Emotional maturity, Part 4: Feelings are not facts

In the last post, I discussed the idea that your feelings are a kind of cognition (thinking). They are a calculation that sorts through an incredible amount of input data, identifies what’s most important, and distills it down into a simple yes/no or want/do not want. And they can be amazingly accurate at picking up on what’s really important, keeping you from getting lost in a sea of mostly useless information.

If this were the whole story, it would be really easy to use your emotions for decision-making. Just listen to your feelings and do whatever they tell you to do!

Unfortunately, there are some problems with this. One problem is that emotional thinking is sloppy. It’s designed to give a subjective impression about what’s good for you, rather than an objective view of the world. So what’s true for you, on an emotional level, may not be true for someone else. In short, feelings are not facts.

Suppose you feel really mad at someone. Did they do something wrong? Probably, but it’s possible that they didn’t. Your feelings can tell you, without a doubt, that something about your interactions with this person are really bad for you. But because the feeling was generated by your subconscious, you can’t deconstruct it and tell for sure whether the problem is him, or you, or something else entirely. You can’t tell whether this persion is objectively doing something bad. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever tell if anything is right or wrong. It just means that you have to put your feelings in context, and not use them as the sole source of information.

Anger is often what’s called a “secondary emotion” in psychology. That means that you feel angry in the moment, apparently in response to something right in front of you, but the source of the anger is actually someone else in your life, or something in your past. (Often a relationship with a parent or significant other.) That previous experience is driving a “primary emotion” that is perhaps too powerful for you to express and understand, so instead it gets expressed through a secondary emotion that’s directed at an easier target. This is just one example of how you might mis-interpret a feeling and draw the wrong conclusion.

Even worse, your emotions themselves sometimes don’t point in the right direction. Like all forms of cognition, sometimes they make mistakes. You get a feeling that something will be bad for you, that ends up being great, or vice-versa. For many reasons, in this situation I would stop short of saying “your feelings are wrong.” After all, they aren’t facts, so how can they be wrong? But they might push you in the wrong direction, if you let them. There’s a difference between what you feel and how you choose to act in response. Your feeling isn’t wrong, but if you follow it directly, you might do something wrong.

In summary, while feelings are important, it is a bad idea to blindly and uncritically follow your feelings. We need to understand how to glean the important information that our feelings contain, without being pushed off course by a misdirected emotion.

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