Emotions: Can You Trust Them? (by James Dobson)

James Dobson is a well-respected American doctor, psychologist and writer, at least in Christian circles. He was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, before the proliferation of parenting books, for his focus on ‘authoritative’ parenting, which he defined as the optimum mid-ground between permissiveness and authoritarianism. He was writing in an era when people were suffering the aftermath of the ultra-permissive 1960s, but was concerned that parenting should not swing the other way.

As such, I read and appreciated much of what he wrote in his classic ‘Dare to Discipline’ and one or two other books. I acquired several more, and while I gradually moved towards a more relaxed parenting style, throwing out some of Dobson’s more controversial suggestions, I still read, from time to time, his other books - on family life in general, and marriage, and similar topics. I didn’t always agree with him, but found his ideas thought-provoking. So when some colleagues were leaving Cyprus and offered us, among other books, Dobson’s ‘Emotions: Can you trust them?’ I accepted with pleasure.

I’m pretty sure I’d read this many years ago, but it sat on our shelves until recently when I realised I couldn’t recall anything about it. I expected to disagree: to be told that emotions were inferior to the mind, or that I simply needed to be strong-willed to overcome even the strongest of emotions. I was pleasantly surprised. Dobson doesn’t play down emotions at all; he acknowledges their importance, and the involuntary nature of strong feelings. He doesn’t contrast them with reason, at all, but with the will.

He divides the book into three main parts, examining three important emotions: guilt, romantic love and anger. An interesting selection. He distinguishes true guilt (when we have done something wrong which we may need to put right) from false guilt, which can become an ego-trip, or - more likely - can lead someone to depression or the feeling that they’re responsible for other people’s lives. The advice given is realistic and practical. I’m not one to suffer much from false guilt, but it was still an interesting read.

The section on romantic love would be helpful to anyone believing they have fallen in love, or starting a new relationship. Dobson looks at the powerful chemistry that can draw people together, and points out that mutual attraction is not at all the same as real love, which is an act of the will as much as a feeling. He gives advice to those getting to know each other, and to those who are engaged or married. He believes in Christian principles which may seem outdated to modern young people, but the points he makes are nonetheless relevant.

The third section, on anger, looks at when anger is righteous, when it’s appropriate, and how we can act on it without harm. There are Bible quotations to back up the author’s points, and an encouragement to take steps towards conquering a bad temper, since every step forward should help for the next time.

The final section isn’t so much about strong emotion, but about determining God’s will, either in a major way, or from the point of view of day-to-day living. Dobson warns against blindly trusting in intuitions or apparent voices; while he acknowledges that they may be from God, they should always be tested by Scriptural principles, by generally understood ethics or morality, by reason and also by what we might call ‘providence’ - or, in modern Christian jargon, the idea of a door opening or closing.

On the whole, I thought the book was quite wise, if a little over-wordy here and there. It was rather spoiled by the various discussion questions which were at the end of each chapter, rather than being tucked away at the end, but perhaps that was the style of the era; this was first published in 1980.

I don’t know that modern readers would find this particularly useful as there are many books on similar topics; nonetheless, it’s been published for the Kindle, perhaps in a slightly revised edition, as well as being fairly widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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