Does my emotional health really matter?
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Debra FiletaDebra Fileta is a woman in love with Jesus. That love has been the driving motivator propelling her forward in her pursuits as a wife, a mother, a licensed professional counselor, speaker, and author. Debra specializes in dating, marriage, and relationship issues along with a spectrum of mental health disorders and issues. She is a regular contributor at Relevant Magazine and Crosswalk.com and has also had her work featured in numerous other Web sites and publications. She has worked with The 70...more
Is your emotional health on the back burner? Counselor, speaker, and relationship expert Debra Fileta explores how your emotional health might be controlling more than you think.
Does my emotional health really matter?
Dave: What I remember about going to church as a little boy—like six, seven, eight years old—with my mom—
Ann: That’s good you have memories of that. I don’t have memories of going to church,—
Ann: —because I didn’t. Yes, I didn’t go.
Dave: Well, they are not good memories really; because I can remember—you know, we’re going to church—my dad has just walked out with his girlfriend/left our family; my little brother just died of leukemia—and we’d walk in. I remember hearing this conversation many times: “So, Janice,”—that’s my mom’s name—“how are you doing?” “Oh, good; doing really good.”
I look up at her like: “No, we’re not! We’re not; we’re not doing…” “This is…”—really—but at church, you were supposed to put on—I learned this—you were supposed to put on the mask.
Ann: —put on a mask.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: If you had problems or had things going on in your life, those were not shared there. It was: “Put on the mask; smile, because God is good all the time; and you’re life is okay.”
Ann: That’s so sad. Like think of the trauma, as a little boy, that you were in at that moment.
Ann: It would have been great for you to just be able to share your little heart of all the little things going on.
Dave: Obviously, as a pastor, I always had a phrase: “Drop your mask at the door; we don’t wear masks here”; because the truth is we are not okay.
Dave: Today, we get to talk about emotional health, spiritual health, even physical health with an author who wrote a book, which is a great title, Are You Really OK? Debra Fileta, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Debra: Thank you so much for having me and for being brave enough to tackle that question. [Laughter]
Ann: I think it is a great question that we should all ask.
Dave: Very few people are writing about this emotional health, especially in the church and in the Christian community, because it’s the place, where you sort of say, “God’s got it. I have enough faith; I’m okay, so I’m good,”—when we’re not always good.
Obviously, this became a passion of yours as a therapist, as a mom—four kids—amazing husband John; we met at lunch.
Ann: You’re a speaker. You are even a contributor to Relevant Magazine. You have your own podcast, which is cool because it’s a call-in podcast with questions. What’s the name of it?
Debra: Love and Relationships
Ann: So you have listeners calling in with their questions,—
Ann: —and you are answering their questions.
Dave: Let’s dive into what you’ve been calling the deep end, where I don’t always want to swim. [Laughter]
Ann: And this is your soapbox, you said.
Debra: Yes, this is the passion that God has given me right now: is to really have Christians get real about how they are doing and realize, “Just because you are a Christian, doesn’t mean you are healthy.”
Ann: Why is this so important and passionate to you?
Debra: Well, for a couple of reasons. First of all, with working with my clients, seeing people from all over the country—different socioeconomic status, different leaders, teachers, pastors, celebrities—all have one thing in common; and that is, the journey with emotional and mental health/the struggle with emotional and mental health.
They did this study called “The Better-Than-Average Effect,” where they took a lot of people, and they asked them questions about themselves—assessment questions—“How moral are you compared to your peers?” “How good of a driver are you compared to your peers?” “How nice are you?”—all these different questions, rating themselves.
The majority of people rated themselves as better-than-average; but the majority can’t be better-than-average, mathematically speaking. [Laughter] Someone has got to fall below the mean; right? It’s just the reminder that we tend to assume that we are better than we really are. I think that problem is even bigger in the church. I think we can acknowledge, easily, that our souls are saved and that Jesus has saved us; and we can focus on our spiritual growth and our spiritual health, all the while, our emotional and mental health are lacking.
