Feelings are often spoken of as if they are a thing. “Get rid of those negative feelings,” some people say, as if one could turn away from unpleasant feelings by an effort of will alone. Emotional responses, however, are obligatory. They are an inevitable reaction to circumstances, although some people respond more readily than others. People get angry, for example, whether they want to or not. Given a particular frustration some people might get angrier than others, depending on their temperament; but they will all still get angry. Imagine that someone comes up to you and suddenly kicks you in the knee. You will get angry. You may pretend to other people, or even to yourself, that you are not angry. But you will be.
I don’t have to imagine such a circumstance. When I was an intern, I was walking to the subway from the hospital where I had been on duty all weekend. I was not thinking anything or paying attention to anything. Suddenly an old lady came up to me and started kicking me in the leg.
“Get over to the right,” she said, “this is America, you know.”
I found myself drawing my foot back to kick this old lady and stopped myself barely in time. I could have said to myself, “Well, she is an old lady and she is drunk,” which she was. I could have told myself not to be angry at this poor, old lady. But that was not what I felt. I felt like kicking her back. I could refrain from acting as if I were angry, but the feeling itself was unavoidable.
Catharsis is the supposed relief of feelings by expressing them in some way. We harbor a certain amount of feelings, that idea suggests, and if they are bad feelings, we can empty them out and feel better. A whole theory of psychotherapy is based on this idea. Primal Scream Therapy prescribed a period of cleansing, dressing up properly, and then lying on the floor and screaming. This was supposed to be therapeutic. The reason why such a silly idea did not die out immediately is that every treatment works for a while—if it is recommended by someone who is seen as an authority. Penn and Teller, the magicians and truth-tellers, did a funny demonstration of this when they offered free “slime therapy” to people in a shopping center. The “patients” sat still while snails crawled over their faces. The subjects saw this procedure as helpful and said they would be willing to pay for further treatments.
It is true that people who are feeling distress are likely to feel better after talking to a friend or a therapist, but that is because there is something in the relationship that is comforting. It is not that a certain quantity of bad feelings have drained away.
The fact is, feelings are internal signals. They have no more independent existence than the red in a red traffic light. They are instructions to behave in certain ways. The purpose of feelings, seen in that light, is readily apparent—it is to further the interests of the individual. Feelings are unpleasant when the circumstances that produce them are unpleasant, or when the behavior called into existence by those feelings is thwarted. Consider these familiar emotional states:
If someone were to walk down an alleyway and be confronted suddenly by three menacing men carrying weapons, the fight or flight reaction is desirable. That response includes a faster heartbeat, deep breathing, tense muscles, and so on. These physical changes are part of a physiological preparation for action. They are the same physical reactions someone has when experiencing a panic attack. But someone having a panic attack is afraid of precisely those physical reactions. The affected individual is not focusing on men with weapons, in which case the physical reaction would go unnoticed. They are focusing on the symptoms of fear itself. Naturally, since in that case the fight or flight reaction serves no purpose, the affected individual wants to be rid of it. But this feeling cannot be cancelled out by screaming, or saying encouraging things to oneself. Confronting the fear is what makes it go away. Over time. The phobic person has to learn that the fears he/she has are not realistic. Fear, like all feelings, is a call to action. Anxiety is a continuing state of fear, often without a readily discernible cause. The dangers, then, are more subtle.
One cannot stop being angry out of a conscious decision that it does no good to be angry. Saying that and believing that is simply pretending in an attempt to comfort oneself. If someone is angry at another person for a long enough period of time, it is reasonable to expect that person will come to hate the other person. It is an angry feeling thwarted. For that reason, most of the people capable of engendering a feeling of hate are family members or a boss, people who cannot be influenced and from whom there may be no escape. We are not likely to hate a neighbor who lives a block away, unless that neighbor has sway over us for some particular reason.
Sadness, in general, drives people to seek out others.
So, people are entitled to feel whatever way they feel, even if someone else in similar circumstances would feel differently. Patients should not be asked to control their feelings. Thoughts are more amenable to change. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an attempt to control thinking by allowing patients to have more salutary experiences. In the end, it is only behavior that can be controlled. If someone behaves properly in most situations, their experience of the world encourages them after a while to become more optimistic and less troubled by unpleasant feelings.(c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog