Feelings Are Just Feelings!
One of the things I’ve noticed when working with my clients is that there is a strong desire to understand how to reach a place of what many call “emotional balance.” What I think many people really want is way to experience and express feelings without becoming overwhelmed or stuck.
Yet, in many ways, I think our relationship to feelings has become a bit too lenient. We often hear people say, “Well, if that’s how you feel …” – as if whatever comes after that is necessarily fine, good, or true. I’d like to challenge this idea and offer some alternative ways to understand, relate to, and utilize our feelings.
First of all, here are a few things to know about feelings (adapted from Shelter from the Storm):
- Feelings are neither right nor wrong—only actions can be judged that way.
- Feelings are affected by how we think—negative thoughts produce negative feelings.
- Feelings are often mixed—rarely do we experience one feeling at a time.
- Feelings can be expressed in different ways—there is no one right way; each person has his or her own style.
- Feelings do not lose their intensity by being buried, even for a long time. They must be worked through to lose their punch.
- Feelings should not dictate our lives. Instead, what we have given our word to—integrity—should, at times, guide our decisions.
Let’s take a closer look at this list. The first thing to notice is that we should not judge our feelings or experience shame or guilt because we have a particular feeling. Essentially feelings arise for a variety of reasons—from the biological to the circumstantial, some would even argue with the cycle of the moon! So, feelings happen—sometimes terrible, I want to hide-under-a-rock feelings.
Yet if we are to mature into our feelings and manage our behavior, our focus needs to be on the actions that follow feelings rather than trying to eradicate the feeling altogether. For example, if we feel scared in a relationship, that’s okay. If we feel scared and then behave miserably toward the other person in the hopes of pushing them away, not so okay! We need to take responsibility for how we act in response to our feelings.
What feelings have you been judging as being bad or wrong?
Instead of judging your feelings, what behaviors or responses to your feelings should you instead focus on transforming?
Now, I am sure the second point—feelings are affected by how we think—does not come as much of a surprise to you by now. The more our minds focus on the negative, the more our feelings will follow suit.
In contrast, positive feelings
“… improve our cognitive capacities while we are in safe situations, allowing us to build resources around us for the long term. That’s in marked contrast to the effects of negative emotions like fear, which focus our attention so we can deal with short-term problems. ‘Positive feelings change the way our brains work and expand the boundaries of experience, allowing us to take in more information and see the big picture’.”
—Dan Jones, How to Be Happy
Essentially, the more positive emotions we experience, the bigger our bank account is that we can draw upon when things get hard. Positive emotions help us see things broadly, while negative emotions create a pinpoint focus. This can, of course, be very useful at times, but not if we fall into a downward spiral of negativity.
How full is your bank account of positive feelings? What could you do to increase your balance?
Finally, we need to remember that feelings are just feelings—they should not dictate our decisions, mostly because feelings are so fleeting! In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says,
“‘the most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of our own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs.’ ... Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all.”
If we are slaves to our emotions, keeping our commitments may fall to the wayside over and over again. As a result, our integrity is weakened or falls apart. “I don’t feel like it” may seem like a Get out of Jail Free card, but in reality, we suffer and those around us begin to distrust that we will keep our promises. We ultimately damage our relationships and may even be dismissed as unreliable or a flake.
How many relationships end because the initial intense feelings subside and people think, “Hmm, I must not be in love anymore”? How many times do we say no to an opportunity, because we feel afraid? How many times do we bounce from job to job seeking a fresh high?
Too often, we make decisions about whether to stay in a relationship, whether to stay at a job, whether to keep our commitment for a dinner party based solely on our feelings.
Now, lest you label me a hater of feelings, let me be clear that I am not deriding the important role that feelings play in our decision making process. Again, it is about balance—and, for those of us who have been abused—our emotions are often quite unbalanced. We have a tendency to rely too heavily on what we feel. This is particularly dangerous until we move beyond being a survivor, because it is very likely that what we feel is all tied up with false beliefs, stories, and negativity! Until we learn to make balanced decisions, a good rule of thumb is to not let our feelings be the dictator of our actions.
One client discovered that she constantly played the “I don’t feel like it” card every time “date night” with her husband rolled around. The day before, or sometimes even the morning of, she would cancel. Eventually the husband became so exasperated, he just stopped offering to take her out. As we began to identify what was driving her feelings, she discovered that she was canceling in order to avoid intimacy. We decided that, regardless of what she felt, she would not cancel the next date night. The evening out with her husband was warm and fulfilling. During our next session, she said, “I wish I had just gone so long ago. It really was so nice to have the time alone with him away from the kids.” By keeping her word regardless of her feelings, she was able to experience connection and intimacy and discovered that keeping her word regardless of what she is feeling often leads to huge payoffs.
What opportunities or experiences have you missed out on because your feelings got in the way?
By focusing on what promises we have made, what we have given our word to, we can bolster our ability to follow through or to show up when our feelings would have us do otherwise.
What have you recently been giving your word to but not following through on because of your feelings?
Honor your feelings—acknowledge them—but practice keeping your word! Pay particular attention to the “I don’t feel like it” trap. When your feelings tempt you to break your word, practice noticing the feeling, but following through and keeping your promise anyway. What are the outcomes? What did you discover?