Reality Check: Dances with Feelings

When it comes to feelings, do you lead? Follow? Or just try to get out of their way?

You may remember, “If it feels good, do it.” That slogan came with a prevailing “wisdom” that it’s not only OK for feelings to guide your actions, but…that’s the authentic way to live!

Thus, if a choice doesn’t feel good, it isn’t good. A consequence of using this for your life philosophy could be that you take only paths that feel good, abandoning them when good feelings fade. If good feelings are transient, then you go from path to path, ever-seeking, never satisfied.

Instincts and feelings are certainly useful. For example, “This dark alley feels a little creepy; maybe I will choose another route.” Feelings that cause us to consider our actions can be handy for self-preservation!

However, feelings can also guide us away from helpful actions. “It’s dark and rainy this morning. I don’t feel like going to work; I’ll stay in bed.” Staying in bed can indeed feel good. However, choosing to act on only “feel-good” feelings can lead one to no longer having a bed to stay in. In the long run, that doesn’t feel too good, either.

Short-term and long term feelings can conflict, as in “Short-term pain for long-term gain.” Think about an athlete, musician, academic, or any one of us with a goal or a dream.

When you’re doing difficult work, there’s a good chance that a feeling will pop up at some point that says, “This is hard! Give up; I don’t feel good.”

When that happens, does the feeling control your action? Or do you work through it? The bigger-picture question is: Do you want your feelings to be in charge? Or do you want something else in charge?

Dr. Glasser, among others, suggests that feelings can be changed by thought and action. Not feeling good? Think thoughts or take actions to help you feel better.

It sounds glib to suggest “think happy thoughts” to feel better. However, consider the choices. If you want to change your miserable feeling to a happier one, are you more likely to succeed by thinking positive, optimistic thoughts or miserable ones?

Of course, if you don’t want to feel happier, you have both the right and the opportunity to stay as you are.

The idea of changing one’s feelings through deliberate choices of actions or thoughts may strike you as inauthentic. If I’m feeling miserable, is it wrong for me to “pretend” otherwise? Am I not being “true to myself”? In the harshest interpretation, is it dishonest to not let our feelings “hang out”?

For your answer, examine the options. Which approach makes your life better? Which approach is more helpful for those around you? Is it more compassionate and empathetic to choose actions and thoughts that convey positivity? Or is it better to ensure that everybody around you knows when you are feeling grumpy?

The view that our feelings control us, with nothing we can do about it, demands little responsibility from us. It says, “I can’t help it if I feel bad.”

However, if we acknowledge that feelings don’t have to be in charge, then a logical consequence is that we do have some responsibility. When we have unwanted feelings, it’s within our control to do something about it.

I find that view both empowering and annoying. What’s your view of feelings?

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