The Possibility of Integration

Growing up, I somehow picked up the idea that I wasn’t really supposed to feel certain things: anger, jealousy, fear, resentment, despair. Of course, I felt them anyway, but I interpreted that as evidence of some horrible character flaw. This was reinforced by the Gospel of Positive Thinking so often preached at church, as well as the cultural expectation that women in particular ought to be “nice.” I was so convinced that such feelings were unacceptable that I remember being too scared to confide even in close friends when I felt intense jealousy over a particular situation. I was sure people would think less of me for having such a reaction, that I’d be judged as selfish and not sufficiently loving. Often my response to a problematic emotion was to try to banish it as quickly as possible, sometimes to not admit even to myself that it was ever there.

It’s only in recent years that I think I’ve truly begun to see the cost that inevitably accompanies that way of living. Always being nice is, in effect, agreeing to not ever have any needs of your own. In addition, my experience is that to deny your actual emotional reactions to things leads to a feeling of being split, and a resulting sense of disconnection from life. As I’ve worked on learning to acknowledge and even listen to my negative emotions instead of just hiding from them or wishing them away, I’ve thought a lot about how this issue plays out in a religious context.

There are ways in which I think church can sometimes contribute to this kind of splitting. If the only acceptable stories are ones in which people manage to remain faithful, happy, and even grateful through horrendous trials, if there isn’t room for people to express real fears and doubts and struggles, the effect can be a feeling that the person you are expected to be at church doesn’t have much connection to the rest of your life. Religion then becomes something superficial, rather than something with the power to deal with even the darkest and hardest parts of being human. It’s not that I think we should throw out all discussion of life’s positives, but I think faith-promoting stories are far more faith-promoting if the people in them seem like real human beings. And there’s something to be said for stopping a while at Good Friday instead of skipping over it and going straight to the Resurrection.

I find it reassuring that a life of faith isn’t portrayed in the scriptures as looking on the bright side of everything. I appreciate the raw honesty in passages such as Job lamenting, “let the day perish wherein I was born” (Job 3:3); Jeremiah mourning, “oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughters of my people;” (Jeremiah 9:1) and Jacob in the Book of Mormon commenting, “we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.” (Jacob 7:26) Christ himself is described by Isaiah as “despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3)

One of the most powerful and comforting realizations in my own life has been that God can deal just fine with the negative emotions and bits of myself which I don’t like very much, that I don’t have to censor myself in my relationship with him. I once heard an analogy that I quite liked from a Jewish Rabbi: if you’re at prayer and you have what you consider an “inappropriate” thought, don’t try to squash it (because that will just give it more power) — instead, “put your prayer shawl around it.” Bring it into the conversation. One of my favorite passages from Chieko Okazaki speaks to the “mistaken notion that religion is like a special room in our house” which we carefully keep separate from everything else which might somehow sully it. She observes, “our spiritual lives should be our lives, not just a separate part of our lives.” (Lighten Up, 173) Exhortations to love God with all our heart, might, mind and strength, to “come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him” (Omni 1:26) suggest that God wants all the pieces of who we are, not only the ones we’ve labelled “good” or “pleasant”.

The atonement, by definition, is about integration. We’re broken by sin and suffering, and we find ourselves not only estranged from each other but from ourselves. Grace works to heal those rifts. As Karl Rahner puts it, “The love of God is the only total integration of human existence.” (Grace in Freedom, 214). I’ve sometimes assumed that grace was supposed to zap the bad stuff, but lately I’m wondering whether a more helpful conceptualization might be that rather than taking away or smoothing over our negative experiences, grace integrates them into our lives in a way that removes their sting. This might be what it means that if we come unto him, God will make our weaknesses “become strong.” (Ether 12:27) To be “perfect,” after all, is to be whole.


  1. Beautiful, Lynette. I remember being specifically taught in seminary that it is bad to feel angry. Miriam Greenspan has a remarkable book called “Healing Through The Dark Emotions” in which she discusses the transformative power of allowing ourselves to fully feel what she calls the dark emotions (grief, fear, and despair).

