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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Alison Cook- Your Emotions Are Not Your Spiritual Enemy

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with counselor Alison Cook about emotions, psychology, and the Bible as they explore the following questions:

  • Should psychology and Christianity be at odds with each other?
  • What is spiritual bypassing?
  • How have Christians view emotions throughout history?
  • What do we fear about emotions?
  • Is there such a thing as a bad emotion?
  • Why do we have emotions?
  • Why do churches often shy away from discussion about sadness and anger?
  • What is the value of envy?
  • What are some helpful tools we can use to confront unhelpful platitudes?
  • Why do we fear self-acceptance but not self-condemnation?
  • What helpful information can emotions give us?
  • How are emotions portrayed in the Bible?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Alison Cook you can share. 

  • “We’re emotional creatures, we’re intellectual creatures, we’re spiritual creatures, we’re physical creatures. We’ve got to deal with all of these categories to be whole.” –Alison Cook
  • “If there’s a situation in which you’re just noticing that triggers anger, envy, or compulsivity, or perfectionism, whatever it may be, typically underneath that is a wound or a vulnerability that needs tending, that needs your care.” –Alison Cook
  • “Jesus said to love our enemies, right? And is it possible that he meant even the enemies inside your own soul? Your own inner critic?” –Alison Cook
  • “We fear this idea of self-acceptance versus self-condemnation.” –Alison Cook
  • “God’s gonna take care of you, right? Well, I don’t know. I hope so… sometimes God doesn’t take care of it and he does, in a deep… rich way, but it doesn’t always work out nicely.” –Alison Cook
  • “God wants to heal you, and you know what? He might use prayer and he might use a wonderful psychiatrist.” –Alison Cook
  • “Jesus didn’t… heal everybody and every body in the same way. You know, he operated very differently with different people.” –Alison Cook

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

[Introduction]

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God- ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

 Pete: Welcome normal people, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People and our topic today is your emotions are not your spiritual enemy. And our guest is Alison Cook.

Jared: Yeah, Alison Cook is, what I like about Alison too is she is a practicing –

Pete: She knows what she’s talking about.

Jared: Yeah, that’s true. Finally get someone on –

Pete: Yeah, finally.

Jared: Gee. But she’s a counselor, so she’s a practitioner, which is what I really like. So, she’s dealing with mental health and emotional health on an everyday basis, and she really specializes in the integration of faith and psychology, which is something we haven’t talked about probably enough on the podcast, and really appreciate that. So, she has a PhD in religion and psychology from the University of Denver. She lives in Boston and just is a practicing – just – she’s a practicing counselor. And I think that this was a, within five minutes I thought – oh my gosh, we’re just not gonna have enough time to talk about everything here.

Pete: And we didn’t. But we never really do.

Jared: That’s true.

Pete: But yeah, just this whole thing about accessing your emotional life, just to be a healthy person and how often and, you know, Jared, there are people listening who probably have this experience too of being told your emotions are bad, you shouldn’t, you know, listen to them, but Alison says – oh, no.

Jared: Right.

Pete: That’s the entry point to all sorts of things.

Jared: Well, it’s understanding ourselves.

Pete: Right.

Jared: It’s assuming that we could cut off parts of ourselves or even just the detriment or the harm that’s caused by calling, like, a huge part of who we are bad, like, emotions are bad.

Pete: Or not relevant.

Jared: Right.

Pete: And they’re both not healthy ways, because we are emotional beings and we all feel them and, yeah, she just has some great advice, some great insight into the emotional life and the life of faith. And something that, you know, Jared and I, we’ve actually been sort of to ourselves talking about, for, I mean, I remember years ago Jared, you saying the psychological angle of like, theological shifts, for example, that’s something that doesn’t get talked about. It gets reduced to like, an intellectual issue, and it’s not. It’s a whole body kind of issue.

Jared: Right.

Pete: And that’s the kind of thing that needs to be talked about more, so we’re finally doing it. Here.

Jared: Yeah, this is the first of probably many on this intersection of our emotional lives and our spiritual lives and how the Bible fits all into that. So, let’s have that conversation.

Pete: Right.

[Music begins]

Alison: Jesus said to love your enemies, and is it possible he meant even the enemies inside your own soul? Your own inner critic. Yeah, is it possible that extends even to the parts of yourself you don’t like? Like, I’d love in a sermon, to just say, hey, you know, God wants to heal you, and you know what? He might use prayer and he might use a wonderful psychiatrist.

[Music ends]

Jared: Well, Alison, welcome to the podcast.

Alison: I am so excited to be here with you guys.

Jared: We are excited to have you here. So, we’d like to, we want to dive into some interesting topics that maybe we haven’t touched on before on the podcast, but before we do that, let’s get to know you a little bit. So, what’s a little bit of your spiritual bio and how did it come about that your, you know, your faith intersects with what you’re doing now?

Alison: Oh! That’s great. Yeah, I was just saying to you guys a little bit about how I discovered you, kind of on the other side of a pretty intense faith journey, and so I have a little bit of an inner fan girl right now that’s so excited to be talking to you live, because I’ve listened to so many of your shows, and have been so enriched by them, so I’m really grateful to be here. So, I, you know, my faith journey is pretty eclectic and convoluted, but I grew up in a Christian home, fairly diverse. Catholic mom, Protestant dad, a lot of evangelical influence, small little town. Ended up in New England in college at a secular school, was really drawn to psychology but was really kind of warned against studying psychology by a lot of folks in my Christian communities. It was kind of in the 90’s, I guess mid to late 90’s when psychology was still sort of seen of a little bit as a threat –

Pete: Mmm.

