowing God's truth and being empowered by God's Spirit."

You and I don't have much control over how our senses take in information. We have been conditioned by any number of experiences. We develop a personal history: Perhaps one nearly died in a traffic accident near a certain building. Every time he goes by that building he may feel certain things. We cannot change our personal history but we can do something. Gary McKay and Don Dinkmeyer suggest three things a person can do in their book, How You Feel Is Up to You:

Be more alert to your physical sensations,

Change the meaning you give to an event,

Teach yourself new ways to respond.

Philippians 3:13 can help a person better understand how to change in the present even though he cannot change the past: "Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold as yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead" Paul is not suggesting that we can erase from our memories or emotional history something that has happened to us. We cannot change the past. We can change, with God's help, what the past means to us in the present. We can face the hurts, traumas, disappointments, etc., of the past, recognize them as real, and then choose to learn from them. We may not have answers for a past injustice, for instance, but we can accept it, process it, and deal with it as reality.

Repressing our feelings is an unhappy state. Facing our feelings may be uncomfortable but it also has the potential of freeing us for healthy living in the present. Paul goes on to say in Philippians 4:13 that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. The context of that verse has to do with physical and material things, but it does seem to be a transferable concept. We can use the truth of that verse to encourage a client to accept the past, adjust to the circumstances, and choose to move forward.

If Glasser is right and happiness is mental health, then Christian people-helpers are in a tremendous position to help Christians in their journey toward wholeness and meaning. Matthew 6:33 ("Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.") is a verse that has to do with contentment, as it is specifically related to physical and material things. Again, this concept can be transferred to our mental and emotional state. Happiness is the result of a choice. It is a by-product. When we seek God first, we are likely to find the wonderful product of spiritual happiness. When we seek happiness, we are likely to find unhappiness.

Can a person change how he feels? Yes, with God's help. Can a counselor or pastor be a tool in helping that person change how he feels? Absolutely!

James Rudy Gray is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. He pastors Utica Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C.

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