    She talks about how when suppressed, the dark emotions become toxic:

    “In fact, the head/heart split is a source of profound disconnection. Affect is detached and dissociated from cognition. We learn not to feel through what we think, not to think through what we feel. In separating reason from emotion, we’ve been conditioned to place our trust in the former, culturally masculine attribute, and not the latter, culturally feminine one. . . Emotion-phobia– the fundamental fear the the raw power of emotional energy– is bolstered by this set of normative, gender-polarized beliefs about the supremacy of reason over emotion.

    “The power of emotions as a profound way of knowing and healing is barely recognized in a society that worships science and more masculine forms of knowing.”

    Greenspan is noted in the field of women’s pscyhology and uses a lot of Buddhist ideas in her work. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in this area. It hits on a lot of the same ideas you were discussing, Lynette.

    At the peril of being far to lengthy, I still want to add one more idea. I love what Thich Nhat Hanh, buddhist monk, has to say about anger and other emotions. Here is one quote I love:

    “Right Mindfulness is like a mother. When her child is sweet, she loves him, and when her child is crying she still loves him. Everything that takes place in our body and mind needs to be looked after equally. We don’t fight. We say hello to our feelings so we can get to know each other better. Then, the next time that feeling arises, we will be able to greet it even more calmly.”

    He also talks about smiling at our anger and holding it like a baby. I love these transformative images.

  2. something to be said for stopping a while at Good Friday

    Very well said. I’ll just add my $0.02 and say that the “place” I pause at on Good Friday is at the point of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

    The “paradox” of this incident is that a strong feeling of being forsaken is also a strong affirmation of faith that God could have intervened. If Jesus could approach God in his extremity with strong language, so can I.

  3. I can’t believe you would write down such negative emotions in a post, Lynnette! Church women are supposed to be nice — remember?

    I suggest that you take this post down immediately, while singing “As Sisters in Zion.” If you’re feeling really ambitious, record the song and post it as a podcast.

  4. Kaimi, I can’t imagine what got into me! Perhaps instead of singing “As Sisters in Zion” (or maybe “Love at Home”), I could tell a happy story about birds in order to counteract all this negative energy. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Thanks for the thoughts, Amy! That sounds like a fascinating book. I know that one of my concerns has sometimes been that if I were too accepting of my darker emotions, it would lead to acting on them in problematic ways. Yet when I look at my experience, I find that the reverse has actually been the case–it’s when I haven’t been willing to acknowledge and process my negative feelings that they’ve poisoned my behavior and relationships. So I really like that idea in the Thich Nhat Hanh quote about simply saying hello to our feelings, getting to know them.

    If Jesus could approach God in his extremity with strong language, so can I.

    Thanks for that observation, Mogget; that’s great.

  6. I think there is a difference between feeling these emotions and acting them out. We are supposed to govern our passions. I don’t know anywhere or anyone in the Church or Scriptures that says we can’t “feel” a particular way. At any rate, there is a point where if we do feel strong negative feelings, maybe we should look inside and see what might be wrong.

  7. Thank-you for this post. I’ve had a day of strong negative emotions, I haven’t been dealing with them in a very integrated way, and your post was what I needed to hear right now. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Lynette. Lately I feel much more uplifted and inspired when I hear people honestly share their struggles and challenges rather than when they only talk about how great things are when you’re keeping the commandments or whatever. There’s power in the truth, and the truth is there is suffering in the world. Trying to deny it in my own life, or fighting against it only gives it more power by making me feel worse about myself. I love the idea of getting to know our negative emotions and even welcoming (!) them.
    ps- maybe part of what’s inspiring about it is that even when life really sucks, people have found reasons to hope or hang on to life.

  9. Denying negative emotions is not healthy, but neither is dwelling on them. So what do you do with negative feelings? Integrating them sounds like a great idea, but I’m not sure I know what that means. Could you suggest some concrete examples of how this can be done for the more emotionally dense among us?