Alison: To those within faith communities. At least, that was my experience, and I was just drawn to it. I just was fascinated by human beings and I saw God in human beings, you know, I, that’s just, that imago Dei, you know, concept just for me was intuitive. And so, I just kind of started studying psychology and ended up really, you know, in a sort of secular, kind of on track to do sort of the standard clinical psychology route, but found myself very frustrated by, the divide between psychology and religion and spirituality. So, and it works both ways, because in the psychology community, it’s sort of like, how do we study people who are religious assuming that that’s bad, right?

5:00

Pete: Right.

[Laughter]

Alison: And then you get the same from the other side, you know? It’s just, and, I was like, why are these things at odds with each other? Because, in my mind, psychology, you know, psyche originally. The Greeks looked at it as the study of the soul. It eventually became to be known as more of the study of the mind, but it is the study of the human psyche and to me that went hand in hand with the study of God, right?

Pete: Mmm.

Alison: How do you know one without the other? And, so for me, again, that was very intuitive but nobody in my world seemed to think that was intuitive. So, I ended up doing a joint degree in psychology and religious studies. And so, I cobbled together this, sort of, hybrid, where I was really trying to understand, you know, sort of what this meant. You know, Kierkegaard became my hero in that of, to know the self in the context of knowing the power that created it, right? So, you know, I really, my whole academic and professional experience has been rooted in this both/and of faith and psychology. Both personally, professionally, and just in my own life experience of trying to understand my own self in the context of what it means to also know God.

Jared: So, how does that kind of play out in your, where you are now kind of in your faith journey and how you look at faith communities?

Alison: Well, I think as a psychologist we have this unique position. You know, we’re in this sort of healing business, I like to think. I mean, not all psychologists would look at it that way, but, we’re looking into, we get to peek behind the curtain. And it’s really hard to see in binaries when you’re dealing with the human soul. And so, I’m always looking with an eye toward what’s going on psychologically. So, when I’m in, let’s say in in practice, right, where I’m working with an individual client or with a couple or with a family, I’m thinking about all the psychological nuances, what’s going on here in terms of mental illness, trauma, emotional health, spiritual health. How is, if there’s a spiritual component, a lot of my clients are faith based, how is the faith-based component working for them, how is it actually harming the system in many ways. So, I’m always trying to keep an eye out for both of those components – the psychological and the spiritual. When I’m in church communities, ya know, it’s really hard, because in many ways I’m constantly filtering the message, whatever is coming at me from the pulpit or the worship songs, through, how does this work psychologically, how is this landing on people psychologically, and it really makes it a little bit tricky to just be, sometimes, in either world.

Pete: Yeah.

Alison: Because I do tend to think that good theology should breed good psychology and vice versa, right? They should. Again, that’s kind of an idealistic way of looking at it, but, so, I’m always trying to think in both places, you know. So, it kind of keeps me constantly on my toes, I guess, wherever I am, is kind of filtering through either, both of those lenses.

Jared: So, it’s such a broad topic that I have, like, a million places I think we could go –

Alison: Yeah, yeah.

Jared: For the intersection of psychology and religion. I just think it’s such a, like you said, it’s been at odds for so long I think that there is so much rich things that can come from that. But, we really wanted to talk about this idea of spiritual bypassing because it’s a concept that I wouldn’t have been able to put a word to, or a concept behind, but had definitely experienced it in my tradition growing up, and even as a pastor, where I was a pastor at what would be kind of called a “mega church”. Where we were seeker sensitive and so there was all this positive language for positive thinking was there to kind of get you through all the hard times, and which is kind of a ripe place for this idea of spiritual bypassing. Can you say a little more of what that is and how, maybe some examples to give for people to get a context for what we’re talking about.

8:55

Alison: Yeah, and I very much grew up in a church community that prioritized, you know, I could even think of the little caboose many of us learned – facts, faith, feelings – right? Where we’re gonna put our emotions at the bottom of the hierarchy, which, doesn’t really make sense. So, I definitely grew up in that environment where emotions or feelings were seen as a little bit of the enemy, and I, I definitely, as I kind of studied it… So, what’s interesting about the concept of spiritual bypassing – the term actually arose from some psychologists who were noticing in their clients who were more into new age traditions. And what they would notice is they would kind of want to bypass the painful emotions in the name of kind of these kind of like yogi platitudes. You know, “I’m just following my bliss”, instead of really being willing to dig into some of the painful emotions. So, I was reading about this, and I was like, well, we do this as Christians all the time! Like, why aren’t, why isn’t anybody talking about this from the perspective of a Judeo-Christian tradition? And very few people were. I started researching it. So, I wrote a couple posts about it and I was shocked with how many people resonated with the way in Christian communities, folks encouraged others to bypass their true emotions, the authentic emotion that they’re experiencing in that moment with a nice sounding platitude, right? And it could be anything from, you know, “you don’t need to feel sad, look, God has given you so much.” Which is just completely minimizing that authentic experience of sadness that that person has shared in that moment. Or, “you don’t need to feel angry, you know, you’re not, anger is a sin. We’ve got to figure out how to pray that anger away.” You know, and it’s this kind of way of slapping a pat answer or a platitude or a very narrow interpretation of certain, you know, scriptural passages onto a really robust experience of a healthy emotional life. And so, all that really means, to break it down, is spiritual bypassing just means you’re going to bypass any emotion that feels painful or negative or “sinful” or bad by going to a spiritual, some sort of spiritual platitude, to just sort of put a band-aid on it so we can bypass that experience of having that emotion.

