“The feeling is often the deeper truth, the opinion the more superficial one.” ~ Augustus William Hare
Emotions bring richness and texture to our lives, adding vivid hues that bring deep meaning to our experiences.
It’s easy to take our emotions for granted and forget the important role they play in our lives. But can you imagine what life would be like without the ability to feel?
Without emotions we’d be automatons, navigating life by relying solely on logic as our guide. Pure logic can help you efficiently get things done, but what kind of life would this be?
Emotions turn events into experiences. You experience a sunset, a hike, a piece of art, a sporting event, your spouse, your children… When imbued with feelings, the events of your life are transformed into something deeply personal, something that belongs to you.
We Can’t Help Feeling…
Research shows that we are hard-wired to feel. While a consensus hasn’t been reached yet regarding the number of “basic” emotions we start out life with (compared to the more complex feelings we acquire through socialization), very early on in our development we are experiencing and expressing emotions.
Here is one list of basic emotions:
Happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.
You can probably think of different circumstances that would stir each of these distinct feelings within you. We are born ready to feel. When things go our way, we feel happy; when we lose something important, sad; when faced with uncertainty or danger, we may become afraid; and when someone prevents us from reaching our desires/goals, anger is likely.
Feelings As Informants…
Our feelings help us make sense of the world; they reflect our values, our needs and longings, insecurities and conflicts. They are a powerful source of information (1). So shouldn’t they be listened to if we want to better understand ourselves?
Let’s look at a brief example of why our feelings are so important
Imagine that while you and your husband (or wife or partner) are out with friends, your husband makes an off-handed joke about your mother being “the most self-absorbed person I ever met. I don’t think my wife would disagree with that statement!” The comment gets a few concerned looks your way and an uncomfortable chuckle from one of the other wives.
You quickly steer the conversation in a different direction.
As the night progresses, however, you find yourself thinking about what he said. “Why did he even bring her up?”; “Why would he say that in front of others?” The more you think about it, the more upset you become. And by the time you get home, you’re ready to do battle.
Of course, not everyone would become angry with their partner under these circumstances.
So why the anger in this case?
We imbue events with meaning. Our experiences are processed through conscious and unconscious mental filters — filters that have been shaped by our developmental-attachment histories. The values we hold; our needs and desires; fears and hopes; vulnerabilities and internal conflicts…all converge to shape our feelings in ways that make them uniquely our own.
What this means is that your emotional reactions are a powerful source of information — information that can shape your relationships and lead to greater self-discovery (2).
The shadow of our past and the present moment
Let’s continue with our example for a moment and add some background information about your relationship with your mother: Her health has deteriorated over the last year and now she’s increasingly called upon you to help out with practical issues as well as emotional support.
Your feelings about helping her are complicated. The relationship has been strained for a long time. You’ve always felt that she favored your brother, preferring his children to yours, staying with him every holiday while ignoring your invitations, helping him out financially. Where he hears “yes” from her, you’ve repeatedly heard “no.” And she doesn’t hide her disappointment in you. She makes snide comments, comparing you and the choices you’ve made in your life unfavorably to his “repeated successes.”
She has been stingy with you. She’s withheld love and support, and in their place she’s expressed disappointment and criticism. And at the same time, she’s been generous with others.
This history profoundly shaped your reaction to your husband that evening:
In the middle of a fun night out, your husband’s off-handed remark hits more than one emotional nerve. All the complicated feelings you hold about her come rushing up. Your good-time-out-with-friends is replaced with thoughts about how insensitive your husband is and how angry you are with your mother.
You initially felt hurt by your husband but then anger took over — an anger that grows and propels you to rip into him once the two of you are alone together. He feels blindsided and attacked by you. As a result, he goes into shut-down mode and the next few days are tense (each of you feeling victimized by the other).
Taking perspective: Making sense of our reactions
As you explore your feelings you see that they are layered with meaning; there wasn’t just blanket anger — it turns out your feelings were more nuanced:
✓ You felt betrayed by him. He tossed you and your relationship with your mother under a public spotlight for others to see. You need him to keep personal matters personal.
✓ You need someone in your corner to help you feel less alone. At times you’ve been filled with self-doubt, questioning your own reactions, “Am I the one being unreasonable and not her?”;
✓ The anger was threaded with feelings of hurt — a sense of loss, of being failed by those who matter most to you;
✓ As you try to understand you reaction another emotion enters the picture, one you’ve been avoiding: feelings of guilt. A part of you feels guilty about not wanting to help your mother — a guilt so powerful you end up saying “yes” to your mother just to quiet the harsh inner voice that arises whenever you try to set boundaries with her (boundaries which would involve saying “no” to her requests).
Using feelings to shape your relationship
Another thing you might have noticed about feelings is that they motivate us. In this example, your anger moved you to a particular action with your husband (even though in this example, the action led to more problems between you two).
Our feelings metaphorically and literally move us. Emotions are motivating. It’s no surprise that when we bury our feelings, we can feel stuck, adrift without knowledge about what our deepest truths are.
Your feelings shape your relationships in powerful ways, pulling for certain reactions in others. In our example, your anger-driven communication quickly moved your husband into a defensive mode of relating. If feelings of hurt-vulnerability were expressed instead, he might have reacted more supportively and sympathetically, and as a result, connection may have been re-established (3).
Often anger begets anger-defensiveness while sharing feelings of vulnerability pull for more supportive, tender reactions in others.
Our emotions play an important role in our lives and in our relationships. While we can’t give our full attention to every fleeting feeling that arises within us (nor should we), there clearly are emotional reactions that deserve consideration — to repeatedly sidestep our inner world reduces our wholeness and keeps an important part of us hidden.
Until next time,
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and marriage counselor in Georgetown, TX.
(1) Pascual-Leone, J. (1991). Emotions, development and psychotherapy: A dialectical constructivist perspective. In J. Safran & L. Greenberg (Eds.), Emotion, psychotherapy and change (pp. 302-335). New York, NY: Guilford.
(2) Levenson, Robert. (1994) Human Emotions: A Functional View. In The Nature of Emotion:Fundamental Questions, Edited by Edman, P. & Davidson, R.J.
(3) Johnson, S. (2004). The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: Creating Connection.