  10. Jettboy, I’m thinking that it’s probably not possible to govern our passions without first letting ourselves be aware of them– which might be an obvious point, but hasn’t always been obvious to me! ๐Ÿ˜‰ That’s what I was trying to get at here. And while the scriptures might not tell us that we aren’t supposed to feel certain things, I do think church culture can sometimes send that message; I’ve heard people get called to repentance, for example, for not being sufficiently happy. But I agree that when we feel strong negative emotions, it’s probably a good idea to look into what’s going on.

    Thanks, S. Sorry about the rough day.

    Kj, I’m so glad you came by! I completely agree about it being inspiring when people talk honestly about their challenges.

    Dread Pirate Roberts, all I have to say is that you mocked me once. Never do it again.

    That’s a good question, JWL. I don’t know that I’m actually the best person to answer it– as I indicated in my post, dealing well with negative emotions isn’t something I’ve been great at in my life. But at the risk of sounding psycho-babbly, I’ll say that for me, where I often get “split” is between my more rational, thinking side and my feeling side. This gets perpetuated when I tell myself things like, “you shouldn’t be feeling that because it doesn’t make sense.” I find that the kind of circularity in which I keep coming back to the negative emotion and am unable to move past it (what I would see as “dwelling on it” in an unhealthy way) usually results from a reluctance to really acknowledge and let myself experience what I’m feeling. So for me, the process of integration involves simply listening to what I’m feeling, and then bringing it together with my more rational side by putting into words, attempting to articulate (and thereby make some kind of sense out of) the experience. Which is sometimes a slow process, especially for intense emotions that I’ve been avoiding for long periods of time.

    I have a much easier time doing this, by the way, when another person is involved– especially someone who will simply hear and acknowledge what I’m feeling and not try to talk me out of it. I really value the people in my life who are good listeners.

  11. Lynette, Cheiko Okazaki is a hero of mine. I study her books.

    This is a good, thoughtful post.

    One of the things I loved about Marjorie Hinckley was her honesty about her negative emotions, like when the prophet planted 300 tomato plants, or the time a speaker said something about women. Her comment about that was “I could hardly be civil, sisters.” I don’t even remember the exact comment the guy had made.

    Teresa of Avila let God know how she felt when life wasn’t going exactly right, which is usually. I, also, question His judgement fairly frequently.

    I think, in a way, our church is going through a transition. Many women (I don’t talk to the men as much) feel as I do, and as you’ve expressed. I think it’s a generational thing. It may even be progress.

  12. I may be nit-picking linguistically, but I wonder if “integration” is the clearest way of putting this. You seem to be mostly talking about acknowledging our negative feelings and trying to deal with them constructively as opposed to repressing them and pretending they don’t exist, which of course just makes them pop up some other way such as through passive aggression. In contrast, often when I have heard people say they are going to “integrate” their negative feelings is means that they feel that it is OK to act on negative emotions (such as hating someone) because that is more emotionally “authentic,” which seems to me often to be just an excuse for being difficult and offensive.

    I think that we can treat negative feelings can be very different too. Being intensely jealous of someone is not a good thing to focus on for a long time, but being sad about a personal loss is something that one should have a right to work through in one’s own time.

    I also wonder how much of this is Church and how much culture. The pressure to be “happy face” that you describe is very real, but I wonder if that is unique to us Mormons or a function of the larger European Protestant, WASPy, emotionally reserved ethnic background of most western Mormons. For example, I wonder if this phenomenon is as prevalent among Latin Latter-day Saints.

  13. I agree with JWL. I didn’t get the how the word integration fit in the topic, but I thought it was some college term that I’m not familiar with.

    I’m not sure about your last paragraph, though. It seems correct, I’ve seen it in other religions, but, as Mormons, we are called on to be positive and cheerful. Which are really good qualities, I wish I had them.