Jared: Well, you know, maybe say a little more, because even in that list of words, it’s interesting how we group those things together. So, somehow in the church, in a lot of traditions, we’ve equated painful and negative emotions with sinful and bad.

Alison: Yeah, exactly.

Jared: And, do you have any insight as to how that came about?

Pete: Yeah, why do we even do that?

Jared: What’s the history of that a little bit?

Alison: That’s a really good question. I mean, I don’t know exactly. I do think it emerged, there’s a parallel sort of historically, a parallel trajectory within both the growth of evangelicalism and fundamentalism in this country in particular, but also in psychology I have to say. Because in the field of psychology, you have this, prioritizing, they were prioritizing cognition and behavior way before they were prioritizing any sort of emotional or wholistic approach. Now, today, and I live here in Boston, and there’s amazing, wonderful research coming out of even, secular institutions, you know, that are really getting at look – we’re emotional creatures, we’re intellectual creatures, we’re spiritual creatures, we’re physical creatures. We’ve got to deal with all of these categories to be whole, and there’s more and more of a bent toward that. But even in psychology, when I was studying it even, but even from earlier on, there was sort of this prioritizing, and I think It comes out of the enlightenment. It comes out of while prioritizing what of you think, objectivity, cognition, let’s get our thinking correct.

Pete: Right.

Alison: Which, you know, it sort of filtered into Christian, you know, Christian subcultures as well, but also filtered into psychology where it sort of like, we can’t trust our feelings. Now, from the church angle, you know, I don’t know when this started, because I think many folks in church history understood the importance, you know we think of Saint Teresa and Ignatius and Augustine and these guys who were in touch with their emotions and processed their emotions. So, I don’t know when it became explicit that that was sort of a bad thing to do. I do know that in evangelical Christianity, you know, the most common verse that I hear is, you know, the heart is deceitful, the Jeremiah verse –

Pete: Yeah.

Alison: We can’t trust our heart and heart means emotions, which, it doesn’t necessarily.

Pete: It definitely does not mean that in the Old Testament, but yeah.

Alison: Yeah, thank you!

Pete: Well, it includes that, but it’s not limited to that, so…

Alison: Yeah, and so, also, even just this idea we can’t trust ourselves at all –

Pete: Right.

Alison: Which is at odds with, again, good psychology where there is a sense in which you can start to trust yourself, and part of that is beginning to have this healthy relationship with your emotions.

13:52

Pete: Well, let me ask you Alison, I mean, because this, you know, there’s, one question is like what we’re talking about now – how did this come about? Like, what’s the history of it? But the fact that people act this way, they’re deriving some benefit from it. They’re gaining something for what they’re doing, even if we think it’s dysfunctional and not healthy, so, maybe on that more psychological angle, like, what are people gaining by spouting the platitudes?

Alison: Well, you’re avoiding the painful experience of an emotion. And, so, they way that I look at it in the psychological model that I use, and it’s really growing in popularity, it’s called internal family systems. And the book that I read integrates this model with the Christian theology. But, they talk about how, you know, all, we have three essential categories of ways of operating in the world. We have protective categories, and those protective categories are trying to keep us safe from pain, safe from harm, and those are the parts of us get us out of bed and they can bottle up the emotions because we do need to bottle up the emotions to get to work and get through our day, right?

Pete: Mmm hmm.

Alison: But what happens is, and then the second category is the numbing parts of us. The parts of us that wants to numb the pain and so, those are the parts of us that might, you know, turn on the television for six hours or, you know, drink, or whatever the things are that help us escape. And then the third category that we all, kind of, I think it’s part of the human condition to avoid, are our vulnerabilities, and those are the vulnerable emotions. Feelings like loneliness, pain, sadness, insecurity, doubt, and these are just normal human emotions that we all have. And a healthy, whole person learns to balance all three of these categories. Like, we do need, at times, to be able to say, “ok, I’m sad today.” There’s something sad that’s on my heart and I need to sort of put a gentle boundary around that sadness so I can function in this other space, but I’m not denying that sadness, I’m not exiling it. So, the, ya know, and then there’s a time where we need to escape a little bit so the whole person integrates all three of those categories. But to your question, I think the fear is – who wants to feel lonely? You know, who wants to experience the pain of heartache, the, what people don’t often realize until they go through this journey is, it’s in the experiencing of those emotions that healing occurs. You can’t heal what you don’t bring to the surface to acknowledge, right?

Pete: Mmm hmm.

