01 Jun THE MYTH OF BELIEVING THAT FEELINGS DETERMINE ACTIONS
“We need to get rid of the unrealistic and outdated notion that feelings determine what we do. They do not. When we are freed from that myth, we discover that unpleasant feelings are not simply troublesome, they are informative.”
-David K. Reynolds, Ph.D.
A Handbook for Constructive Living
How do you feel? I’m not inquiring if you feel happy, sad, angry, hurt, depressed or ecstatic. I mean -“How DO you FEEL?” Are you honest with yourself or do you deny and suppress painful feelings? Do you learn from your feelings or do you ignore them? Do you use your feelings or do your feelings use you? When you feel angry, depressed or fearful, do you act out and yell at others, dump your negative feelings on anyone who listens, drag them down with you or, are you responsible for how you feel?
Most people never think about their feelings and, because they have never examined the nature of feelings, they mistakenly and often destructively let them determine their actions. Many others struggle with knowing and accepting how they really feel. This is a common problem among most humans and yet, I believe, it is one of the most important lessons to learn for emotional growth and mental freedom.
Our feelings are very important because they help us to know ourselves, to be authentic, and to connect deeply with others. Negative feelings are signposts for us to learn about ourselves and resolve old issues.
“Anybody can become angry, that is easy, but to be angry with the right person, and to the right person, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power. That is not easy.”
-Aristotle, Greek philosopher
Here’s a news flash: You have very little control over your feelings and you don’t need to. You do, however, need to have control over your actions. As the politician and writer Samuel Adams wrote, “Mankind are governed more by their feelings than by reason.”
Acknowledging and coming to terms with your feelings is a subject to which I could devote an entire book. Since I don’t have that luxury here, I can at least give you some advice.
The more you are willing to acknowledge, confront and learn from your feelings, the faster you will grow on all levels. The more in touch you are with your feelings, the more authentic you will become and the better you will be at having loving relationships. Feelings give us the opportunity to look at our truth. It is by knowing ourselves that we can heal the past. The great psychologist Carl Jung wrote, “That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.”
Benjamin, I’ll call him, was teased, tormented and beat up as a young man. He wouldn’t cry because he was afraid of being called a “sissy.” He shoved away his feelings of pain and fear. Eventually he, too, began to use his fists. He became the bully he was afraid of in his youth. He carried his fear into the business world, his fists becoming attitude. He used words to hurt. He mocked, made fun of and bullied others. For years he thought, “This is just the way I am.”
Benjamin did what many people do. He ignored the warning signs of his emotions. He lied to himself and blamed others. He distorted and denied his feelings until his world began to fall apart.
Our work together helped him confront, let go of the past and realize that he did not have to become a victim of his feelings. He had to break through the fear and discomfort of looking inwards and battle his demons. It took a lot of courage and a great deal of work but he was successful.
If you are like Benjamin, the biggest thing that stands between you and healing the past is – fear. You might unconsciously believe that looking back at early painful feelings and memories would just be too overwhelming. Or, you might think that acknowledging, accepting and examining negative feelings makes you weak. Let me assure you that you are far stronger than you realize.
What can you start doing today to grow on an emotional level?
First, you can stop ignoring those recurring, unsettling feelings that make you uncomfortable and possibly – afraid. Embrace them. Pay attention. Notice them. Examine them. That’s all you have to do. They are signposts to what you need to work on, but first you have to see your feelings as signposts.
Once you are aware of these negative feelings, what should you do with them? You may feel compelled to express them to the first available person you come in contact with. But is that the most desirable outcome? Not necessarily.
Pulitzer Prize winning author William Safire summed it up correctly when he wrote, “If you want to ‘get in touch with your feelings’, fine, talk to yourself. We all do. But if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts.”
This is tricky. Expressing your feelings doesn’t necessarily get rid of or diminish them. In fact, by expressing negative feelings at an inappropriate time to the wrong person could end in disaster. You can easily work yourself into an emotional frenzy when you are in fear and feeling anger. That’s not very desirable under any circumstance and will often be just plain – destructive.
Let me put it another way – expressing your feelings haphazardly to others can be hurtful and bloody boring. You may feel you are being vulnerable by expressing your feelings and you may be. But the question is – does the other person really want to hear it?
So, take heed. Unless you are with a therapist or coach or someone who deeply cares about you and is absolutely willing to listen, don’t do it! On the other hand, expressing your emotions at the right time to the right person can deepen intimacy.
In and of themselves, feelings are never a problem. They are a natural part of being human. Use them. Refuse to let them use you. If they are unpleasant feelings, they are more than likely pointing to some problem in your life that needs attention.
Again, if your feelings are negative, resist the urge to act on them. Your feelings do not have to determine your actions – ever! When tempted to lash out, take a few breaths, count to ten and accept them and, like the wind, your feelings will diminish in intensity.
You may not have much control over your feelings but – don’t despair. You do have control over something far more important – your actions. It is faulty thinking that you must “feel” a certain way before you can act. If that is how you function, break this dependency on your feelings now. And, action will almost always change the way you feel.
Start paying attention to your feelings. Sometimes, simply noticing and acknowledging your feelings help them to shift. We need to listen to our feelings. Allow them to be there without trying to get rid of them or hang on to them and you will find many of your problems will diminish.
Be courageous. Refuse to deny painful feelings. Experiencing them won’t devastate you. They are the path to growth, insight and fulfillment. If your feelings are too overwhelming, step back and imagine you are watching another person experiencing these emotions. Act as an observer and you might just learn something.
You are stronger than you think. Go for growth. The great singer Lena Horne summed it up perfectly. “Don’t be afraid to feel as angry or as loving as you can, because when you feel nothing, it’s just death.”