Emotional maturity, Part 5: How to interpret your feelings

The last two posts tell nearly opposite stories. On the one hand, your feelings are amazing things that give you quick, broad-reaching impressions of what will be good for you. On the other hand, they don’t always point you in the right direction, and it’s hard to double-check the math on them because the process that generates your feelings is out of reach, locked away in your subconscious.

This leads to a fundamental tension when we try to interpret our feelings. Your feelings have important information, but none of that information is in the form of facts. As important as it is to pay attention to your feelings, none of what they say can be taken at face value. We therefore have to play a balancing act between two extremes.

At one extreme, you might ignore your feelings, or try to tightly control or eliminate your feelings. (This is depressingly common. I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to be like this.) As I discussed earlier, these are all bad ideas because your feelings have important information. Forcing yourself to not be mad, is like trying to fix a nuclear reactor that’s about to melt down, by breaking all the measurement dials in the control room. Turning off the signals of the problem doesn’t solve the problem.

The other extreme is taking all of your feelings at face value, without skepticism or reflection, and this is just as damaging. (This is often called “emotional reasoning.”) You might be mad, and think that you’re doing something about it, but never deal with the actual problem causing your negative feelings. Or you might be happy, but fail to recognize and appreciate the true source of your positive feelings until it (or they) leave permanently. You might be filled with anxiety, certain that you are worthless and have nothing to contribute, even though there is no objective evidence that this is true. (Unfortunately, many of the people who are all the way over at this extreme will have difficulty returning to the center on their own, and need professional help.)

Those are the unhealthy ways to interpret your feelings, the bad kind of emotional reasoning.

So what does the good kind look like? As far as I currently understand, it’s essentially the middle ground between these two extremes. Take your feelings seriously, but don’t take them literally. Spend time listening to yourself. Remember what you’ve heard, because you can’t hold all those feelings in your head at the same time. Work out tensions between feelings that conflict, have them talk to each other, until things settle down into an equilibrium.

Striking this balance requires different sides of your mind to work together. Your conscious mind can use logic and reasoning to point out inconsistences in your feelings and relate them to the real world. Your subconscious can add together the things you learn in this process, and reshape your feelings in response. This kind of harmonious interaction between different parts of your brain is sometimes called “wise-mind,” a balanced state of thinking that incorporates both logic and emotions. This balanced mindset helps us make the best possible decisions in a world where we have serious limits on our information and our mental resources.

To interpret your feelings correctly, you also have to talk to a lot to other people about what they feel. Your feelings are accurate but not precise; they point to what’s good for you but have a wide margin of error. Adding in the subjective impressions of other people can help narrow that precision down, and compensate for the fact that sometimes your own feelings are not completely reliable. Though there is a limit to this too. Your own life experience is unique, and so what is best for you is not exactly the same as what is best for others.

This tension between following your feelings, while being constructively critical of them, may feel uncomfortable. Here is another way of thinking about it. Trust your feelings, but think of it as trusting another person. It doesn’t mean the person is always right or never makes mistakes. It doesn’t mean you never question whether they got something right. It just means that you think of them as on your side, and when they talk, you listen. You work with them, instead of working against them.

The summary for the last three posts is that feelings have information, but they are not facts. The final two posts will be more focused on communicating and acting based on your feelings.

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