How to Turn Negative Feelings into Your Allies: An Interview with Alison Cook and Kim Miller

Alison CookHow can you harness feelings like anger, sadness, and fear so they change your life for the better? What are their proper functions according to Scripture? How can you transform them from relationship-disrupters and joy-stealers into allies and bring harmony to your soul?

Bible Gateway interviewed Alison Cook and Kim Miller (@KJ__Miller) about their book, Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies (Thomas Nelson, 2018).

Kim Miller

What does it mean to set boundaries in your soul?

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: Most people struggle with overwhelming thoughts and feelings from time to time. And often our internal chaos causes us to hurt others. As James said, we can be “double-minded” (James 1:8). We might find ourselves praying one minute and saying a hurtful word the next. Developing healthy internal boundaries involves getting to know and caring for the parts of your soul—even those parts you find most challenging. It’s a path to becoming more whole.

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As counselors, we’ve noticed that people have two opposite, unhealthy ways of relating to painful emotions. They either keep them too close or they try to push them too far away. When we’re too close to our emotions, we become overwhelmed and can’t think straight. But if we’re too far from our emotions, we risk being cut off from important aspects of who we are.

When you set boundaries internally, you’re creating healthy distance from challenging thoughts and feelings so that you can lead them well. You’re honing your capacity to understand and care for your sometimes-chaotic inner world.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, How to Achieve Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: An Interview with Peter Scazzero]

Why are internal boundaries important?

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: King David prayed for an “undivided heart” (Psalm 86:11). Developing healthy internal boundaries helps you unite the many facets of your soul in partnership with the Holy Spirit. When you’re strong inside, you’re able to respond with more resilience to life’s challenges. You become true to the person God created you to be and to the work he has planned for you to do. You become the same person on the inside as you are on the outside. You get more realistic about your limitations and have a clear sense of your own values, vision, mission, and priorities. And you also begin to understand that the health of your relationships and the sustainability of your service depend on your ability to understand and care for the various aspects of your soul.

Define the human soul (is it different from spirit?) and tell why boundaries need to be applied to it.

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: The human soul (in Greek, psyche) is all that is rational and incorporeal. By contrast, the human spirit (in Greek, pneuma) literally means breath, suggesting life or vitality—more than mind (that is, soul). Because God is the source of life, there’s some association with spirit and Spirit. But often the words soul and spirit are used interchangeably to mean all of the non-physical elements of a person.

Think of your soul as having many parts and the Holy Spirit-led self in the middle. Your soul needs boundaries because sometimes parts of your soul can overwhelm you. Or conversely, you can push parts of yourself aside. In either case—whether parts of you are too close or too far from your Spirit-led self—your soul doesn’t thrive and flourish as it could.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, How to Fight Fear, Wrestle Worry, and Allay Anxiety: An Interview with Alli Worthington]

What are boundaries and how can they be “too close” or “too far” and how can they be “just right”?

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: When you’re too close to painful emotions, you might have thoughts like these:

  • Other people always let me down. (victimization)
  • I’ll keep giving and suffering for everyone else’s sake. (martyrdom)
  • It’s always going to be this way . . . I’ll never be happy. (hopelessness)

When you’re too far from painful emotions, you might find yourself thinking things like this:

  • She made me get angry. She’s the problem! (blaming)
  • It’s too painful to talk about . . . I’ll just change the subject. (avoiding)
  • What hopes and dreams? Dreaming hurts too much. My life is fine the way it is. (denying)

Either extreme robs you of confidence, peace, and joy, and negatively impacts your relationships with others. When you’re at a comfortable distance from your challenging thoughts and feelings, though, you gain perspective. You can lead them from the place inside of you where the Holy Spirit dwells.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Anxious for Nothing: An Interview with Max Lucado]

What do you mean by “take a You-Turn”?

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: Most clients come to us initially with the desire to talk about someone else—their spouse, boss, child, friend, and so on. When we’re struggling, the natural response is to accuse the other. But Jesus challenges us to work on our own personal growth: “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5).

So when you’re experiencing internal unrest or painful emotions, we suggest taking a You-Turn. Instead of focusing on another person, or a situation that may have conjured up uncomfortable emotions, look inside your soul to understand better your own reaction.

