Note: In psychology there is a differentiation between the terms “feelings” and “emotions”, but for the purpose of this blog I will use these terms interchangeably.
According to George Orwell, “Not to expose your true feelings to an adult seems to be instinctive from the age of seven or eight onwards.” I would take Orwell’s claim to the next level: adults not only avoid exposing their true feelings, but they are having difficulties acknowledging them and honoring them even in their own minds. Why are we so wary of following our own internal responses? What makes us dismiss our feelings so eagerly? And finally, what are some possible consequences of rejecting this important intrinsic feedback that evolution prepared for us?
A Luxury for the Idle?
One of the Founding Fathers, Samuel Adams, stated, “Mankind are governed more by their feelings than by reason.” Maybe it was the case over two centuries ago, but today I believe that mankind (at least in Western civilization) is utterly afraid to be governed by their feelings. Feelings are considered by many to be nothing but unstable, impressionable states that can trick one into doing impulsive things. Today, I believe most people practice the attitude closer to the one expressed by the musician Nick Cave, “Most of the time, feelings just seem to get in the way. They’re a luxury for the idle, a bourgeois concept. Feelings are overrated.” What happened with mankind being goverened by their feelings? Are feelings indeed a luxury that most of us cannot afford? And what is their function, anyways?
According to Nico Frijda, a Dutch psychologist and an authority in the area of emotions, emotion is an outcome of conscious or unconscious evaluation of a situation that is impacting one’s personal goals. Emotion is positive if the situation is supporting one’s goals, and negative if it’s jeopardizing one’s goals. The essence of emotion is to evoke the readiness to accomplish a certain urgent task. Evolutionarily speaking, emotions were to a large degree responsible for our ancestors’ survival. In threatening situations, when there was no time for cognitive analysis, decisions had to be made immediately. Anger triggered the “fight” response to a threat; fear, the “flight” one. Disgust prevented people from eating old and potentially poisonous food and happiness reassured our ancestors that everything was all right. Today the function of emotions is different, but remembering why we experience emotions to start with is a great reminder of their importance. I think that considering emotions as overrated creations of our disobedient minds is a huge misconception.
Robert Zajonc, a social psychologist, claims that emotions precede our cognitions, in other words, emotions provide us with information on how to react – before we have the time to analyze the situation rationally. An example would be a situation where we meet a person we’ve met before, but before we remember where we know that person from, we will remember whether we liked them or not. Another more basic example that illustrates the precedence of emotions in relation to cognition is when we experience a potentially dangerous situation. For example, while walking alone at night we see a man walking towards us with a sharp object in his hand. In order to increase our chances of survival, we will immediately experience an emotion (fear), that will initiate the “fight or flight” response in our body. Without the fear reaction, we might engage in a sophisticated analysis of the circumstances that could potentially have a lethal ending.
And what role do emotions play in everyday situations? I like to think of them as guideposts that help us make decisions. Have you ever made a decision that “did not feel right”? In other words, a decision that you had strong negative feelings about (e.g. worry, concern, anxiety, fear, doubt, etc.)? Maybe all the rational arguments were pointing to staying in this relationship, and maybe it was very logical to pick a certain position, but how many times have you regretted something that you did following your rationale, but against your feelings (or what some people like to call “gut instinct”)? Hmmm… Maybe in the end feelings do still play an important role in our lives, and maybe it is ignoring them (and not honoring them) that is the luxury we cannot afford if we want to live a healthy and satisfying life.
Emotions Don’t Lie
This post is not to promote the view that emotions are flawless and that we should always follow our initial instincts. Of course, reasoning is very important too, and strongly linked to our feelings. However, given how often we dismiss our feelings on behalf of reasoning I wanted to spend some time explaining the function of emotions and their importance in our lives. Whether we like it or not, we are emotional beings. I would like to close with Roger Ebert’s words that summarize my thought on this matter very nicely, “Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.”
So, how are you feeling today?
Marta Oko-Riebau, MA has a private practice at Maria Droste Counseling Center. Marta works with clients on their relationships, self-esteem, assertiveness, finding meaning, and increasing life quality and enjoyment.