Posted by: Anne | August 8, 2015

Trust Your Feelings? Maybe Not

Trust Your Feelings? . . . Maybe Not
Why trusting our feelings can be dangerous.

Should we trust our brain—or our gut? The answer is more complicated than most people realize. Somehow, over the past few decades it’s become conventional wisdom that we should put our faith in our feelings. That is, if we feel something—especially if we feel it intensely—then it deserves to be seen as valid, or truthful. The adage “trust your feelings” has by now become almost axiomatic. But ultimately, how logical—or, how safe—is it to conclude that if we feel something strongly, we should both believe it and permit it to control our behavior?

The very essence of cognitive-behavioral therapy is derived from the theory that how we think determines how we feel. But if our thoughts are exaggerated, distorted—or, for that matter, downright delusional—how can we possibly place our faith in any feelings that stem from such irrational thoughts? Are we not in a G.I.G.O. type of situation here (i.e., garbage in, garbage out)? For if our thoughts are erroneous, or based on false assumptions, the feelings tied to these thoughts are bound to be equally distorted—and hardly to be trusted.

To give some examples, if we mistakenly interpret a situation as dangerous, the anxiety or panic that we’ll fee—however intense—will still be groundless, because it’s not reality-based. Or if we irrationally perceive our situation as hopeless–despite the fact that several options exist that could extricate us from our quandary–the depression we’ll experience will be similarly illogical.

In further reviewing why it’s so important to be wary of letting our feelings dictate our behavior, it’s also crucial to distinguish between emotions not rationally linked to present-day circumstances and what I’ll call true “gut feelings,” indistinguishable from intuition. When, say, a woman feels markedly uncomfortable (or “spooked”) in an elevator she’s sharing with a stranger, it’s only prudent that she exit at the next floor. As I see it, genuine intuition (as a survival mechanism hard-wired into all of us) can be safely relied upon. It’s inherently trustworthy, whereas our emotions need to be viewed much more cautiously.

Going back to the elevator example, if a woman routinely feels threatened whenever she’s alone with an unfamiliar male, there’s far less reason to think that her trepidation is intuitive or reality-based. In such a case, what most likely would be setting off her anxiety is some unresolved disturbance, or trauma, from the past—something that left her “sensitized” (or over-reactive) to particular situations in which she couldn’t help but experience herself as out of control.

In fact, any present-day susceptibility to an emotion originates from some past experience(s) that we’ve never had the opportunity to adequately resolve. In a sense, all of us are “taught” how to feel as a result of prior learning. Because our minds work through analogy and association, whenever a situation reminds us, consciously or unconsciously, of a disturbing event from the past, we’re compelled—or better, “cued”–to respond to that situation just as we did earlier.

The here-and-now experience may be only coincidentally related to the past one. There may be no meaningful connection at all between what just happened to us and what we experienced years ago. But if the present-day circumstance “triggers” us, we’ll still react to it as though it were a recurrence of the original situation. Regressing to an earlier emotional state, in the moment our rational mind is impaired, unable to function logically. In short, in such instances our emotions do not derive from the current circumstance–and are, therefore, not to be trusted.

Just as our thoughts govern our emotions, our emotions in turn govern our behavior. So unless we’re able to do an on-the-spot reality check, we’re in danger of reacting to such present-day “prompts” in a way that may be completely inappropriate and self-defeating. It’s as though we’re presented with one set of stimuli and—because of personal biases we’re totally oblivious of—we react as though we’d been presented with an altogether different set of stimuli. Once again, our emotions—however deeply felt—can end up betraying us.

Each of us has likely had an experience during which another seemed blatantly to misread us, to attribute to us sentiments or motives that we ourselves could barely recognize. Unless we’re truly obtuse and virtually without insight into our behavior, it’s likely that in such a situation we, too, got mis-identified with somebody from that person’s past. In fact, in these instances it’s prudent to respond to the other person by saying that no one’s ever reacted to us quite this way before, inquiring whether possibly we may be reminding that person of someone else. Just as we ourselves may occasionally need to undertake a reality check to ascertain that what we’re responding to does in fact relate to what’s actually taking place, at times we may want to request that another perform such a check themselves.

Despite all my cautionary words, I have no doubt whatsoever that our emotions are one of our most valuable assets. Without them all enthusiasm, excitement and joy would disappear. Life would be dull and colorless. Besides, if we were really emotionless we could never make decisions (apologies to Mr. Spock). One choice would “feel” no better, or worse, than any other.

Nonetheless, whenever our emotions start operating independent of our rational faculties—or literally “take us over” (as in catapulting us into the throes of a negative transference reaction or a bad panic attack)—we need to learn how to calm ourselves down and reconnect with the more evolved parts of our brain. We must learn how to hit the brakes when our feelings become exaggerated or start careening out of control. We simply can’t afford to uncritically allow our emotions to speed us in a direction that we may later come to regret.

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