Alison: And so, there’s so much relief that comes as you learn to engage some of those painful and hard emotions, even anger, envy, shame. You know, there’s so much to be gained from, you know, we talk a lot in our book about befriending those emotions. There are cues and signals that we need to listen to and understand so that we understand ourselves better and are leading ourselves into healthier relationships with others too.

Jared: So, I want to get back to some of these, what you’re talking about, I’d like to maybe tie in the Bible a little bit of some of these Biblical expressions of negative emotions –

Alison: Yeah.

Jared: Because I think we can find a lot of those examples. But before we do, I’m gonna maybe test something, both with you and Pete here. I have my own theory, a little bit, of why this would have come about, and it’s a little more sociological. And that is, for me, this is what I would have experienced more anecdotally is, it’s a little bit of a power dynamic where we’ve created a sense in which the product we’re selling in churches is that Jesus takes away our negative emotions.

Alison: Yes.

Jared: And so, to express those openly and to talk about them in some way is a rejection of Jesus’ efficacy, like, the product’s broken if we still feel anxious or we feel afraid or we’re sad. I thought Jesus was supposed to fix those. And so, there’s this like, shame element of like, I don’t want to betray the community or betray my leaders and pastors by saying I still have these. And I also feel like maybe it’s my fault that I still have them, like, I didn’t drink the Jesus Kool-Aid the right way, and so I still have that. So, would that be part of that as well?

Alison: I, it, you know, breaks my heart that that’s what people are feeling, and I think that rings very true to the lived experience. It’s not my understanding of the Jesus of the Gospels who was a friend, no stranger, to many emotions. Jesus got angry, Jesus experienced anguish, grief, sorrow, he experienced a full range of emotion. You know, those things weren’t zapped magically way from him.

Pete: Lonely, lonely, abandoned. Yeah, right.

18:52

Alison: Loneliness, abandoned, rejection.

Pete: Misunderstood.

Jared: And I hear you talking about the acceptance, first of all, if we accept that Jesus experienced those, then they’re not “sinful and bad”.  Like, the “negative emotions” aren’t sinful, they’re normal. And what I hear you saying is, the more research we do, the more we can accept that this wholistic understanding of people as emotional beings has to incorporate “negative emotions”, right?

Alison: Yeah, and, you know, I love that you’re putting it in quotes. It would be interesting, what are those, you know, negative ones. You know, I, the one that comes to me the most, or people ask me about the most is anger. Which is actually a really holy emotion on many occasions and anger can also do a lot of harm. And that’s where emotions have a lot of power, and I think one of you was alluding to that, right? That’s what’s scary about them, is their power. There’s a lot of energy in emotions, they’re hard to contain, but they’re not bad or good. They, they’re cues. I always say that they’re signals. They can give you really important information about you, about what’s going on in your relationships, about, you know, and so you really want them as your allies. You want to build trust with your emotions so that you can lead them well and listen to them well. You don’t want them to rule you, but you don’t also want to shove them away, so…

Jared: And before we get to some of the more practical outputs of that, I did want to just come back to the Bible and, Pete, you may be able to speak to this too, but, if we go ahead and accept the reality that we are emotional beings and accept that emotions are part of how we experience life and experience God, it’s interesting that when we go back to the Bible we see a lot of permission giving for these experiences and these emotions like in the Psalms and in Ecclesiastes and in Job and in Jesus. So, I mean, I just want to name that for a lot of people, I think, I was taught growing up that being emotional is, like you said, not something that you want to be, and you definitely don’t want to have the, again, I’m going to keep saying “negative emotions”-

Alison: Yeah.

Jared: But I think it’s a biblical idea that those are part of the human experience.

Pete: Mmm hmm. Yeah, I mean, one thing that you mentioned earlier, Alison, that really struck a chord with me is, I think about knowing ourselves and, I mean, just my, anecdotally, I’ve sort of experienced that people don’t really know themselves very well, and we’re more content to live on the surface. Maybe because the pain is something we don’t want to see. But I think that’s what you’re saying, you know, getting the, befriending your emotions, you know yourself better and knowing yourself, I mean, John Calvin said, not that we’re necessarily John Calvin fans –

Alison: [Laughter]

Jared: Peter Enns is a Calvinist.

Pete: Yeah. He also wasn’t an idiot.

Alison: Yeah.

Pete: Yeah, so. But you know, knowing yourself and knowing God are like two sides of the same coin. You can’t really know God unless you know yourself, and you know yourself better if you really know God, but they almost feed off of each other. And, I don’t know, maybe when people are giving platitudes, it’s what happens when you’re not in, to use the phrase, “in touch with yourself” and really sort of know what really makes you tick.

Alison: Yeah, I think that, I mean, I love the Calvin quote. Saint Teresa in Interior Castle talks about, you know, she says all problems in the spiritual life start with the lack of self-knowledge.

Pete: Hmm.

Alison: And I think, there’s a sense in which, and again, Kierkegaard, you know, his whole anecdote to despair is being oneself before God. Knowing who I am before God, that intimacy of that both/and. And I think, to kind of make it less conceptual, you know, I know in my own life, the more I know myself, and the more I invite God into all those parts of me, and they’re all welcome, you know, they’re all welcome, I, there’s that flow back and forth, you know, between who I am and who God is.

Pete: Yeah. And that involves vulnerability.

Alison: It’s vulnerable.

