I remember watching the original Star Trek when I was a child and taking note of how often Spock and Kirk would debate logic versus emotions. In retrospect, I think they did a good job of valuing both. Inspired by those debates, the young counselor in me came up with this theory.
What if emotions are like a super fast computer that quickly evaluates a situation based on past experience and generalizations to warn us of danger or problems?
Have you ever felt angry before you even knew why you were angry, only later to process that someone had violated your boundaries or undermined your security? Have you ever felt uneasy or anxious about a situation only later to recognize all the clues and warning signs?
Anger, fear, frustration, worry, etc. come on quickly and the unpleasantness motivates us to change our behavior. They can serve as excellent warning signs and indicators that we need to take a situation seriously.
The problem is, because this survival mechanism needs to process things so quickly, our emotions are based on generalizations, assumptions and past experiences, which are prone to error. For example, when you have all those odd physical reactions to public speaking, it is because your body reacts to the anxiety of being judged, the same way it would react to prepare to run from a lion. It is a protective mechanism that we regard new situations and people with hesitation and care, but to the extreme this becomes racism and seclusion.
And while our logic is certainly still prone to errors, given more time we can usually discern better what is right and true and what was just a false alarm or poor judgment.
Feelings are just another way to get information about the world, but just like sight or hearing, they can be impaired or faulty. I like to think of feelings as warning lights on a car dashboard. They are indications that something might be wrong. They should be respected, not ignored. But there have been times that I had a low tire warning light, checked all my tires with a gauge to find they are fine and later found out that the pressure sensor was broken. It feels a bit odd to drive around with that warning light on afterward, but I know why it is on and that things are ok.
Society appears to be doing a better job lately of recognizing that feelings need to be validated. Too many people have been hurt and told they were wrong to be upset. And too many people have ignored their feelings when they shouldn’t. Furthermore, depression, anxiety and many other mental health issues are invisible illnesses where people appear to be fine from the outside, but have a very real internal experience of pain and distress. Consider that if someone has tinnitus and experiences painful ringing in their ears, but there is no external sound, their pain is still real. It is largely ineffective or counterproductive to tell someone their experiences are not real.
But, it is an opposite and equally problematic extreme to confuse validating a person’s experiences with saying that those experiences are reality. It is a delicate balance for both those experiencing painful emotions and those caring for such people. But it is good to first validate that feelings are real, and painful, and distressing, and confusing. People are not crazy for being angry, or scared, or stuck.
But then no one should stay at this point too long. Feelings are real, but not reality. Just because you feel scared does not mean you should run. Just because you feel hurt does not mean anyone did you wrong. Just because you feel hopeless, worthless or a failure does not mean you are.
When actions are based on feelings all kinds of things go wrong. Half my blogs are basically getting at this point. I plan to write Feelings Part 2 soon as an example of this. And many of my clients, especially people who struggle with bipolar disorder, are basically just trying to learn how to stop letting their emotions be in control of their lives because of the ongoing problems this causes.
On the other hand, many people have tried to be Spock and be purely logical, and that usually fails or has its own problems, because our emotions are valuable and a crucial part of our existence. Often the best parts of our existence come from emotions. When we are in touch with reality, including the painful parts, life becomes so much more vibrant and rewarding. I think the balance is to learn how to use feelings as clues to navigate our lives, but not let them be in charge of steering the ship.
And as many people say, the longest distance in the world is between the head and the heart. It is a very difficult challenge to act based on your will, rather than you feelings, but it is a challenge worth accepting. At the end of the day, it is not what you feel, but what you do that matters.
On the bright side, most people find that once they realize they do not have to act based on feelings, they start to do things differently, challenge their reality and have new experiences. And, as I said at the beginning, since feelings are largely based on experiences, new experiences are often the best way to eventually change our feelings.