To take a You-turn, you focus on your painful emotion, befriend it, and invite Jesus to be near—then unburden it and integrate it with the other parts of your soul. This Five Step process helps you know more clearly how to act well in your external circumstances.

How does the work of the Holy Spirit factor in to Christians setting boundaries for their souls?

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: The Spirit of God abides within the heart, or core, of the Christian soul. This living treasure assists with the process of guiding and restoring the fragmented facets of your soul (2 Cor. 4:7 ESV). We call this place where the Holy Spirit abides your “Spirit-led self.”

Many psychologists and spiritual leaders have explored this idea of what we’re calling the Spirit-led self. For example, Henri Nouwen describes that place in your soul where you have clear perspective; where you can gather together your thoughts and desires and “hold them together in truth.” And psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend refer to a “space inside” where you can experience your feelings without fear of judgment—a place where these parts of your soul can receive the attention they need so you don’t act in hurtful ways.

From this place, you can draw a troubling emotion in closer or ask it to step back, and develop perspective. You can invite Jesus to be with the parts of you most in need of his presence. Your Spirit-led self can minister to the parts of you with burdensome thoughts and feelings, so that you are witnessed and transformed.

What are the “three parts of you” you write about?

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: There isn’t one correct way of conceptualizing the soul, but it’s helpful to have some map, or framework, for understanding it, so that you can care for it. One framework we’ve found helpful is called the Internal Family Systems model, and it suggests thinking of the soul as having three types of parts, in addition to what we call the Spirit-led self.

According to this model, the three parts of the soul are called managers and firefighters (which are both protectors) and exiles. Protectors are the parts of your soul that work to keep you from experiencing pain. Exiles are the vulnerable parts of your soul you’d rather others not know about.

Managers are the protectors that strive to keep you emotionally safe and prevent the more vulnerable parts of you from experiencing harm. They work vigilantly to keep life smooth and predictable. They dutifully get you out of bed in the morning, and in the evening they worry about what didn’t get done. They drive you to perform, produce, protect, and please. Firefighters, on the other hand, try to extinguish pain after it occurs. These impulsive parts indulge in a lot of whatever feels good, distracting you and tricking you into believing you’re handling life well.

Lastly, exiles are the distressed parts of your soul that your managers and firefighters are trying to protect. They tend to harbor the pain, shame, fear, loneliness, and insecurities you’d rather not face.

How does a person know when and what boundaries need to be established in their soul?

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: Any extreme belief, feelings, or behaviors signal that some internal boundaries might be needed. Some examples are:

  • feeling critical of yourself or others.
  • exhaustion from people-pleasing.
  • getting angry and saying hurtful things.
  • struggling to make decisions due to worry and fear.
  • wanting to escape.
  • feeling compelled to make something perfect.
  • sensing an urgency to fix yourself, or something in your life, right away.
  • checking out.
  • ruminating about hurtful memories.
  • isolating and withdrawing.
  • feeling like a victim of your circumstances.
  • persistent loneliness.
  • staying in bed too long.
  • feeling worthless and flooded with shame.

How does setting boundaries in your soul further the kingdom of God?

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: When you’re broken, you experience conflict and chaos. But reconciling your inner world involves restoring harmony and leads to contentment. Toward the end of his life, Paul wrote even while sitting chained up in a jail cell, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12). The English word content comes from the Latin word contentus, combining the words held and together. Being content implies an experience of being held together, contained, and well ordered internally, regardless of your external circumstances.

This sense of contentment and integrity empowers you to care well for others. As you gain a greater sense of internal order, you become free to focus on your God-given purpose in the world.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: One verse we love is: “The one who gains wisdom loves his soul” (Proverbs 19:8). This verse conveys that we all have a relationship with ourselves. And the Bible tells us here to extend ourselves compassion.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Alison Cook and Kim Miller: We love Bible Gateway and use it frequently. Throughout the process of writing our book, we often used the website to search for passages, check references for substantive commentary, and compare and contrast various translations of the Bible. We don’t know what we’d do without Bible Gateway! Thank you!


Boundaries for Your Soul is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.