  14. Thanks, Annegb. I’m also a huge Chieko Okazaki fan! And that’s a great story about Marjorie Hinckley.

    I can see that the integration model might not be the most helpful for everyone. I personally quite like it, because I do have this tendency to kind of split of myself at times. So for me, acknowledging the negative emotions is an integrating process, because it’s recognizing the way I’m feeling as mine, and not as something foreign to me. It’s allowing myself to be a complex human being who feels things like gratitude as well as things like despair, instead of thinking that one side somehow cancels out the other (e.g. thinking that I must be ungrateful because I’m depressed, instead of realizing that I’m actually feeling both). I’m thinking this might make less sense to people who don’t have my particular neurotic emotional style ;), but for me this really does feel like a process of bringing back together parts of my experience that I’ve split away from each other. And getting back to my post, I’ve found it immensely liberating to realize that I can bring all of those pieces into my relationship with God.

    I’d agree that it’s a problem if someone is using the term as a justification for obnoxious behavior, though; I don’t think I’ve ever seen “integrate” used in that context, but if you have, I can see why you’d be a bit wary of the word. I see emotions themselves as morally neutral, and my post was more aimed at that point, but I’m not at all trying to undermine our moral responsibility for how we choose to to act on them. The question of “emotional authenticity” and what that actually means rather fascinates me; I’d like to explore that further at some point.

    That’s a good question about how much our LDS culture of happiness (S did an interesting post on that subject a while back) is tied to the broader culture in which we live. I’d be interested to see cross-cultural comparisons on that, too.

  15. I love this post. (I love this blog. Ya’ll are way so much smarter than me.)

    A couple of thoughts–I really like Lynnette’s use of “integration” as a way of accepting our dark sides as part of who we are, even as we strive to follow the Light. We don’t have to beat ourselves up for feeling something negative, we can accept it and move on. I even think that process makes experiencing our “good” emotions more authentic and poignant (?-looking for the right word, here).

    Also, I like what Lynnette says about emtions being “morally neutral.” I think this is so true. In fact, I’d say that almost every emotion (every?) has a proper and good use or context. For example, I hate, hate abuse. It makes me seethingly angry (usually an icy-cold, you-bastards-should-be-evaporated sort of anger). I am jealous regarding my husband (i.e., I would be jealous of him splitting his relationship with me–no, this is not a polygamy threadjack invitation). I get depressed over sorrow, pain, and my own sins. And I think that all these emotions are things that God has felt (scriptural examples abound) and does feel. That doesn’t make God any less godly, does it? The important thing is how we respond to, use, and/or integrate these emotions into our lives.

    I know I felt like I understood the gospel, particularly the Atonement & Grace, so much better when I realized I didn’t have to be perfect and that it was okay if I felt “bad” feelings or did wrong things, as long as I was trying to be my most authentic, ever evolving & seeking goodness, self.

    It doesn’t do to give in to the negative emotions, but that’s not integration either.

  16. Well, Artemis, LOL, I wish you would follow me around and explain everything. You made Lynette’s post make more sense to me.

    Wow. What a concept. You know, I’m on the downside of my life and should be wise, but I wish I’d learned these things when I was young. I wish somebody had said them to me. I spent so much time spinning my wheels fighting and hating my own imperfection.

    Very thought provoking.

  17. OK, so I’m still trying to internalize what this integration thing means. Might 2 Ne. 4 be an example of this? Nephi rejoices in all he has seen and experienced, and yet is frustrated by his sins and weaknesses (including anger). So, he doesn’t ignore or try to stifle those negatives per se, but he doesn’t dwell. He counters the negative with thoughts of how God has been merciful to Nephi in spite of his sins and shortcomings. And then he takes that reality a step further, turning to the Lord to help him not “droop in sin” or to allow the adversary to “destroy [his] peace and afflict [his] soul” any longer, but to help him overcome his weaknesses. I am thinking that perhaps this is an ideal model of what to do with our negative stuff. Don’t ignore it, but don’t enable it, either. Still try to overcome it, with the Lord’s help, pleading for His deliverance from our enemies, and the enemies within. And all along, recognize the tender mercies and the love of God in spite of our weaknesses. Is this even close to a representation of what has been discussed here? ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. M&M, I, too, found that confusing till I read Artemis’ post carefully.

