Emotions: the Check Engine Light of the Heart

According to Chip Dodd’s book The Voice of the Heart, people experience eight core emotions: hurt, sadness, loneliness, fear, anger, shame, guilt, and gladness. Each of these emotions represent an essential part of being human. We experience all of these feelings as we move throughout our daily lives. Our emotions are like the check engine light of a car, in the sense that we experience a feeling, which communicates to us that there is something going within us that we need to examine. When the check engine light comes on, you may not necessarily know what’s going on under the car’s hood. You need to respond to that light by checking the car for issues that may not be obvious just by looking at it. Our emotions function in a similar way. When we feel sad, for example, it typically signals to us that there is something we are lacking or longing for. Feeling guilt is a signal that we may have done harm to someone and we feel badly about our actions. Each time an emotion comes up, it’s telling us that something has happened or has triggered something within us that needs our attention. 

All of these core emotions serve a specific purpose for us and have their own benefit, according to Dodd. Sadness brings to light what we value, honor, and miss. Our anger tells us when an injustice has occurred, helps motivate us to action, and stirs up desire in our hearts. When we feel shame, we have the opportunity to experience humility and recognize our humanness. Guilt gives us the chance to apologize and make things right in our relationships. If you feel hurt, the benefit is that you can name your wounds and start to find healing. Feelings of loneliness remind us of the importance of reaching out and connecting with others. Experiencing fear can actually help us feel prepared and ready for action. And being glad benefits us when we experience joy and fulfillment in life. 

However, all of these emotions also have what Dodd calls an “impairment,” which means that if we don’t acknowledge and address the feeling, it can become damaging to our emotional health. In other words, if we ignore the check engine light, our car may just break down on the side of the road and leave us stranded. Hurt can turn into resentment, sadness into self-pity. If gone unchecked, our anger becomes depression, and loneliness turns to apathy. Fear can move into rage or anxiety, and shame has potential to become toxic shame or self-rejection. Our guilt may soon become pride, and our gladness turns to happiness or excitement when moving towards impairment. 

Let me give you an example of how an emotion could play out either way– benefiting or impairing the person. Let’s take loneliness, for example. Joe has just moved to a new city for a job. While he’s excited about the new job and very passionate about his work, the new city is on the opposite side of the country and he has no family or friends there. In the beginning, he throws himself into his work and keeps himself busy, which distracts from the fact that he doesn’t have a community in his new town. But soon, he realizes that he’s lonely. Really lonely. He misses having friends and family nearby, people who really know him. His co-workers are great people, and they chat at the office, but they haven’t connected outside of work. 

If Joe acknowledges his loneliness and accepts that he’s feeling this way, rather than ignoring the feeling and trying to distract himself more, his loneliness can benefit him. Joe decides that he wants to try to make friends and takes the courageous leap to ask some co-workers to hang out after work. He also joins a gym and does some fitness classes where he meets people and invites them for coffee after class. Meanwhile, he reaches out to family and friends back home to maintain connections and relationships. Joe’s ability to recognize and respond to his loneliness has put him in a position where it’s more likely that he’ll start to build a community in his new city. It’s not perfect and it’s not always easy, but it’s better than the alternative. 

The alternative is that Joe ignores his feelings of loneliness and pushes his feelings away. He works when he gets home, watches a lot of TV, and doesn’t go out. He knows he could reach out to friends and family at home, but what’s the point? None of his co-workers seem that interested in spending time with him and everyone already has friends. He gets used to being alone and becomes entrenched in the idea that he’ll never really make friends. This turns into feelings of apathy too. He doesn’t care about making friends anymore. He doesn’t care about exploring the new city he lives in. He stops feeling excited about his work too. He’s just going through the motions. Joe’s refusal to acknowledge and accept his loneliness has pushed him to the point of feeling apathetic about most aspects of his life. 

The difference here is quite obvious. In one scenario, Joe is able to benefit from his loneliness, but only if he chooses to open the hood of the car and see what’s going on. In the other scenario, he ignores the check engine light and his car breaks down on the side of the road. 

The work we are called to do is to allow ourselves the experience of feeling emotions and to listen to what they are telling us. We must learn to identify and name what we’re feeling, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s not enough just to name it, if we don’t try to understand what our feelings are telling us about our hearts, hopes, dreams, wishes, and values. Are you feeling lonely? I bet your heart is longing to be known and to feel real intimacy. Are you feeling angry? What is your anger telling you? Has someone wronged you, or is something unfair and injustice happening? Maybe you can find the fire within yourself to make things happen and enact change. 

Our emotions are a gift as long as we are allowing ourselves to examine what they’re communicating to us. We can choose to benefit from the gift of our emotions or to push them down, stuff them out, and experience the impairment of our emotions. Next time your “check engine light” comes on, don’t keep driving and pretend nothing’s wrong. Open the hood of the car, figure out where the problem is (maybe with help from a professional- i.e., a counselor), and take the next steps towards fixing it.

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