Bishop James P. Powers presided over 9 a.m. Mass at the 2023 Fall Conference. Concelebrating were priests from local and regional parishes. (Catholic Herald photo)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

To kick off a second morning keynote address at the Diocese of Superior’s 2023 Fall Conference, Martin Center for Integration founder Pat Millea said he’s never gone to a non-Catholic school, from kindergarten through graduate school.

“I love Catholic schools,” he added, and joked about being raised in Irish Catholicism. “We don’t talk about our feelings, we drink ‘em.”

After teasing his wife and co-presenter, Kenna, about the foreign experience of marrying a woman “with many feelings,” who is also a therapist, Millea said he’s come to learn that he has emotions.

His approach to dealing with them is to not shut them down, but not let them control him, either – “I’m not going to let them drive,” but he’s keeping them in the car.

Sharing an image of a feelings wheel, Pat said the first step in healthy engagement with emotions “is knowing what in the world I’m even feeling in the first place.” Many of us don’t have a great emotional vocabulary, he added.

On the wheel, the core emotions were mad, sad, scared, joyful, peaceful and powerful. Culturally, we’ve been told for generations it is bad to feel mad, sad or scared, he commented, and that it is good to feel joyful, peaceful or powerful.

They are all good information to tell us what’s happening in us in relation to the world around us, he explained. We need to be able to identify our emotions in order to make good choices in responding, not just knee-jerk reactions.

Kenna encouraged the educators and catechists at the conference to think of their feelings as messengers. If you find yourself feeling joyful, peaceful or powerful, keep going – you are in the right place.

After recognizing feelings related to mad, sad or scared emotions, our intellect can begin to digest emotional information. Angry feelings mean there has been a violation, she said. “A line has been crossed, whether explicitly or implicitly,” or an expectation has not been met. The way to soothe that is to set limits or reestablish boundaries.

Sad feelings mean there’s a loss, or one is sensing there’s going to be a loss. Dealing with those feelings means taking time for reflection, time to grieve, process the loss and let go.

Scared feelings indicate there’s a danger, or I’m sensing a danger. Those feelings can be tricky, Kenna acknowledged. At the Martin Center, they work with organizations with young adults in missionary roles; in general, someone who feels fear needs protection, support and reassurance.

Pat advised listeners to first gather emotional information to understand what one is feeling, then use a feelings wheel to trace back the core emotion – joyful, peaceful, powerful, mad, sad or scared – and assess whether you are using the emotions well or not. We should “practice resisting the urge to tell ourselves and others to stop feeling a certain way. The goal is not to eliminate the emotions that are unpleasant,” he explained. Emotions are valuable, so we want to use them in a way that is loving.

Citing the Bible quote, “Be angry, but do not sin,” Pat shared another quote: “You are responsible for your second thought and your first action.” It’s true that we may need to talk to someone to process emotions, he observed. For some people, due to how they have grown up and other factors, “anger burns really hot.” Therapy can “help them funnel it in a better way.”

“We brought you here under the premise that God wants you to do something with the integration of your body and mind,” Kenna said. Referencing the bodily response to an overstimulated nervous system – rising heart rate, sweating palms, a racing pulse – she invited listeners to consider practical ways to slow down, particularly at times of heightened stimuli.

Personally, Kenna said she feels overstimulated on the car ride home from school, when all her children are talking at once. By decreasing other stimuli – in her case, turning off the radio on the way home – she can lower her stress level.

“When I am not thoughtful about my responses, I am more animal-like, far less angelic,” she conceded. When knee-jerk reacting, “I am also less free,” she added. “I am less intentional. I am less thoughtful. I am less me.”

That skill of identifying stimuli and choosing a response has become more difficult for all of us because of technology, Pat advised. Not wanting to villainize technology, he said being well-developed adults means one should choose a response, and work on growth toward being more free, more thoughtful and intentional.

Looking at Matthew, chapter 26, the agony in the garden, Pat reflected on way Jesus responded to his feelings. He begins to identify emotions – sorrow and distress – which he tells his Apostles. He knows his feelings – he takes them into prayer – and shifts from emotions to will, God’s will and not his own.

We received our salvation because he made a willful choice to do what was right, Pat said, even if it was hard.