    I wouldn’t equate Nephi with this, I would equate Alma the Younger or Enos. No, maybe, who’s the most human saint? Peter? He was a bugger, but boy, wouldn’t you like him to have your back? J. Golden Kimball?

    No, it has to be somebody who accepts themselves, lets themselves feel. Marjorie. I made her into my imaginary fairy Godmother while I was still looking for God and I have her picture on my desk, saying, “Save the relationship!”

  19. m&m, I think that annebg is right to say that Nephi is not the prophet I would use as my primary example for this concept–he’s pretty consistently positive, upbeat, and faithful. That being said, I think 2 Nephi 4 is the best example in Nephi’s writings of what Lynette was trying to express in this post. It is a moment where we see Nephi willing to admit to failures, weaknesses, etc.

    I think what the Nephi example doesn’t capture, though, are those moments where we can’t quickly turn to the positive. There are many moments where we say “I feel pain,” we bring that pain to God, and it takes time before we feel the blessings of the Atonement and are able to rejoice. I think what Lynnette is trying to say (and she can correct me if I’m wrong) is that it’s *okay* to have those moments of doubt and fear and pain, and it’s okay if the happiness is not immediate. What’s most important is to bring that pain into dialogue with God and the rest of your life so that you can begin to figure out how to move on.

  20. Thank you for posting this, I’ve been meaning to post something to this effect on my own blog, and you say very elegantly what I have a hard time putting into words.

  21. If we’re looking for BoM folks to exemplify what Lynnette is discussing I’m going to nominate Captain Moroni. The record shows us someone who could react with considerable anger (without apology) when sorely pressed in fulfilling his responsibilities as the Nephite commander-in-chief. Yet throughout the most hellish circumstances he also heroically clings to his moral principles and religious faith. I find him one of the most fascinating BoM characters not because he is a war hero but because of the flaws that the record almost inadvertently reveals in him.

    I would be interested to know if this is a fair restatement of some of what Lynnette was getting at:

    When we deny our negative feelings we don’t defeat them, we just drive them into our subconscious where they secretly divert us from self-knowledge and thus real self-control. Beating ourselves up over our flaws can divert our focus from moving ahead with what we must do.

    Maybe that is a overly masculinized action restatement of what is primarily an exploration of feelings, but hey that’s what I am, deal with it! (Is that integrated or just obnoxious?) ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. Artemis, thanks for the fabulous comments. (And please feel free anytime to reinterpret my posts into clearer language!) I really like what you say about how working through negative emotions makes the positive ones more authentic. I’ve noticed that when I kind of shut down my negative feelings because I don’t want to deal with them, I find myself less able to feel good things, either.

    m&m, like annegb and S, Nephi isn’t the first prophet who comes to my mind when I think of this, but I do think the passage you cite is a good one. I find Nephi a bit relentlessly positive, especially in 1 Nephi, so I’ve always appreciated that chapter. And I think it’s a good example of someone acknowledging how he’s feeling, and bringing it to God. Though as S pointed out, I also think it’s worth remembering that the process often takes time, that you can’t simply say “rejoice, and no longer be angry,” and instantly zap it away. (Not that I think Nephi is necessarily advocating that, by the way; just that the passage might be read that way.)

    annegb, I have a certain fondness for Peter. He frequently gets it wrong, but he keeps going. I also get a kick out of many characters in the Old Testament who are delightfully human–like Jonah, for example, who sits down and sulks when the people actually repent.

    Thanks for the kind comment, Lindsey.

    JWL, that’s an interesting take on Captain Moroni. I have to confess that I’ve always had a rather difficult time with him. But I think what’s gotten me soured on him is the tendency to idealize his every act, and I really like the idea of viewing him as a flawed character who nevertheless stays true to the faith.