Pete: And you know, I mean, intimacy –

Alison: Yes.

Pete: Right? I mean, and I think, again, I don’t want to generalize, but you know, American men don’t always do well with that.

Alison: Yeah.

Pete: You know, and I think a lot of, you know, a lot of times men are in charge of churches and we don’t really, we compartmentalize things. Again, that’s a gross characterization, but still, my experience bears that out with, you know, myself and a lot of men that I know. And, I guess, you know, you’re saying not to do that.

[Laughter]

Alison: [Laughter]

Pete: You know, to, I mean, because you’re talking about vulnerability –

Alison: Yes.

23:42

Pete: And intimacy with God and, I mean, if I can, you know, launch a theory of my own like Jared did, I think sometimes overdoing, let’s say, notions of the sovereignty of God and the power of God, that’s, that’s a very non-intimate way of talking about the creator and it reflects more what’s going on inside of us, perhaps, than it does on how God can be experienced. Because that’s a rather off-putting sort of way-out-there God who sort of makes cameo appearances in our lives, and, you know, top down kinds of things instead of being more intimate with us and us with God.

Alison: That’s right, and in relationship too. And if you think about a human relationship, a marriage or a friendship where that vulnerability, right, where you’re able to say “man, I am struggling. I am broken with this.” That’s where love come in. That’s where we know each other. That’s where connection and belonging and all those things that we crave occur. So why would it be any different with God?

Pete: Yeah.

Alison: And that sense of bringing, and that’s David, you know, that’s the Psalms, you know, we see it throughout the Psalms to get back to the Bible, as you’re saying. We see it throughout most of the great characters. You know, Moses with his fearfulness, you know, Jonah with his bitterness, you know, these guys were pretty raw – 

Pete: Right.

Alison: In their emotional life.

Pete: As is God, really, in the Bible too. I mean, you know, there, again, this is part of a particular theological tradition Jared and I are very familiar with, but, you know, God is without passions. God doesn’t have emotion. And, I don’t know, I read the Bible and I think God has tons of emotions in the Bible and some of them are a little bit off putting now and then, but you know, they’re there.

Alison: Yeah.

Pete: And, I see, I keep coming back though to, you know, to why more people don’t get that. You know, like, why there’s gotta be some deep reason that maybe more than wanting to avoid pain, because now you’re bringing God into all this. And, maybe not taking into account the biblical witness itself to the kind of God we’re dealing with. And I, I still want, I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to this. I still really wonder why, like, people don’t just get tired of that sort of thing. You know? It’s just not real. You know, you’re not really living. But I guess maybe we’re all numb. I don’t know. Maybe that’s exaggerating the numbness part. You know, we’re just not willing to face things, and we just sort of plod along with life and maybe never wake up.

Alison: I thought, yeah, I’m kind of thinking alongside of you here. You had an interesting point when you were speaking to male power in the sense that I think the emotional life has historically sort of been relegated to the feminine –

Pete: Mmm hmm.

Alison: And therefore inferior. If you think of sort of the patriarchal structure where vulnerability is weak, you know, versus strength. And I, that dichotomy is also not scriptural. I don’t think we see that dichotomy in God, as you’re saying. I don’t think we see it in a lot of the stories of the Bible, but it surely is a dichotomy that we’ve seen played out historically with relegating the emotional life to sort of a position of weakness. And so, I don’t know if that’s part of it, if that’s part of what has kept that so steeped.

[Music begins]

[Producers group endorsement]

[Music ends]

28:24

Jared: If we can, I want to take us to some practical things, because I think, I think these are, this spiritual bypassing, where it can be easier to, when faced with someone who’s in grief, say things like, “well, God works all things together for the good,” ya know, “hope for the best” and not really being able to connect with other humans at this deep emotional level in empathy and being present with because it’s too hard. What are some practical ways that people who, maybe they’re in a church and they say, “Yeah, oh my gosh. I just feel like I can’t be real with people here.” What are ways that they can, because you can’t really change anyone but ourselves, what are some practical things that they can do. Maybe questions they can ask when people give these platitudes, or what are, maybe, helpful ways or tools for them to, maybe start to get other conversations going around this.

Alison: Well, what I tell people, oftentimes, if you’re going to share something vulnerable, let’s say you’re struggling with one of these emotions that you feel shame about. Envy is a big one, again, where envy is actually a powerful cue to really important soul work. So, that’s an important emotion to pay attention to and get to know and seek to understand and not exile and not pray away because it’s a really important cue. So, that’s a good example of one. So, what I coach people is to say, I would say, before you share, because the platitudes hurt so much and lead to that exiling. Say, “I need to talk to you about something, could you just listen? I just need someone to listen.” And just test the waters a little bit, because we’re not taught, I don’t think, to listen well. And so much of what we need in the process of healing, in the process of becoming whole is just a witness. Someone to bear witness to what we’re kind of thinking through or experiencing emotionally.

Pete: Hmm.

Alison: So just to invite people, could you do this for me, you know? Could you just sit with me while I process this, and just kind of see if they’re able to do that. So at least you kind of set a little bit of a norm that you’re –

Jared: Yeah, you’re kind of giving someone instruction –

Alison: Yeah.

Jared: Who may not know that this is the appropriate thing to do.

Alison: Yeah, yeah.