Bio: Alison K. Cook is a counselor who specializes in the integration of spiritual formation and psychology. She holds an MA in counseling from Denver Seminary and a PhD in religion and psychology from the University of Denver. She and her family live in Boston, Massachusetts. Sign up to receive Alison Cook’s free email newsletter: alisoncookphd.com/blog.

Kimberly J. Miller is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who earned a master’s degree in theology from Regent College and an MA in clinical psychology from Azusa Pacific University. She and her husband, Ken, live in Southern California. Sign up to receive Kimberly Miller’s free email newsletter: kimberlyjunemiller.com.

Meeting the Enemy

 

Ephesians 6:1–24

The idea of the devil more often solicits smirks than fear or caution in the world today. In his classic work The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes from the point of view of a senior demon, Screwtape, giving advice to his protégé, Wormwood, on how to influence his target. Screwtape tells Wormwood, “The fact that ‘devils’ are predominately comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.”

The Bible is clear that the devil is real and his schemes can be traced back to Eden. Beyond our limited vision lies a spiritual realm where the war for souls is waged. Jesus Christ has already won the ultimate victory, but battles still rage as Satan tries to make Christians and Christianity ineffective and impotent. Those battles play out in various arenas. Paul described them as “rulers,” “authorities,” “powers of this dark world” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Spiritual warfare in unseen realms is as real as the battles waged here on earth.

There are also battles that occur within our thoughts, our relationships, our attitudes and our everyday choices. If the devil can wear us down so that we snap at our children or belittle our husband or pass on a tidbit of gossip, he has weakened our witness.

For every battle we face, God provides us with a full set of spiritual armor. God’s armor is based on truth and righteousness, faith and peace. He asks us to be armed with his attributes, not our own. Above all, we have prayer, which reaches into the spiritual realm and places the battle into the hands of the One who has already won the war.

The presence of evil need not make us suspicious or fearful. We don’t need to look for a demon behind every door. But we should be alert and prayerful so that we are aware of the devil’s schemes when they come and so we can fight the battle in the spiritual realm.

Reflection

  1. How do you picture the devil and the battle in the spiritual realm?
  2. What schemes of the devil have you seen in your own life?
  3. What piece of God’s armor do you most need right now?

Ephesians 6:12
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Related Readings

Philippians 2:11Hebrews 2:14–181 Peter 5:8–91 John 4:1–4

HOW ESTHER SHOWS GOD HAS A PURPOSE FOR YOUR LIFE: AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. TONY EVANS

Jonathan Petersen

How Esther Shows God Has a Purpose for Your Life: An Interview with Dr. Tony Evans

Tony EvansDo you believe God has a purpose for your life, and every action or event that occurs within it has been used to make that purpose a reality? Do you read the story of Esther as a series of coincidences strung together to deliver the Jews from certain death? Or as God having a particular purpose at a particular time?

In this Bible Gateway Q&A, Dr. Tony Evans (@drtonyevans) talks about his book, Pathways: From Providence to Purpose (B&H Books, 2019).

What prompted you to write Pathways?

Buy your copy of Pathways: From Providence to Purpose in the Bible Gateway Store where you'll enjoy low prices every day

Dr. Tony Evans: Well, I’ve been talking a lot about destiny, and a lot of people are confused about how God goes about showing them and showing us where he wants us to go because he zigzags. And so the book was written to show that the pathway to where God is taking you is not a straight line. It goes up and down, in and out. Sometimes backwards, then forwards. So they can better make sense of the process and better accept, particularly things that they do not prefer or do not understand taking place in their lives, which is all part of God’s plan to develop us and take us from where we are to where he wants us to be.

Why did you decide to focus on the story of Esther in this book, and what makes her story unique and relevant in understanding purpose and destiny?

Dr. Tony Evans: Esther is unique because it’s the only book in the Bible where God’s name is not directly used, but his fingerprints are seen everywhere. Because sometimes when you’re pursuing your destiny, you can’t locate God. So God chose this story to show how he works behind the scenes when he’s not being obvious to accomplish his purpose. And Esther points that out in direct ways and indirect ways, using major events and minor idiosyncrasies to bring about not only Esther’s destiny but the benefit she would be to God’s kingdom. So, it’s a kingdom book, but it’s a kingdom book with God operating behind the scenes.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Esther is the Tale of Evil in a World Where God Seems Absent: An Interview with Mike Cosper]

What surprised you, if anything, about reading and studying the book of Esther with this topic in mind?

