Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings
On Feelings: A Quick Guide to Navigating Your Inner Life
Luke, trust your feelings
Sure, Obi-Wan could suggest this to Luke as he was attempting to destroy the Death Star by directing a missile into a vent like he used to bullseye womp rats from his T-16. But for many of us, the idea of trusting our feelings is anathema. After all, we know our feelings. Our feelings are jerks. Our feelings mess everything up. Why would we trust them? Why does it seem so much of our culture is obsessed with feelings?
In Pixar’s first Blockbuster, Toy Story, we learned that even toys have feelings. In Finding Nemo we learned that underwater creatures had feelings. In Cars, you guessed it, automobiles have feelings. And finally, with 2016’s Inside Out we learned that even feelings have feelings. Some criticized Inside Out for being overly saccharine or catering to a society obsessed with its inner life. A less cynical read might suggest that feelings are prominent in films because they are prominent in our lives. Even the firmest stoic would admit that our feelings, our passions, guide much of our life.
So amidst this revolution of the affective we are seeing a shift in the way many psychiatrists and therapists are treating their patients. Moving from passed down alterations on Freudian psychotherapy these new practitioners deemphasize the intangible or historical reasons for depression and anxiety to deal with the present and its problems.
So what does this approach, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, have to teach us non-practitioners and to those who might not suffer grave mental disease? Take a bare bones self diagnosis and see what you make of it.
1. Think of a situation that causes you stress. You can think of the actual situation, the people, the problem, etc… Now ask yourself: how does it make you feel? I know, the resistance abhors feelings. However, search your feelings and ask yourself how that makes you feel in more than a one word explanation e.g. sad, depressed, angry, annoyed.
2. Now, what do you think about those feelings? Please notice if your feeling was more of a thought than a feeling. A feeling describes a state of being while a thought takes it one step further e.g. I feel lousy as opposed to thinking you are a failure. Failure isn’t a feeling but a state you think your way into. A thought about your feelings might look like: I am inadequate, I am being treated unfairly, etc…
You have around 70,000 thoughts per day. A staggering number and one of the key understandings to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. You have thoughts about your feelings. The feeling can’t change, you accept it and see where it leads. You can, however, control what you think to some degree. What thoughts arise from your feelings? Before we deal with behaviors we isolate and talk about the thoughts. No feelings allowed. Only the cold rational light of day can take us to the next step. Note that this deemphasizing of behavior is counter to much of American moralism. While this treatment might upset stoics, it certainly upsets pure moralists and pragmatists as well.
3. The central question, after we have identified our feelings and thoughts, is to ask yourself if your thoughts are distorted or not. Where is the evidence that you have failed? Where is the evidence that a loved one is mad and ready to take drastic steps? What we find, after accepting our feelings and leading to our thought analysis is that we distort our thoughts by thinking in black and white terms, by resorting to the inevitability of the catastrophic and by being our own worst critics. So the following program has been suggested to remedy those thoughts and feelings. Identify and accept your feelings. Ask yourself what it is precisely you are feeling and why. What ideas about yourself arise from the feelings. Identify the thoughts coming from the feeling. List them in your head or write them down.
4. What evidence do you have to support the veracity of these thoughts? Have you distorted these thoughts, in common and very human ways? Have you jumped directly to a catastrophe? Have you jumped to conclusions about what others must be concluding. At this point you have likely calmed some of your fears, if in fact there are (and there usually are) thought distortions.
5. Even if you believe you are justified, the final step is to treat yourself like you would treat a friend. Talk to yourself like you’d expect a life long friend too talk to you. Would they fixate on your problem and your fault? Would they be quick to assign blame and have you fester there? We can be friendly as hell to people we like, but rarely can we act that way to ourselves.
You can try any number of problems with this outline. On a recent show we discussed this theory and went from uncomfortable feelings to religious and political stresses. The nice thing about this method is that we will always have feelings and thus an honest place from which to start. It might rob us of our secretly satisfying pity parties. It will, possibly ironically, get us beyond our feelings and inner lives to serve our neighbor as ourselves.
Everything is Going to Be Ok,
Dan is the director of The League of Faithful Masks which produces the Virtue in the Wasteland podcast. He received his PhD in 2008 from the University of St. Andrews and was recently a professor of history and political thought as well as Assistant Dean at Concordia University, Irvine. He is the author of Monsters: Addiction, Hope, Ex-Girlfriends and Other Dangerous Things.