    Also, I thought your restatement was pretty accurate (if a bit masculinized ;)).

  23. Thank you, Lynette and those who made comments, for your honest and eloquent postings about authentically integrating your negative feelings into your spiritual development. Too often we only hear about the “happily ever after”ย resolution of problems, grief, pain, and sins in Ensign articles and on Sunday at Church. I think that people usually don’t feel comfortable sharing feelings of weakness with strangers or acquaintances and that people are discouraged even more from doing so by the general discomfort of the audience when raw emotion is expressed. However, I personally appreciate people who do share the low points along the journey toward feeling forgiven, loved, or healed. Then I am comforted that moments (or even periods) of doubt, despair, anger, and frustration are entirely normal and even inherent to mortal experience, and that I should not feel guilty for feeling these emotions nor should I avoid trying to sort out these emotions in prayer and with trusted friends and family.

    My favorite scriptural example of such integration is, what I call, the Complaint of Sariah in 1 Nephi 5:1-8. Sunday School lessons usually vilify Sariah for her lack of faith in the Lord’s direction to send her sons back to Jerusalem to obtain the plates of brass from Laban. The footnote of the word “complain”ย in verse 2 even “clarifies”ย the articulation of Sariah’s fear that her sons are dead as “murmuring,”ย and we all know from Laman and Lemuel that “murmuring”ย against God is a symptom of spiritual blindness and rebellion (1 Nephi 2:11-12, 3:31, 16:20, etc.). I’ve been thinking about Sariah for several years and have come to a different conclusion about her spiritual state.

    I think it is significant that the scriptural text never uses the word “murmur”ย in relation to Sariah even though “murmur”ย is used frequently and consistently elsewhere in 1 Nephi. Instead her “manner of language”ย is described as a complaint. In colloquial Modern English, complaining has lots of negative connotations and is essentially synonymous with murmuring, but the primary definition of “complain”ย stems from its Latin root “plangere,”ย which means “to lament aloud, bewail, mourn, or express a grievance.”ย While the scriptures are quite clear that we should not murmur against God, Christ himself promises us numerous times that He will succor us when we are weak, despairing, and filled with pain, that is, when we are moved to complain.

    I think it is also significant that in verses 4 and 5 Lehi does not rebuke Sariah for expressing her fears in verse 2 as he and Nephi both rebuke Laman and Lemuel for their rebellious murmuring throughout 1 Nephi. Instead, his comments are described as comforting in verse 6. Here is a woman who has stood loyally by her husband through persecution, danger, and exile at the Lord’s command while not being privy (at least we never hear about it) to the glorious visions and revelations of her husband and son, but who is finally pushed to the limits of her endurance by the fear of loosing her children. Lehi sensitively acknowledges her fears by not denying her statements, and he offers reassurance based on some of his own personal revelation. While Nephi does not tell us the degree to which Sariah was consoled by Lehi’s words, I do not get the sense that she feels truly comforted until her sons return in verse 7. It is only then, in verse 8, that she can speak confidently (and in the first person!) of God’s mercy and love made manifest in her life.

    In the times of my life when I feel pain, disappointment, or fear, and the future seems to stretch out in continuation of the same, I know that if I turn towards God instead of away from Him that _over time_ the healing power of His love will soothe away those feelings until I can feel peace and hope again.

  24. All I can say is this is not a female only problem. There are many emotions that need to be dealt with on more than a superficial, don’t feel that way sort of level, or worse from a pre-Job theology that assumes that all unhappiness is the consequence of sin, that adequate faith and obedience will cure all emotional ills.

    The idea that an adequate faith and behavior will automatically make one happ, in the common sense, should be excised as one of the worst doctrines to ever scourge the face of the earth. Christianity is a call to beneficial suffering. Suffering has its benefits, but happy-smiley-all-the-time is not usually the first one.

  25. “our spiritual lives should be our lives, not just a separate part of our lives.”

    I think that is one of the tests of this life, whether or not we can fully integrate our many selves or not.


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