Why does it bother me when I hear about “emotional dysregulation?” It’s just a fancy term that identifies emotions that have run amok. That kind of thing happens in life, so why am I so concerned about the words used for it?
I don’t think I am being picky or a curmudgeon on this. Instead, I feel like I am watching paths that diverge and never come back together. If we start with a biblical view of people and emotions, and then we follow the path of emotional dysregulation, we will end up in the world of Dialectical Behavior Therapy with no way back. Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, DBT does not claim to have a biblical view of people or emotions, and would see no reason to return to Scripture for help.
Emotional dysregulation bypasses Scripture
Watch what happens when you say “emotional dysregulation.” Scripture largely disappears from view. It never mentions this problem. Dysregulation appears in no concordance or Bible translation. As such, it seems we must spend all of our time in the psychotherapeutic world where we find a somewhat mechanical and superficial view of the person, whose greatest need is to calm down.
All this gets to my concern. If we follow this path, Scripture no longer provides the lens through which we see everything. It loses its worldview status. Though Scripture contains some material on anger, it is rejected. This is apparently because the material is thought to be about the ordinary, every-day variety of anger, not the stuff of pathology that needs regulation. Yet, Scripture should never be relegated to the sidelines when we are dealing with the struggles of daily life. It peers into the entire universe and reveals the very mind of the God who created us.
Scripture speaks fluently about our emotions
Here is another way to look at emotional dysregulation. We start with a basic observation: some people freak out for reasons that would seem minor to the rest of us. Their emotions, usually their fears or anger, seem capricious and intense. Instead of stomping off, they throw something at you. Instead of covering a perceived offense, they break relationships and break them dramatically. Instead of pushing aside a pesky fear, they can think of nothing else and their relationships suffer because of it. This is, indeed, a problem and it devastates families, but is not beyond the realm of Scripture.
Scripture is all about these very things. It points to the God who is patient, pursues justice, and is gentle with bruised reeds, even angry, bruised ones. And there is so much available to us. We could consider the beauty of self-control. We could consider what or who controls us. We could study the perfect human who was never angry when something was done against him.
Knowing these biblical truths, we engage the out-of-control person.
“What just happened? Your response was really intense.”
Then we learn that the emotionally-overloaded person was responding both to present events and past victimization. Now God’s words on shame and injustice have opportunities to rush back into the person’s past while they speak comfort, power, and God’s immanence in the present.
Then, we consider questions of how to live with Jesus now. Scripture tends to reshape our past and then brings us to how to live by faith today. Since we are no longer our own but are bought with a price, we have hope, and hope strategizes and gets busy. “I will leave the room rather than throw china.” “I will call when things get tense.”
Maybe there will actually be less throwing and more reaching out for help.
Maybe there will be confession of sin and the encouragement of forgiveness. And maybe not. But if not, we persevere with the person because God perseveres with us. He knows our hearts and is merciful and gracious, again and again.
As we learn more about the person, and learn more of what God says, we consider practical applications of Scripture for being less dominated by strong passions, and we help the person to keep practicing. We pray to be people who know love and do love.
This is just the beginning of how the world of Scripture brings light and hope to a very difficult problem. Just the beginning. My concern is that “emotional dysregulation” can’t easily get you there.