Dr. Tony Evans: What surprised me was how God could take the good, the bad, and the evil because there’s sin involved, there’s rebellion involved, there’s evil involved, there’s a love relationship involved, there’s beauty involved, there’s family involved, and then there’s a whole nation involved. So you’ve got intrigue, drama, passion—you’ve got all of these human realities being brought together in a dynamic, unfolding drama. And so, it surprised me when I studied it to see all the human elements that are brought to bear in one person’s story for the benefit of the preservation of God’s people and God’s kingdom program.

What else do you love about this story?

Dr. Tony Evans: I love the reversals. There are all sorts of reversals. A reversal for Esther. A reversal for Esther’s relative, Mordecai. A reversal for the nation of Israel. A reversal of the plight of the people. I love all the reversals that take place. That’s what excites me about the book.

So that tells me that God can reverse anything at anytime when his sovereignty calls for it and when his providence arranges it.

Why do you think it’s so difficult for people to stay on the right path, and how do we find purpose when we’re on a difficult path and don’t really understand God’s destiny for us?

Dr. Tony Evans: It’s difficult because it’s not laid out for us in a clear road map. And whenever you’re zigzagging in life and you don’t clearly see where you’re headed, because we’re told to walk by faith, that can become problematic. And so what we often do is we detour onto our own path when God’s path that he has us on, which has given us no legitimate reason for the detour, looks too difficult, too challenging, or too undesirable. So then we veer off, and then, of course, that means we have to go through the trauma of getting back on the right road.

And so when God cannot be understood or clearly articulated or clearly seen, but you, to the best of your knowledge, are walking in the way that he’s prescribed, you’re going to have to learn to trust him in the dark. And that’s what happened in the book of Esther.

When you’re on the difficult path, how do you understand God’s purpose and where he is in those moments and what do we see Esther do?

Dr. Tony Evans: What you look for when you’re on a difficult path is validations along the way. Those come in big waves and those come in small waves. We see Esther delaying a dinner. She gets an impression not to move forward in that moment. The Holy Spirit—to use a New Testament terminology—holds her back from her movement because timing would become critical. Insomnia would become critical. So, there would be little things. So, look—most people want to look for their destiny—looking for a big thing. Something overt from Heaven. When God often brings little things. So you want to pay attention to the details. That’s what I’d say. Is God—is something happening that’s out of the ordinary? Am I being drawn in a particular direction? It may not be big, but if you can’t escape it, then that’s God talking, so pay attention.

Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding in the Christian world about using the word providence. What does providence mean and how does it change our perspective on our lives and pathways?

Dr. Tony Evans: Providence is a subset of sovereignty. Sovereignty is God’s rule over everything. God accomplishes his purposes. Providence is the methods he chooses to use to accomplish those purposes. It’s God’s invisible hand behind the steering wheel of history in general and a person’s history in particular. So it’s God working behind the scenes when he wants to stay anonymous to accomplish his sovereign will.

How does understanding that providence change our perspective on our lives and the path that we’re on?

Dr. Tony Evans: Well, understanding providence means that I’m looking for God in all the details. I’m looking for God in all of the parts of life. I’m looking for God not only in the big things but I’m looking for God in the little things. So God is now being looked for because I’m not only looking for him in an overt way, I’m looking for him in secret ways. In subtle ways. So it gives me a God-focus and a God-consciousness ongoing.

What do you hope for readers of your book?

Dr. Tony Evans: What I hope is that readers of Pathways get excited about the invisible God. They get excited about the things that they don’t understand. And that they learn now to trust God more. And to walk with him further in spite of the challenges they face because now they understand how he works a lot clearer.


Bio: Tony Evans—author of numerous books including The Truth About AngelsYour Comeback: Your Past Doesn’t Have to Determine Your Future, and Warfare: Winning the Spiritual Battle—is one of the country’s most respected leaders in evangelical circles. As a pastor, teacher, author, and speaker, he serves the body of Christ through his unique ability to communicate complex theological truths through simple yet profound illustrations. While addressing the practical issues of today, Dr. Evans is known as a relevant expositor. New and veteran pastors alike regard him as a pastor of pastors and a father in the faith.