Singing about popcorn on apricot trees! Choosing sticks from a jar! Coloring and games! The LDS Primary program has provided Sunday entertainment and education for generations of children.
Unfortunately, in the midst of the fun, kids are learning lessons which handicap them in becoming emotionally healthy adults.
Directly and indirectly, LDS kids are taught a faulty system of interpreting feelings.
What you learned about emotions in Primary
Here are five faulty messages about emotions that kids hear at church:
- Emotions come from outside us: positive feelings come from God and negative feelings come from Satan. This teaching keeps us from taking full responsibility for our emotions and also leads us to fear negative emotions.
- Emotions tell us if we’re making right or wrong choices. The belief that feelings should guide decisions leads to a ton of anxiety!
- Emotions are a sign of “righteous” or “sinful” behavior. When we belief righteous behavior leads to happiness and sin leads to misery, it’s easy to think we should feel happy all the time and that we’ve done something wrong if we don’t.
- Intense emotions should be resisted. The range of acceptable emotions in Mormonism is small because the goal is to always have the spirit present—which consists of a few (and not too intense) positive feelings. We learn to be experts at resisting uncomfortable emotions, a process that leads to anxiety, decreased self-awareness, and the loss of feeling fully alive.
- Emotions are evidence of any and all truth. This faulty idea, taught by nearly every religion, seems magnified by Mormons because they claim to be members of “the one true church”. If we link strong positive feelings to the truth of the church, we will be less likely to question foundational doctrines of the church. Whatever becomes sacred becomes fixed because we can no longer separate it from God. What we won’t allow ourselves to question closes us down to change, even changes that may be healthy for us to consider.
Note: Many who grow up Mormon have no idea that people from other faiths have spiritual experiences that convince them their faith is right and true. Here’s a video that show Mormons don’t have a monopoly on proving truth by interpreting feeling as coming from God:
In summary, the Mormon way of interpreting feelings isn’t healthy and it’s not accurate. Learning where our feelings really come from, what they mean, and how to take responsibility for them is critical to our emotional health.
The truth about emotions
Emotions (or feelings) are physiological vibrations in our body created by our thoughts. In other words, our emotions originate in our brain but manifest in our body.
Everything we do is motivated by emotions. We want to feel good and avoid feeling bad.
If we are in possible physical danger, emotions like fear and anger can help us survive.
If we aren’t in physical danger, emotions are signals that help us get in touch with what we’re thinking. If we feel bad it’s because of a thought. If we feel good it’s because of a thought.
3 types of thoughts
Thoughts are our brain’s process of creating meaning for our experiences.
We may not always be aware of our thoughts; some thoughts come as interpretations that happen so quickly we don’t notice them at all.
For example, if someone yells at us, it may seem like we have an instantaneous negative emotion. But if we know the person yelling is an actor reading a script, we would feel entirely different. This is because our interpretation of what the yelling means would be different even though the circumstance of being yelled at is the same.
Another type of thought that creates emotion happens as an unintentional sentence in our brain. Since our brain likes to be efficient, it prefers to think thoughts that are similar to the thoughts we’ve had in the past.
For example, if we notice that we’re angry reading the Deseret News, it may because of a sentence in our brain like, “The church is a corporation that cares more about its image than its people.” It’s this thought (not the news article) that leads to the feeling of anger.
The third type of thought that creates emotions is an intentional thought. The ability to think deliberately is a powerful skill we are all capable of learning. With this skill, we have the power to decide how we want to feel in a particular situation and then we deliberately choose to think thoughts that lead to that feeling.
I’m not talking about just slapping positive thoughts on a negative situation. I’m talking about intentionally finding thoughts we’re able to believe that also lead us to the emotions serve us best.
For example, if we choose to go to a family member’s missionary farewell, we could decide before we go how we want to feel while we’re there. Then we could create and practice the thoughts that will lead to those feelings.
This skill takes a little time to master, but it really works! As a life coach, I teach my clients this empowering process. Seriously. Life-changing.
Deconstructing Mormon beliefs about feelings
If you grew up in the church or spent many years in it, give yourself time to re-frame how you view emotions. Think about how you handle your negative emotions and practice allowing them by noticing them in your body. Then, try to pay attention to your thoughts.
Emotions are the fuel we use to create the life we want. It is well worth our time to get to know our emotions and to listen to what they tell us about us.