What we don’t realize is that our lack of emotional and mental health is actually sabotaging our spiritual health, because it keeps us limited in our growth and maturity. God calls us to full healing. When the disciples asked Jesus: “What’s the greatest commandment?” Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,”—four parts. Heart represents emotional health; soul represents spiritual health; mind represents mental health; strength represents our physical health. I think, sometimes, we get kind of caught up loving God with our soul; and we forget all the other areas are important too.
Ann: Yet, each one affects the other.
Debra: And add to that the effects of social media now, where we, literally, are conditioned to put our best face out there—our picture-perfect lives/these snippets—that I think sometimes we are so used to living on that superficial, perfect level that we forget that there is more going on underneath the surface.
Then we struggle with something, as a society, that I call toxic optimism, where we want to be so optimistic: “Everything is good,” and “Life is good,”—and make it Christian: “God is good all the time,”—that we forget to really acknowledge and grieve, and get to the root of what is hurting, what is wrong, what we need to adjust.
But when we look at Jesus, the most incredible example, He wasn’t a man who ignored how He felt, even the hard emotions. I mean, Jesus felt the spectrum of emotions. What makes Him different than us is how He handled His emotions; He expressed them in a healthy way. We sometimes don’t even acknowledge them; [in other words], repress them or we handle them in unhealthy ways.
The process of becoming an emotionally-healthy person starts with acknowledging what I feel and then learning to express it in a healthy way.
Dave: Yes; help us understand that. I didn’t come to Christ until my junior year in college, so I’m 20 years old. One of things I think I picked up—maybe, I was taught it; maybe, I just picked it up—was now, that I’m in Christ, it’s all about the spiritual. The emotions don’t matter much anymore. You just sort of—if you are having a bad day or you’re struggling—and I was like: “I don’t have panic attacks,” “I don’t have insecurities like everybody else. I’m better than most people”; right?—[Laughter]
Debra: —“better than average.”
Dave: —that’s what I’m thinking.
I was sort of taught, “It’s all spiritual”; and if you have any negative emotion, you just push it aside, and you pray, and you trust God, and you move on. You don’t deal with it. That’s not a big part of your life anymore; it’s Jesus.
Obviously, I’ve learned that was very bad theology; and you know that better than anybody. Help us understand: “Why are the emotions important?” and “How do we deal with them?”
Debra: Well, “Why is this bad theology?”—like you said—and “Why is this important?” [It] is because human beings are like a volcano. When you think about it, what is going on underneath the surface of a volcano is that there is pressure building. The magma is creating all of this pressure. Emotions are kind of like that—the stress, the discouragement, the insecurities, even the good emotions—are building pressure. When we don’t acknowledge and identify those emotions, the pressure just builds, and builds, and builds until it finds the point of least resistance. And just like a volcano, we are faced with an emotional explosion.
Everyone’s emotional explosion looks a little bit different, but the idea is that there are things going on underneath the surface that we haven’t dealt with in a healthy way. Part of being emotionally-healthy people is learning, number one, to name what we are feeling—just like Jesus did—to put words to those feelings.
Let me remind you: “This isn’t a gender thing.” I think some people think, “Well, men aren’t as good at expressing their emotions.” If you are not convinced by the example of Jesus, look at David; look at the Psalms. This isn’t a gender thing because this is something we learn how to do or not learn how to do. Maybe, society conditions men not to be good learners when it comes to emotional expression; but this is a big part of it.
Ann: When you say, “Acknowledge it,” or “Name what you are feeling,”—like talk to us, as a listener, [who’s] never done this. They are listening and hearing this for the first time; and they are thinking, “I think I’m okay.” What do you mean by: “Let’s start naming what you are feeling”? How do they begin?