Pete: You have to train people to take your emotions seriously.

Alison: You kind of do, yeah.

[Laughter]

Pete: In a way, you know. Can you back up for a second, because you said something interesting about envy about being a real, sort of, window to the soul. I mention it because Jared has a real problem with that –

Alison: [Laughter]

Pete: And so just, I mean, you can send us a bill if you want for the therapy here. So just, okay.

Alison: You bet.

Pete: Because that really intrigued me, and envy is something like, it’s a Cain and Abel story. There’s envy there right away, it’s like, it’s really the first sin.

Jared: I don’t, I don’t…

Pete: And then murder comes after that.

Jared: I don’t really feel safe in this conversation.

Pete: You don’t feel safe?

[Laughter]

Alison: [Laughter]

Pete: I’m sorry you feel that way Jared.

Jared: [Laughter]

Alison: Do you want us just to listen?

Pete: Should we listen to your emotions now?

Jared: Yes.

Pete: Can you handle that, male? Anyway, so, yeah, just, could you unpack that. Because that’s, just something inside of me clicked and I don’t know what’s clicking, but it sounds important.

Alison: Not to be too reductive about it, but I think typically underneath any protective emotion, and I think envy is a protective emotion, meaning it’s trying to keep us from harm and we see that person over there that has that thing we want as a threat. Typically, underneath any protective emotion like envy is a vulnerable feeling, a vulnerable emotion, and the one underneath envy is desire, and desire is a hard emotion to reckon with. Usually, envy is a cue to what we desire.

Pete: Okay.

Alison: And when we get into contact and we really connect to our desires, there’s sometimes pain, there’s sometimes loss, you know. And so, envy becomes a little bit of that, it’s a cue, again, I say look at it as a trailhead and see where it’s leading you. Dig a little deeper, look at what is underneath that. There’s usually a longing.

Pete: So, ask yourself, okay, I’m feeling the emotion of envy or something –

Alison: Yup.

Pete: Why? Just start investigating that, maybe being curious and investigating that like –

Alison: Well you just nailed, actually we do, there’s five steps that we lay out based on this model of therapy, and the first one is get curious.

Pete: Okay.

Alison: You just nailed it. It’s get curious. So, again, in curiosity is not with judgement, not with criticism, not with a solution, it’s, “oh! That’s interesting.”

Pete: Oh, that’s so hard.

Alison: Yeah.

Pete: We want to judge right away.

Alison: Yeah. We all have healthy inner critics.

Pete: Oh, gosh. Yeah.

33:09

Alison: And so, you get curious. The second step is to befriend, which is, that compassion piece. There’s a reason that envy is there, I don’t want to act out of it, but I’m curious about it. You know, and just start to do that, this is just this internal, and again, we’re not taught this stuff. You know, we’re not taught this stuff in churches, you know, people go to counseling to do this stuff. But it really is stuff you can do every day. You know, you can kind of do your little emotional inventory, you know, when you’re doing, you know, your morning routine. You know, there’s this thing I’m feeling, I’m curious about that, and you know, then you kind of go through, we have a list of questions that you can take yourself through exactly where you’re going Pete. You get curious about it and try to understand it, and you kind of get to the root which is usually something more vulnerable.

Jared: And it’s hard to get to the root because we kind of get defensive with ourselves if we are going to those with judgement, right? If we’re putting judgement on it, it’s hard to get past our own defenses of, well, like, I don’t want to feel this because this is a bad thing to feel, and it can kind of get our circuits crossed.

Alison: Correct. So then, you’ve got the envy, and then you’ve got the beating yourself up for feeling envy, and that just leads to a lot of chaos inside. As opposed to going, okay, I get that I don’t want to feel angry, so I’m going to be compassionate toward that part of me, or envy, and then I’m going to, but I need to spend some time with this envy and I’m going to journal about it, or I’m going to just, because we don’t tend to change or grow in the context of criticism and judgement. We grow and change in the context of compassion, and that also applies to our internal relationship with our self with these parts of ourselves.

Jared: Well, and I think, you know, just to tie it back, because I think, you know, you mentioned you can experience this in therapy and counseling, which I think is true, but this also sounds very Buddhist to me. And so, I think we could learn something in our Christian practice from our Buddhist brother and sisters about this curiosity and observing our emotions without judgement and befriending and having self-compassion. Would that be, would you have experienced that as well with, like, Buddhists practices, doing this maybe in a more religious context or a spiritual context.  

Alison: There certainly isn’t the fear or what, you know, psychologists call self-acceptance in the Buddhist, in most Buddhist traditions that there is in Christian traditions. We fear this idea of self-acceptance versus self-condemnation.

Pete: Mmm hmm.

Alison: And that might also get at that root we’re talking about, it’s sort of like, we’re supposed to condemn ourselves, which isn’t actually true.

Pete: Right.

Alison: But in Christian traditions, that’s what gets translated. We, in our book, how we, we’ve tried to flip it to say, you know, Jesus said to love our enemies, right? And is it possible that he meant even the enemies inside your own soul? Your own inner critic.

Pete: Hmm. Right.

Jared: The way we make enemies with ourselves or our emotions.

Pete: Yeah, the inner critic.

