By Sarah E. Westfall
God's Brave Women - Sarah's Story
I don’t know when or where I learned to hide my emotions.
Perhaps it was that day in kindergarten when I wore my favorite dress and another girl called me fat, and I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of seeing me cry. Or in junior high, when I tried to punch a boy who was teasing me, only to be mocked by his acne-clad friends who chanted “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, no one can beat Mohammed Ali!” I ran away crying. Maybe it began the day a teacher at my Christian high school questioned my sexuality, because I seemed “too emotionally attached” to my best friend at the time.
Maybe it was a combination of all these things.
One way or another, I got the message: Overt emotion equaled instability—qualities undesirable in a woman, a leader, certainly in public. If I wanted friends, success and easy living, my feelings were best buried than laid bare.
And so, I perfected the art of repression.
"Overt emotion equaled instability—qualities undesirable in a woman, a leader, certainly in public. If I wanted friends, success and easy living, my feelings were best buried than laid bare.
And so, I perfected the art of repression."
I stayed quiet when anger threatened to burn straight through my chest. I developed a knack for sarcasm. A witty response was always better received than weeping. I held joy at arm’s length, distrustful of its intentions, and I bit my bottom lip to keep back the tears, a habit I’m still trying to quit.
The thing about stuffing emotions is that they don’t disappear. Instead fear, elation, worry, anger, excitement, and grief all simmer beneath the surface like a cauldron of thick, black sludge—both suffocating and disorienting.
The harder we try to ignore our emotions, the more we lose ourselves. The space between who we were and who we are becoming screams with dissonance. The pressure builds until we reach “too much.”
Enter: my freshman year of college. Depression and anxiety held me in a headlock. I went from class to class with a wad of fear and ruminating thoughts. Having never experienced such heaviness before, I over-spiritualized it. My misconceptions about God led me to believe that I had somehow, somewhere made a bad choice, and crawling around in that abyss was my penance.
Daily, I’d wrack my brain for what I could do or change. What puzzle piece had I tried to force into place? What is my chosen major? The boy I was dating? Perhaps not enough time reading my Bible? I’d pray myself to sleep, begging for relief, only to wake up sweaty from a panic attack in the middle of the night.
All the protective walls I’d crafted around myself began to crumble. So overcome with foreign feelings and crippled by fear, repression became impossible. All at once, my boyfriend, roommate, family, friends became hit by my emotional tsunami. The sludge I’d buried in silence came spilling out, sloshing and swirling around our necks.
"All that I had kept hidden was on full display—and yet when the waters of my emotional storm receded, I was not abandoned in the wreckage. All who had been swept up stayed. Instead of shame and isolation, what I felt was freedom and love."
All that I had kept hidden was on full display—and yet when the waters of my emotional storm receded, I was not abandoned in the wreckage. All who had been swept up stayed. Instead of shame and isolation, what I felt was freedom and love.
For the first time in a long time, I breathed deep in lungs that expanded to their fullest degree. Hope flickered on the horizon.
While emotional and physical healing* wasn’t immediate, coming to the end of myself became the turning point—the moment I realized I didn’t have to live inside the straightjacket of “having it all together.” The world has space for weakness, for joy that bursts at the seams, and for grief that rips us apart.
To feel is to be human. Repression only diminishes that humanity and distances us from the hands of our Creator.
"The world has space for weakness, for joy that bursts at the seams, and for grief that rips us apart. To feel is to be human. Repression only diminishes that humanity and distances us from the hands of our Creator."
But here’s the ongoing struggle, the way in which I’m still learning to be brave: Not everyone welcomes emotion. They grow restless with lament, shifty with excessive celebration, and break out in hives at open weeping. Even laughter can bring a sideways glance.
Feeling and expressing those highs and lows is countercultural but oh-so-needed. Imagine if we gave everyone (including ourselves) permission to be exactly who they are? How might we breathe easier? Rest a little more? Invest in relationships at a deeper level?
Repression never brings freedom. The bravest of us do not control or fend off emotions but live into them. We embrace the complexity of what it means to be human—all of it. We give God our scraped knees and wounded hearts with open hands as the fullest expression of our fleshly bodies—an offering for our good and His glory.
You formed my innermost being,
shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside,
and wove them all together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, God, for making me so mysteriously complex!
—Psalm 139:13–14a (TPT)
*Note: Severe anxiety and depression didn’t rid itself from my daily life for a full two years (and sixteen years later, I still have the occasional flare-up of anxiety). Sorting through complex emotions and poor mental health involved prayer and God’s Word. But it also required therapy, medication, and the unrelenting love of family, friends, and the boyfriend who eventually became my husband. If you wrestle with anxiety, panic attacks, or depression, please seek the help of a professional therapist or counselor. Don’t bear your burden alone. Secret pain always has more power.
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Sarah E. Westfall is a writer, speaker, and creator of the devotional Be Still: Leaning into God When Everything Falls Apart. No stranger to loss, Sarah offers an invitation into the deep grace found in a life undone. She currently lives in Indiana, along with her salt-and-pepper-bearded man Ben and four sons. Connect with Sarah on Instagram and Twitter, and go to www.sarahewestfall.com/offer for a FREE copy of Show Up: A Guide to Loving Well in the Wake of Loss.