Debra: Yes; in Are You Really OK?, I give you some practical things. Let’s talk through some of those things. There is a lot of homework in this book; this isn’t a book you read—
Debra: —and just be done with. It’s something you kind of have to work through, almost like a therapy session.
One thing I will have you do is a timeline. Talk me through the things in your life, from childhood to today, that have impacted you, both good and bad. Let’s talk through some of those significant things.
Another thing I have you do is an assessment. That assessment is actually something you can download/print out. It will talk you through check boxes—to go through some of the things, in the past 12 months, that have caused stress in your life—because even good things can cause stress. A marriage is ranked just a little bit lower on stress than a divorce.
Ann: Wow! [Laughter]
Debra: If you think about it—
Debra: —they are both significant life changes.
Dave: Wait; wait. Most of us think a marriage would just bring emotional health—
Ann: —and life.
Dave: —rather than cause stress, but it really is a stressor.
Debra: It’s a stressor.
Ann: Well, I’m thinking of—even the timeline—because this is something Dave and I have done, as a couple; but we have done it with other couples, where someone will get up, and they will write out a little picture of their timeline in their life. They will share the highs and lows and the things that happened in their lives. Almost every time we’ve done this with couples—and even each other—like to hear the pain that you’ve gone through/what you’ve felt—
Dave: —a lot of trauma.
Ann: Oh! And we cry, hearing people’s stories. Then I think, at the end, we’ve always prayed for each other. It’s the most beautiful, intimate thing that we’ve done for each other and within our family group of friends too. It’s beautiful, so I love that.
So you are doing the timeline; but even the—what was the second one?
Debra: The stress scale.
Ann: The stress scale; that’s really good.
Debra: Another activity is the emotional wheel. I talk about this man named Robert Plutchik, who came up with this emotional wheel—it’s like a color wheel—and gave each emotion a different color. The mixture of two emotions produces a third emotion. If you google a list of emotions, you can find lists with 300-500 different words. I mean, think about all the emotions out there that we don’t really take the time to identify. A lot of times, we’re just like, “Well, I’m just stressed.”
Ann: —or “How do you feel?” “Fine.”
Debra: “Good,” “I’m good.”
Debra: “Good,” isn’t actually an emotion. “Good,” is a description of emotion—some emotions feel good; some feel not so good—but “Good,” itself is not an emotion.
One of the number-one answers people give me, when I ask them how they are feeling about something, is: “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure.” Well, “Think about it: we’ve got to do some digging to identify/put words to what we are feeling. And then, express what we are feeling”; that is step two.
Dave: How do you help them dig? Because when you said that, I’m like, “Oh my goodness! How many times did I say that?” [Laughter] Ann would say, “What are you feeling?” I’m like, “I don’t know.”
Dave: And I didn’t know how to process it; now, I know there was stuff connected to my childhood I had never dealt with.
Ann: You had shut down your feelings.
Dave: But as a married man, I am wanting to tell her. I really felt like, “I don’t know. I feel something, but…”
Debra: You know, something that strikes me about your story—and I know this isn’t a therapy session—
Dave: Oh, here we go.
Ann: Oh, here we go! What?
Debra: —but when you were just in the intro, you talked about what you went through:—
Debra: —your parents divorcing, your sibling dying of leukemia. When we go through such intense emotional incidents, what our body does, oftentimes, is it numbs our feelings; because that’s how we survive. I have to: “The emotions are so loud; if I don’t turn down the volume, I’m not going to survive this.” We turn down the volume of the emotions—our body kind of naturally does that—but then what ends up happening is we live life with the volume down.
Ann: Oh, that is so interesting.
Dave: That’s what—I know this isn’t a Dave therapy session—but that is what many have complimented me on. They say, “Oh, you are just so steady.
Dave: “You’re steady.”
Debra: That’s what it looks like from the outside—the steadiness—but you know, and you’ve done the work to know this—but really, it’s an inability to go there: “I’d rather not. I’m just so comfortable with being here—
Debra: —“in this easy zone.”