Alison: Yeah, is it possible that extends even to the parts of yourself you don’t like? The part of you that keeps reaching for that binge. That part of you that, you know, and I teach this stuff like, with addicts, you know, in recovery, and they’re just like – woah. You know, like, can I really extend compassion toward that part of me.

Alison: Well, I’m guessing that’s gonna be a lot more effective than beating yourself into submission.

Pete: Right, yeah, like gaining that weight and getting angry because you binged, and now you’re gonna pummel your body and all that sort of stuff, right, that doesn’t work for long.

Alison: I think we see it in the way Jesus was with the folks he interacted with externally. He invited in, you know… The people he was hardest on were the most judgmental, legalistic, harsh, you know, on, oh, you know, you’ve messed up. And the people that he invited in were the people that were messing up and the people who were wounded and hurting. And so, that applies internally, that we all have those kind of, legalistic parts of us, whatever they’re trying to get us, you know, like you’re saying with the example of weight, Pete. You know, like, I shouldn’t eat that thing, and I’m such a jerk, what’s wrong with me.

Pete: Yeah.

Alison: And beating up on whatever part of us in that moment gave over to something we wish we hadn’t done instead of going, man… And think about how you are with your own children, that’s why they talk about this as an internal family. You know, when your child is acting out, you connect with that child. You try to understand. And it’s kind of like, working with your emotions is kind of like parenting your own internal world –

Pete: Hmm.

Alison: With care and connection and curiosity, and you’re setting gentle boundaries, you know, but you’re also not beating yourself up.

Pete: Yeah. Okay, not to beat a dead horse here, speaking of beating yourself –

Alison: [Laughter]

38:04

Pete: But just to complete something, because I think you stopped short earlier about, you know, being curious about things like envy and befriending it. Are you, are you suggesting that if you follow that trail, you’re going to find some pain or some loss somewhere, maybe inside of you that has not been dealt with well?

Alison: Yeah. Typically, and especially if it’s chronic or extreme. You know, we all might get a little angry in traffic, you know, that might not have a deep wound underneath it. But, if there’s a situation in which you’re just noticing that triggers anger, envy, or compulsivity, or perfectionism, whatever it may be, typically underneath that is a wound or a vulnerability that needs tending, that needs your care.

Jared: Well, and sometimes I think that’s often true, but I want to maybe give a more neutral understanding too and test that with you, Alison. Because with, like, envy, it may just unearth a desire that you might say, oh, yeah, I just actually want that thing and I wasn’t able to because it feels vulnerable to say I want that thing because my culture or tradition might have said it’s not good to want that thing and so I covered it up and it’s coming out as envy. But it doesn’t necessarily, I feel like, be this traumatic experience, or this deep grief or loss. It could just be, yeah, I had some shame about that and now I can acknowledge it and maybe it’s something I want to pursue and can attain myself and that’s a healthy thing to do.

Alison: Exactly. I write about that exact thing, Jared, but it doesn’t have to be a deep, you know, I talk about long, you know, there’s big “T” trauma’s, you know where there’s a long tail back to deep wounds, and then there’s just these really, oh – that’s just information I didn’t realize. And I write about how I was envying a woman, and I, who, and I was like – what is going on? And when I followed it, I was like – oh, that is, I didn’t have any idea that was something I wanted.

Pete: Mmm.

Alison: You know, and again, that’s really healthy information and then all of a sudden, I, there was no envy. I just, that part of me I hadn’t connected with, it was a genuine part of who I am that I just had kind of not really ever uncovered.

Jared: Mmm hmm.

Alison: And there it was. And that’s again what I mean when I say emotions are often cues. And that’s why we want to pay attention. We don’t want to get buried in them, but we do want to give them some attention.

Jared: Yeah, so, your emotions are messengers, and you want to say, like, what is this trying to tell me –

Alison: Yeah.

Jared: About how I’m feeling or what I want or where I am or –

Alison: Yeah.

Jared: Well, you know, I just want to express my frustration to tie, you know you mentioned Jesus here, my frustration that, for me, and maybe it’s because of my perspective over the last ten years really shifting so much, but it’s frustrating that Christianity hasn’t been the main repository and place to find this self-acceptance and self-grace and other acceptance and other grace. It took, you know, folks like Carl Rogers and the change paradox and modern psychology of – hey, guess what everyone? You don’t change, people don’t change when you yell at them and judge them and chain them and criticize them. They often change when you accept them fully. Like, that seems so fundamental to the gospel to me, that’s been part and parcel of our tradition for two thousand years that, it’s just been frustrating that it’s, like, why isn’t the church the one preaching this gospel, and it’s… Not to say anything against Carl Rogers and psychologists, I think that’s great, but it somehow has gotten covered over with this other… Like, I think we say that though. I think that’s what’s frustrating to me. Is, I don’t know any Christian who wouldn’t say – yeah, grace and acceptance and that’s how people change and that’s how I would change. But we don’t really seem to practice it that much.

Alison: Yeah, I share that. It breaks my heart as well, the number of folks who have felt sidelined in this way. You’re right. We do say it though, sort of, you’re right. But it’s a sort of superficial veneer. We have to tack on, you know, to go back to the spiritual bypassing, but “God’s got it”, you know, “God’s gonna take care of you”, right? Well, I don’t know. I hope so. You know, and that, you know, when you’re in my line of work, sometimes God doesn’t take care of it and he does, in a deep, you know, rich way, but it doesn’t always work out nicely.

