Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Trust Your Feelings? . . . Maybe Not

Why trusting our feelings can be dangerous.

Image previewShould 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 (and ratonal emotive behavior therapy as well) is derived from the theory that how we think determines how we feel. But as this theory itself might ask, 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. Or finally, if we were overindulged as children and grew up with the narcissistic assumption that we deserved to get everything we wanted, then when we're older and subject to a world that fails to cater to our desires, we'll probably feel we're being treated unfairly. And consequently, we'll experience a great deal of self-righteous anger, even indignation. But since our sense of entitlement was false to begin with, our keenly felt anger will be without reasonable justification.

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. And it needs to be added that her taking such a precaution is guided not so much by the diffuse emotion of anxiety--which might suggest an exaggerated distrust of strangers based on personal history—but by a more instinctual, fear-based response, itself derived from her innate intuitive faculties. 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. Possibly, she was physically attacked or raped, or grew up in a home with a father who, unpredictable and/or authoritarian, regularly intimidated or physically abused her.

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.

So-called transference reactions operate in the same way. In such instances, someone in the present unconsciously reminds us of a person from our past—typically someone with whom we had significant problems. In a sort of temporary "trance," we're beset with an emotional distress linked not to what's going on in the present but to what took place perhaps decades ago. And the person we're now dealing with, regardless of their superficial similarity to the figure from our past (a hook nose? particular inflection? unusual gait? sameness in dress?), may be vastly dissimilar from the person who sensitized us in the first place.

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. Plainly, we can harm a relationship if in the here-and-now we deal with that person as though he or she were some phantom from our past. 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.

I once worked with a woman who as a young child had been repeatedly molested by her father. Having only recently recovered memories of her past sexual abuse, she still harbored great rage and resentment toward him. At the end of one of our sessions, I inadvertently used an expression that turned out to be identical to one her father frequently employed in talking to her. When I saw her the following week, she shared that in driving home from our last session, she began to experience the most hateful feelings toward me, which she was unable to rationally account for but which nonetheless determined her to call me as soon as she got home to terminate all future treatment . . . that is, until she suddenly realized that in the deepest recesses of her mind she had confused me with her father merely because of the "familiar" (read, family) phrase I had used. As soon as her adult, rational mind was able to regain control and thereby neutralize her vastly heightened (but wildly distorted) emotions—as soon as she could grasp that it was her "child self" that had made this fortuitous, false compariso—-she was immediately able, as it were, to "rehire" me.

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.

To further expand on the not-always-trustworthy nature of our feelings, I'd like briefly to talk about the nature of dreams. It's possible to have a dream so vivid that upon awakening we can't help but regard as real the emotions we experienced while asleep. If the dream was fearful, we can return to consciousness with an almost palpable sense of danger, literally trembling with anxiety. But again, despite the "cogency" of our feelings, they yet have no basis in reality. Just as the dream itself, strictly speaking, was a series of visual hallucinations, the emotion so intimately connected to these stark images is similarly illusory. Still, the emotion may feel to us just as "real" as the real thing.

It can hardly be over-emphasized that in such circumstances, however acutely we may have felt the emotion, it is still without substance and hardly worthy of factoring into any subsequent behavior. Although I don't mean to imply here that dreams can't ever be prophetic, in my abundant experience working with them (both personally and professionally) almost all of them appear related to an individual's emotionally unresolved issues. Moreover, what is frequently referred to in the literature as "dream work" refers specifically to the circumstance that, in general, dreams focus on problematic material that our unconscious mind is endeavoring to "get its head around."

One final example of needing to be careful about "running" with our emotions relates to the blissful experience of falling in love. Which is to say that our falling "madly" in love with someone doesn't necessarily mean that the person we're so enamored of is right for us—i.e., the one. Certainly, in the moment it almost always feels this way. But since falling in love can be more chemical than cognitive, we need to be extremely careful about making an instant commitment because of the fervency of our feelings. Falling "head over heels" may mean just that: our ardor, our passion, has thrown us seriously off balance--and we therefore need to proceed with considerable caution. In some ways it's almost as easy to fall in love with the wrong person as the right one, especially if we're just so ready for the experience, or the other person is just so attractive to us. In the same vein, becoming "infatuated" with another literally means "to be made fatuous or foolish."

So we need to remind ourselves that a romantic, emotionally laden, attraction may be far more physical than spiritual, and that it may not be grounded in our ability to accurately access the other's deeper nature or personality traits—traits that, finally, we might come to view either as lovable and endearing; or as loathsome, revolting or contemptible (consider, for example, the movie, "The War of the Roses"—or, for that matter, this country's frighteningly high divorce rate). As in dreams, we may fall in love with an illusion that in our ecstatically altered state of consciousness is easily confused with reality. As the old, but once very popular, song put it: "Falling in love with love is falling for make believe." Once we fully "awaken" from our possibly idealized imaginings, we may well recognize that the fond illusions we so earnestly cultivated contrast sharply with the newly perceptible—and far more mundane—reality.

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.

P.S. I invite readers to follow my psychological musings on Twitter. http://twitter.com/drlee1

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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