Ann: Well, just last month, Dave happened to talk to his sister.
Dave: Hey, can we be done with me now? [Laughter]
Debra: Love it, Dave.
Dave: Can we move on to somebody else?
Ann: Well, it’s just so interesting; because their family was so filled with trauma. His siblings really don’t talk to one another, but his sister has become a therapist. She’s in her 70s.
Ann: She said, “My clients are just now teaching me what it means to feel.”
Debra: Oh, man!
Ann: It’s exactly what you are saying, Debra: “I’ve had to turn down all of my emotions to the point, where I wasn’t feeling; and now, for the first time, I’m able to turn it up.”
It makes you just give grace. That’s why even asking your spouse, “Let’s talk about our stories and what you felt,”—that’s a great beginning—but I like this/even naming the feelings—that’s good.
Dave: Yes, I think it’s interesting—and you know this better than anybody—when you do sort of trace that extension cord—when I taught about this, as a preacher, I had an extension cord wrapped around me and said, “Man, I’ve learned my emotions and things in my life are connected. They are plugged into something,—
Dave: —“and you’ve got to go on this journey.”
I remember, early in our marriage, Ann said to me one day, when I blew up at her for something—she just turned to me—I think the kids were very little; so we were married seven, eight/maybe, ten years—she said, “You know, I’m not going to share things with you anymore because that’s all you do: you just blow up.” [Laughter] I’m laughing now because, when she said that, I go, “What are you talking about?!” She just looked at me like, “Exhibit A”; you know.
I’ll never forget; it began a journey for me. This was 30-some years ago, and I went to my men’s group—I have three other guys—and I said to these guys, one Wednesday morning at six am; we met every week—I said, “Hey, let me ask you a question: ‘Of all the emotions you experience, as a man, which one do you experience the most?’” They all said, “That’s easy; anger.”
Dave: Anger is definitely it.
Debra: Here is how I knew, because anger is a secondary emotion.
Dave: That is the journey I went on!
Debra: It’s the safe emotion.
Dave: I didn’t know that.
Debra: It’s the easiest one to express, because it really doesn’t require vulnerability. You are in control.
Debra: You are the lion.
Debra: But what’s underneath anger? There is always something more, like: frustration, hurt, embarrassment, insecurity, feeling like you are not appreciated.
For so many people, the journey of learning to express how you feel is questioning: that is the third step. So identifying what you feel, expressing what you feel, but number three: questioning what you feel. Your feelings are real, but they are not always truth. Like you talked about the extension cord; I talk about a string of Christmas lights. The emotion lights up in different seasons; it might not be a true emotion. It might feel—it’s real, and I feel it—but maybe, my body is signaling something that is not true.
For example, when you get worried about something—but let’s say you’ve got something coming up—let’s just even give you an example from my life: travelling. Oftentimes, I find myself feeling worried that something might happen to the kids. My brain just starts going on these rabbit trails of worry, and fear, and stress. That feeling is real, but it’s not necessarily rooted in truth. The truth is that God is in control; the truth is that this is what He has called me to do; the truth is that worrying cannot add one day to my life.
So though my feelings are rooted in something, they may not always be true; and learning to differentiate that is really important. You have to question those emotions: “Where is this coming from?” “Is this real?” “Is this rooted in God’s Word?” “What is this feeling rooted in?” Then you begin to have control over your emotions than having them being in control of you.
One of my favorite things, as I was writing the chapter on emotional health, was looking at the life of Jesus and the different emotions He experienced. One of my favorite, most powerful things, was seeing Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He was bleeding, sweat was pouring out of His body in little droplets of blood. There are only three times in history that they’ve identified that; and it’s called hematidrosis. It’s a condition, where your body is under so much stress, that they think it’s a fight-or-flight response that causes your body to react in that way.
