One of the most important and psychological insights is that feelings are not irreducible primaries. While most people take them as “the given,” feelings are actually the result of our subconscious assessments or interpretations, in the form of super rapid thoughts (or “silent assumptions,” as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) calls them). This means that feelings are not to be viewed as detached from the evaluative context in which they arise.
Because feelings are derived from subconscious, super-rapid assessments, they’re ultimately derived from our basic premises and value-judgments. In addition to Nathaniel Branden‘s stellar work on this subject, David Burns has a great CBT book called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. It’s profound —and incredibly liberating—to discover that by changing the way you are thinking about a particular subject (i.e., specifically how you are interpreting it), you can change how you feel.
But there’s a bit more to it than that, especially given the fact that in the moment you are feeling something, only by fully accepting or “owning” that feeling, will you be able to discover a new way of interpretation. After all, you have to admit where you are in order to get to where you want to go. Feeling something in the moment, while simultaneously wanting to change that very same feeling can be problematic. Without truly coming to terms with what you are feeling, yearning to feel differently is a prescription for denial and repression. Fighting against reality doesn’t work, and it’s actually detrimental to understanding reality in an honest way.
When you feel badly (angry, anxious, fearful, humiliated, ashamed, depressed, etc.), you may experience the tendency to disown that feeling or distract yourself from the nature of it—to not acknowledge it in a genuine sense. Because of the additional negative emotion you may feel about the implications of that genuine acknowledgement, you may even have conscious habit of saying “This is not what I should be feeling!” or “It’s wrong to feel this way!” Of course, this tendency often stems from how you learned to treat your feelings as a child; oftentimes, adults fail to assist children in developing an emotional vocabulary that’s in line with cultivating emotional intelligence. Thus, feelings tend to be stifled and not totally acknowledged, which fosters a pattern of repression that can lead to self-estrangement and all sorts of dysfunctional behavior.
Yet our emotional world may have become fragmented in childhood. We may have been recipients of practices that neglected our feelings. Since most parents treat their children as they themselves had been treated when young, cycles continue. Branden wrote about the varieties of unfavorable treatment:
“For the majority of children, the early years of life contain many frightening and painful experiences. Perhaps a child has parents who never respond to his need to be touched, held and caressed; or who constantly scream at him or at each other; or who deliberately invoke fear and guilt in him as a means of exercising control; or who swing between over-solicitude and callous remoteness; or who subject him to lies and mockery; or who are neglectful and indifferent; or who continually criticize and rebuke him; or who overwhelm him with bewildering and contradictory injunctions; or who present him with expectations and demands that take no cognizance of his knowledge, needs or interests; or who subject him to physical violence; or who consistently discourage his efforts at spontaneity and self-assertiveness.”9(p.8)
These influences may be subtle or not so subtle. Either way, they can encourage a child to repress and disown his or her emotional world. Such influences, not surprisingly, can also be noticed in people we encounter in our daily adult life, although the forms may be different. Repressing and disowning major parts of ourselves necessarily affects our behavior, self-assessment, and treatment of others. How we deal with and think about ourselves ultimately influences how we deal with and think about others.
Right now I’m feeling…
As I learn to “own” what I’m feeling in the moment…
As I look back on how I came to feel this way…
I am becoming aware…
It’s important for us to realize that feelings are neither “rational” nor “irrational,” because the virtue of rationality pertains to using reason, which is the identifying aspect of the human mind. Feelings are part of the interpreting aspect of the human mind. In other words, rationality comes from the cognitive aspect of consciousness, and feelings come from the evaluative aspect of consciousness. Cognition (identifying what things are) and evaluation (determining whether they are good or bad for us and our value system) are the two main functions of consciousness. Hence, we experience reason and emotion as two primary aspects of mind. I expanded on this in The Psychology of Liberty, btw.
However, as noted, feelings can be based on irrational or faulty assumptions or interpretations, and these can be explored and remedied via psychotherapeutic exercises and curious introspection. Questioning the nature of our values can lead to new insights and new ways of feeling about things. Of course, something—some feeling—needs to motivate us to begin questioning in the first place. Feelings are indeed invaluable indicators of the sort of thinking we have done (or failed to do). They can also give us immense insights into the nature of our experiences. So much of our evaluative world lies in the subconscious realm that it’s always important to not just note but also experience what we are feeling, especially when it seems to contradict our conscious beliefs as well as new evidence or new arguments. Ultimately, by using a process of non-contradictory identification, coupled with authentic emotional acceptance, we can attain increased levels of serenity, joy, and happiness.