Wishing mental health professionals only great achievements in their avodas hakodesh
Talking about feelings is bound to trigger storms.
Like a wild playground swing, social trends often pitch to opposite extremes before righting themselves on middle ground. The complaints that old-school education forced people to suppress what was going on inside them has generated a strong counterforce, with the deification of all things felt.
There is a balanced, Torah-based center of acknowledging and working through feelings, including inappropriate ones, while simultaneously differentiating between right and wrong. Below are thoughts from one reader that echo what I’ve heard from others, followed by my perspective on these concerns.
You Can Stand Upright
I read the recent column “Screen It,” and would like to comment on the following line: “Saying that all feelings are telling you something, or should be processed, is fine, whereas saying that all feelings are okay is not.”
If you say that feelings should be processed, then I believe it’s valid to state that all feelings are okay. The former shouldn’t be stated if the latter seems to be incorrect.
Regardless, how can you say that all feelings aren’t okay? To deny validity of feelings (even painful ones) is to deny our humanity. Hashem created us to feel!
Much of middos work is predicated on the truth that we’re capable of reworking ourselves internally.
If this all sounds daunting, think of it as a 120-year plan.
We have three strata: thought, seated in the brain; emotions, represented by the heart; and more physically embedded instincts represented by the liver.
There’s no human exception: The head is stacked above the heart,which is strategically placed above the lower internal organs. That tells us that rational thought should control the sentimental and physical rest of us below. We say it three times a day in Aleinu: “Know it… and put it in your heart” (Devarim 4:39). If emotional responses were not meant to be filtered through logic, we’d be walking on our heads.
Practically, it’s the huge chasm between saying, “If that’s how I feel, then to me, that’s true” (wrong order), or, “Let me assess what’s true and then figure out how I feel about it” (right order).
You say that “Hashem created us to feel,” and that’s a true and critical point.
The first letters of the Hebrew words for brain (moach), heart (lev), and liver (kaved), in the proper physiological and spiritual order spell out “melech,” king. We’re “a kingdom of holy people” (Shemos 19:6), bnei melachim, and our soul is called a “princess” (Tehillim 45:14). Jewish royalty is about the sequential integration of these three systems: mind, heart, and instinct.
Sometimes people pride themselves on their super rationalism, their ability to suppress emotion and be purely cerebral. Sorry, not a Torah idea. The first letter of just the brain alone, “moach,” would spell out… well, nothing, actually. No “melech,” just a mem, meaning a head dismembered from the rest of the body. Super awkward, if you picture trying to get around that way.
That doesn’t mean that we micromanage every flicker of feeling. Sometimes worries are helped by talking them out, and sometimes by ignoring them and letting them pass (Yoma 75a).
Nothing to Sneeze At
Do we choose how we feel or do we choose our reaction to feelings? Does someone choose to be sad? That’s a normal response of a human being. The same with all emotions. Now, I’m 100 percent in agreement that we need to be careful with how we react, that’s controllable, but all feelings are valid no matter what.
Would you tell someone not to sneeze or cough? The same with emotions. Feeling is a result of chemical interactions at play. We can only control our response.
Every emotion is vital because it sends us important signals. Anger might tell me that I’ve been wronged and need to take appropriate action. Jealousy might tell me that I’m suppressing the talents I already have within me.
It’s important and healthy to feel our feelings and see what actions need to be taken. To the contrary, it’s unhealthy not to feel our feelings.
I’ll share wisdom from my father, Rav Y. D. Frankel shlita, rav of Agudas Yisroel of the Five Towns. Say you’re in a black alley and see suspicious shadowy movements. You’re frightened, with the accompanying pituitary-gland secretions and rapid heart rate that fear causes. If out of the darkness steps your nephew, coming to walk you home, the fear will subside. That’s because emotions respond to perceptions in your mind.
Under most circumstances, a change in perception brings a change in reaction. That’s why the Torah can demand that we love G-d, fear Him, love Torah, and hate evil. If we don’t, our reality is awry and that’s something we’re responsible for. That’s a far cry from sneezing.
Let’s apply this to jealousy. There are two separate commandments. One is that you can’t want what belongs to someone else, and the other is that you can’t act on that desire by unduly pressuring that person to give or sell you the item you covet. According to some Rishonim, the two commandments stand independently, and as soon as one feels jealousy, one is chayav. According to others, one only becomes culpable for both upon acting on that jealousy.
The thought that G-d didn’t give you the right package is a distorted one, and you’d be responsible to change that misimpression, which would, in most cases, eventually change the emotion it begets.
If you feel jealous, you should certainly face and deal with it, but you’d have to come up with some very creative lomdus to explain why it’s inherently okay. Similarly, the reams of Torah literature against feeling internal anger would take years to enumerate. Anger should be worked through as a way of ridding oneself of it, not accepting it.
The Torah certainly holds us responsible for feelings in the realm of mitzvos, relationships, and middos. Secular psychology largely disagrees with this. I believe that non-Jewish therapeutic approaches can be tweaked — and I’ve seen frum professionals successfully do so. Sometimes it’s just slight nuances or even semantics that help cross the line into more acceptable therapy. There are so many approaches today and each can be judged and adjusted on its own merits.
But please, don’t take my word for this. These are general statements regarding a field that demand an individual approach to each case, often with pikuach nefesh or safek pikuach nefesh considerations that completely change the situation.
If you’re a therapist, who is your posek? How often are you in touch? You meet with your supervisor, surely — this is just as vital. If you are a shomer Torah u’mitzvos therapist, I salute your double duty — to properly master your field and then bring it back to the rest of us in a way that’s compatible with 3,000 years of mesorah. The more we hammer out issues like this one, the more we can ensure that the community is being well-served.
Wishing mental health professionals only great achievements in their avodas hakodesh, and all of us the mental and emotional clarity needed for majestic accomplishments!
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 776)
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