Why We’re All Snarling and What To Do about It: Advice from Dr. Audrey

This weekend, I decided to go all in to argue my point about a particularly important topic.

Tensions ran so high that I had to excuse myself to go wash my hands but really to go get a grip on my emotions.

And to do some Google fact-checking to bolster my argument because I planned to go back to that table to win that thing.

Did I mention it was date night? The first time for just the two of us at our favorite spot in a really long time?

Well, somehow between the car ride over and the arrival of our food, my husband and I decided that nothing would pair better with wings and craft beer than a heated discussion over Disney’s Mulan release strategy. 

We were both in it to win it, and had the sweet waitress not arrived with our order when she did—making us grin sheepishly as we realized just how much we needed both food and the laid-back ambience of that place—we probably would have wrecked our whole evening. 

My point is, in this season of stress and chaos, we’re all just one argument away from going nuclear on the people we love the best, not to mention the folks that habitually rubbed us the wrong way long before 2020.

Like me, you may have taken King David’s words from our last two posts to heart:

Cease from anger and forsake wrath. Do not fret. It leads only to evildoing (Psalm 37:8).

However, also like me, you may find yourself agreeing with my friend, licensed-psychologist Dr. Audrey Davidheiser: “Your faith tells you what’s right, but your feelings are spoiling for a fight!”

Nailed it.

Since Dr. Audrey recently released her brilliant quick-read Surviving Difficult People: When Your Faith and Feelings Clash, I asked her why all of us are having problems getting along, and why our “difficult people” seem even more problematic than usual.

Dr. Audrey: In a nutshell, too much grief, too little relief. When I say grief, I mean stressors of all kinds: losses of freedom, what’s familiar, and in some cases, income and even life, as some of our loved ones have succumbed to death. Parents—particularly single parents—bear the added burden of earning a living and homeschooling their little ones all at once. We’re beset with uncertainties and the constant change characterizing this COVID season. Human nature is to abhor change and hardship, yet living with both has defined our world these days.

We could’ve surmounted this avalanche of pressure better had we been allowed to self-soothe like normal. But nope. Many of our favorite escape routes have vanished. No church. In California where I live, pastors are currently fined or jailed for opening up their churches. No socializing. No gyms. No malls. Not even lipstick, because why bother slathering it on when your mask mutes it?

There’s one more reason we’ve morphed into more difficult versions of ourselves. It has to do with time. Anyone can emerge unscathed when hardships expire after half an hour. When it’s half a year and counting? The prolonged agony erodes our internal resources to behave.

Cassia: I certainly have struggled to behave myself lately! You talk about faith and feelings clashing at times. Shouldn’t we just be able to use our faith to commandeer those pesky emotions? Why do we sometimes find it difficult to get feelings of anger, frustration, or fear under control?

Dr. Audrey: Good question. Feelings rise when events that bear personal consequences, good or bad, seize us. For instance, anger swells when we’re wrongly treated. If our response to this frustration is to command it by faith “to stand down,” we lose two things: first, the chance to discover what triggered this reaction to begin with, and second, the chance to help the wounded part which hides behind the anger. (Anger almost always protects a more vulnerable part.)

To attempt to silence our feelings via our faith is a bit like handing a hymnal to someone puking her lunch out, suggesting Hymn #237, “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Before we prescribe singing as a solution, shouldn’t we find out why she’s vomiting to begin with? Maybe offer a glass of water with a dose of empathy first?

Whether it’s anger, frustration, or fear, taming them starts with investing the time and effort to listen to the stories our feelings are trying to tell us. Just as you’d push back if a loved one keeps shushing you when you’re itching to tell them something important, your feelings act the same way. Learn to validate your feelings and you’ll start to feel the difference internally.

Cassia: One of my take-aways from Surviving Difficult People was an imaginative exercise to help us examine the strong, negative feelings about and reactions to certain people in our lives. You coached us to imagine placing a problematic person in a room with a big window and then, to imagine ourselves observing that person though the window. You suggested noticing all our feelings about the person—anger, fear, suspicion—and then, asking those protective feelings to step aside momentarily so that we can examine whether other feelings such as curiosity, compassion, or acceptance might emerge.

I found the exercise useful in helping me validate that I did indeed have some strong feelings that wanted to protect me from hurt, but also in helping me see my shared humanity with the person who came to mind as I realized their own “protective feelings” were prompting actions that though not healthy, were at least understandable. I realized I could have both good boundaries and allow godly compassion to operate. Why do you think techniques like that help us “listen to the stories our feelings are trying to tell us” as you said earlier?

Dr. Audrey: The technique you tried comes from a counseling model I use with my clients called Internal Family Systems (IFS). It helps people to become aware of their internal worlds, including detecting their “parts”—that is, the different parts of our personalities—and how they choose to communicate to us. I can literally talk about this all day, so I’ll ask the part of me that’s a huge IFS fan to let me summarize why I think it’s beneficial😊

Pre-IFS I loved providing therapy, but memorable results happened only every so often. With IFS, however, I started witnessing breakthrough results. These changes involve not just emotional relief—although this is common—but also stark behavioral changes. Let me give you an example. A client—let’s call him Albert—used to binge eat sweets at work and home both. Another part of him hated how much sugar he ingested and the toll it took on his body, but Albert felt helpless to stop this habit. So, we worked with the part of him who kept urging him to snack on candy. Once we helped this part unburden the beliefs it previously held, Albert ceased feasting on sweets.

As awesome as IFS is, though, it doesn’t replace Jesus. Nothing can! Utilizing IFS techniques is handy to bridge the often-cavernous chasm between our emotions and obeying the Lord. Personally, I’ve found this theory instrumental in growing my faith in God.

Cassia: Amen to that! Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. I found Surviving Difficult People a helpful tool not only for personal growth, but for parents of teenagers like me, this guide can help us have new ways of coaching our kids as they apply their faith to the relationships around them. Plus, it’s a super-fast read (under an hour) yet easy to go back and review. Check out Dr. Audrey Davidheiser at her website www.aimforbreakthrough.com and Instagram @DrAudreyD, and head over to Amazon to buy Surviving Difficult People: When Your Faith and Feelings Clash.

Fighting foxes by cloudvisual.co.uk on Unsplash

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