Jared: Well, and maybe it’s through folks like you.

Alison: Yes.

Jared: And these practices and methodologies that help us, maybe that’s a way God works out these things. It’s not through going around our pain and trauma and emotions, but it’s working through them.

Pete: Hmm.

Alison: I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wish, because I don’t want to just, kind of thinking alongside of you, I don’t want to just be frustrated with the church faith-based communities for not doing this. I want to try to provide solutions. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would love to hear from a pastor.

Pete: Mmm.

Alison: You know, and I do think, you just kind of touched on it, Jared. Like, I’d love in a sermon, to just say, hey, you know, God wants to heal you, and you know what? He might use prayer and he might use a wonderful psychiatrist.

43:04

Jared: Right.

Alison: And we as a church want to come alongside you and help you find the right resource for what you’re dealing with. You know, and again, not that they have to become mental health experts, but just a nod –

[Laughter]

Pete: Yeah.

Alison: To the complexity of the human psyche and all the myriad of ways that healing can occur.

Pete: Yeah, I’m gonna guess, Alison, not to peg you here, but you might have some thoughts about so called “Christian counseling”?

Alison: Yeah.

[Laughter]

Pete: You know, and I say that, I mean, respectfully because, I mean, I know people in that field, but –

Alison: Me too, yeah.

Pete: You know, sometimes it’s just a higher level of platitude, perhaps. You know, I’ve heard things like well, “you just have to read more Psalms.” Or, “you have to pray harder,” or just, “have you been to church lately and then you’d stop feeling this way.” That’s what, you know, what you love to hear pastors say. It really depends on, I think their theological disposition, whether they have room in their worldview and their way of thinking about God to say, you need a good therapist.

Alison: Yeah.

Pete: You don’t need to pray right now.

Alison: Yeah.

Pete: That’s not helping you.

Alison: Yes.

Pete: That might be a source of x, y, and z.

Alison: Yes.

Pete: You need someone to come alongside you to help you get to know yourself.

Alison: Yeah, the harm that that does, because I see it in my office then, right? You know, I’ve got to not only work through the issue that came through, but then the shame.

Pete: Right. They’re more messed up coming to see you.

Alison: It’s so painful to me, that’s why I’m so passionate about trying to talk about this stuff, because it’s, you know, and I know what you’re saying, you know, I started out in studying Christian counseling and then I moved to my doctoral work, and, you know, it’s really hit or miss. There’s a lot of schools of thought, and there’s some really excellent folks in the trenches doing great work and get the sort of, really the incarnational presence aspect of, I think, the therapeutic relationship which is so much about “being with” more than it is, you know, and using tools and techniques and strategies and what science has to offer and what faith has to offer. But yes, it can, yes, there can be those where you’ve got to tie it up in a little bow and put a little scripture verse on it and it’s just sort of masquerading as another form of, you know, it’s just gonna, it can be really wounding.

Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Alison: Jesus didn’t, you know, heal everybody and every body in the same way. You know, he operated very differently with different people and so, then once, you know, I caution people, I say, if there’s ever anybody that says, you know, “this is the way you’re going to heal,” or “this is the only way,” notice that.

Pete: Yeah.

Alison: Because there’s a lot of, we’re really complicated beings and so you really want to work with somebody who, you know, you get, I always want to empower people if they’re going to go see a counselor. Test it out, ask good questions.

Pete: Yes.

46:00

Alison: You know, make sure you’re finding folks that are operating in that both/and space.

Pete: Yeah. Well listen, Alison, I, unfortunately we are coming to the end of our time here. We feel like we owe you some money. Should we –

Alison: [Laughter]

Jared: Yeah, right. What insurances do you take?

Pete: Yeah, I hope, like, none, probably, because she’s a good therapist. So anyway –

[Laughter]

Well listen, yeah, we are coming to the end of our time, but help us for people who want to track you down. Like, do you live on social media, do you have a website, and where can people find you?

Alison: Yes, so I, my website is just my name, https://alisoncookphd.com/, and I have on my website I actually have an audio download that if you’re wanting to kind of start engaging your emotions more, in a sort of structured way, because sometimes that can feel hard, there’s a guided sort of reflection that you can download for free on my website to kind of just begin that process of engaging those emotions. I kind of walk you through the steps, some of which we talked about today, and then I’m on all the social media channels, and I tend to post a lot about these topics and I’m always so interested in what people are telling me about their experiences and really want to be part of changing that. So, I would love for people to find me and let me know what they’re thinking and just continue this conversation, it’s such an important one.

Pete: That’s awesome Alison. Listen, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. We really appreciate it.

Alison: Thank you guys for everything you do, you’re awesome and I’m just so grateful for what you do here.

Jared: Thanks again. Well, have a good night.

Alison: Alright. Bye-bye. See ya.

[Music begins]

Pete: Alright everybody, thanks for listening. Hope you enjoyed this episode. We learned a lot and be sure to, if you’re interested, you can find Alison on social media and on her website and just a great and valuable topic.

Jared: Yup, so we’ll see you next time.

Pete: See ya.

[Music continues]

[Music ends]

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