When you think about Jesus feeling that—His body was telling Him to run; His feelings were like, “Get out of here; this isn’t safe,”—His feelings were real, but what did He do next? He relied on God’s truth: “Lord, if this is Your will…”/”Whatever Your will is, that is what I am choosing.” He chose to stay, even though His feelings told Him to run. He questioned those emotions, and He didn’t listen to them; He listened to the Father.
For all of us, it’s like: “Just because I feel something, doesn’t mean it is truth. What is God’s truth, and how does that inform what I do next?”
Ann: As we wrap up today, and talking about emotional health, Debra, give us some homework [for] our listeners. Like one is: “Get the book; kind of go through it.” But as they’re listening, what’s the first step for them to take?
Debra: I think emotional journaling is such an important part of the process. If you’ve never really taken the time to think about how you feel and express it—and maybe, you feel like you don’t know somebody that you can express your emotions to—start by journaling. Get a blank page; open your heart before the Lord, and just say, “Okay, if I am going underneath the surface, what are some things that I have felt over the past month? When I say, ‘I’m stressed,’ let me write out some of the things that are actually happening and the feeling that they induce.” Begin to put words to how you feel and bring it before the Lord.
Ann: That’s good.
Dave: I know that, on my journey with the anger being a second emotion—which, before that conversation with my buddies, I had never heard that—because I went on sort of a journey, like you are saying. I was like: “What is going on?—this anger thing with me.” I learned the things you were saying, like, “Oh, I’m skipping right past the first emotion: hurt/frustration to the thing.”
I learned over the years—I’m not saying I’m great at it—but I call it the ABC’s of handling your emotions: “A”: “Acknowledge it,” which often, even as a follower of Christ: “Oh, I’m not angry,” “Oh, yes, you are!” But we think it is sin; and it is not sin, but it can lead to sin.
Dave: “B” is: “Back-track to that first emotion. What was it that I went by?” Often, for me, it was emotional hurt; I’m like, “I don’t want to admit that. What you said/what you did hurt me.
Dave: “I’m just going to respond in anger,”—nope; that’s a bad way to handle it.
“C,” then was: “Confess it. Speak out that emotion in an appropriate way.” I never knew how to do that. It was two things: “I’m not okay, but God can help me to be okay.”
Dave: Everything you are saying in your book is such a gift. If we would take that journey, that you are telling us to take, it can change—not only me—it’ll change my marriage. It will change my legacy—
Dave: —because you are laying patterns for your future generations out of your home.
Bob: You’ve probably heard it said, at some point, that: “Hurt people hurt people.” If you have been hurt yourself/if you are hurt, you are more likely to hurt other people. Jesus comes to us and says, “I want to heal those hurts. I want to help you become healthy. I want to give you abundant life so that, out of that abundant life, you can help other people get healthy.”
Debra Fileta has been talking today about how we diagnosis our own spiritual, and emotional, and mental health; and I think, in this particular season, many of us need to pull back and go: “How am I really? Am I really okay?” Debra’s book is called Are You Really OK?—and it’s a book to help us do just that—to do a self-analysis.
It’s a book we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to get a copy; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY and order the book by phone. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. The number to call to get Debra Fileta’s book, Are You Really OK?, is 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, here at FamilyLife, our goal is to effectively develop godly marriages and families. We believe godly marriages and families can change the world one home at a time. The month of December is actually a critical month for us, as it is for most ministries. It’s during this month when we hear from listeners, who let us know how God has used the ministry of FamilyLife in their lives over the past year; and they make a yearend contribution to help continue the work of FamilyLife into the coming year.
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You can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. Please do be praying for us that we would be able to take full advantage of the matching gift that has been made available during the month of December. We look forward to hearing from you.
We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when we’re going to talk about how hurts from the past can sometimes show up in the present and take us by surprise. What do we do when that happens? Debra Fileta will be here; we hope you can be here as well.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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