In our recent Bible studies we have been considering thoughts and feelings and how these are intertwined. We have been asked the question, 'Is it possible to control our thoughts and feelings?' As a person of the Choleric/Melancholic temperament thoughts and feelings are so innate to my character that I know and understand nothing else. As a Choleric I am a ‘thinker’, constantly thinking and trying to find answers and solutions to problems. I love learning, I enjoy finding out about all sorts of things. As a Melancholic I am unable to ‘switch off’ the feelings the thoughts sometimes produce.
Are we able to control our thoughts and feelings? Psychologists and psychiatrists agree that we cannot stop the thoughts and feelings occurring in the first instance, but what we can do is choose what we do with those thoughts and feelings. So ultimately the answer to the above question is ‘no’ and ‘yes’. In our studies we also considered whether the thought or the feeling comes first? Perhaps, like the chicken and the egg scenario, it is impossible to have one without the other?
I don’t like Monday mornings. I don’t know why, perhaps it is because I enjoy the weekends too much. Often, I will wake up Monday morning with a feeling of melancholy that I can’t explain. The feeling sits there and I have to force myself out of bed to face the day. Once I’m up it’s usually fine and I even wonder why I felt the way I did? My husband will tell me that he notices a change in my mood Sunday evening. There is no thought process going on here, it is just a feeling that wells up inside me. However, that melancholy feeling can produce very negative thought patterns, if I let it. If even something small goes wrong on Monday it can produce very subjective and negative thoughts which can consume and produce a terribly negative attitude towards myself and my circumstances and even others. I do not need a particular reason to feel ‘down’ it just happens! I have come to realise and accept that it is part of my innate disposition as a Melancholic. However, from a process of lifelong learning and attending the ‘Understanding Yourself’ courses run by HCC, I have learned that, although I cannot stop these feelings occurring, I can choose what I do with them.
Nurture, as well as nature, has a big part to play in the way we think and feel about ourselves. I read a story somewhere about two brothers who grew up with an alcoholic father. One brother decided very early on that he would not become like his father. He went on to have a successful career and marriage. The other brother succumbed to alcoholism as his father had done. Two brothers who grew up with the same home circumstances, why did they take such different paths in life? If a child grows up in a home where, for example, a lot of emphasis is put on achievement; getting good grades in school, being top of the class, excelling at sport, being captain of the rugby team………then that child may grow into adulthood feeling they are of no value unless they are achieving and successful in whatever they choose to do in life. Their value and self-worth will come from what they do and not from who they are. If they have a strong extrovert temperament they may well rise to the challenge (and burn themselves out in the process). If they have a more introvert temperament, they may well turn their feelings inwards and become very negative about themselves, especially if they are compared to another sibling/relative/child at school. “I feel rubbish about myself, therefore I think I am rubbish, therefore I’ll prove I am rubbish.” The ‘feeling’ produces the ‘thinking’ which in turn produces the ‘attitude’. This child may well go on to take a very destructive path in adult life. Therefore, just as thinking and feeling are very intertwined, so are nature and nurture. It is almost impossible to have one without the other.
We could leave it there and conclude from the above that there is nothing we can do. We can’t change our innate nature and we can’t change the environment we were born into. We were given the ability to ‘choose’ though. God has given Human Beings the ability to make choices, we are not puppets on a string. As we grow and mature we become more self-aware, often through a process of talking to people we trust, or who love us, or from attending counselling sessions, we gain a deeper understanding of how we think and feel about ourselves; our perspective of ourselves. We might learn that how we see ourselves is different to how others view us. If the view we have of ourselves is particularly negative and the feelings and thought processes over the years have developed into a strong mind-set; then it can be extremely difficult to break down those thinking and feeling patterns into something more positive. The patterns become a ‘habit’, almost an ‘addiction’. Someone can help us to see that we can choose a different way of thinking and feeling about ourselves but ‘when the chips are down’ we end up going back to the old familiar (even comfortable) ways of thinking and feeling. Ultimately then it is a choice. We can’t stop our thoughts and feelings occurring; but what we can do is choose what we do with them. It is not easy, especially if a lifetime of thinking and feeling a certain way has developed over time. Like any habit or addiction it takes a huge amount of will-power to change or give up the old way. We need to be able to recognise negative and destructive feeling and thought patterns when they occur. We need to refuse to entertain them. Then we need to stop ourselves from going down ‘the normal path’ and instead decide to take a ‘different route’. This takes effort and practice and will-power! We might need help along the way. God ultimately is our strength and guide and through his people will help us to choose a different path if we are willing to let Him.
“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13