Validate Feelings, Act on Values

Confusing and painful conflicts often emerge between feelings and values.

Posted May 01, 2020

Our angry world is fraught with conflicts between feelings and deeper values. Both are important. If we sell out one for the other, we might cover up conflict but cannot resolve it.

Common reactions to the bitterness of our political climate (magnified by social media and amplified by opinion-based TV and radio shows) diminish goodwill in families.

The risk to families lies not in differences of opinion about policies and politicians. Love is not about opinions; it’s about compassion, kindness, support, and commitment.

The threat to families emanates from the vast contagion of anger and resentment and the entitlement they breed. These are general ego defenses that inevitably spill into families, where they infect trust and intimacy.

Alarms

Negative feelings are an alarm system. All alarms seem to get louder when disregarded. Ignored smoke alarms continue to sound until the batteries wear out, which is much the way negative feelings work. If they are not self-validated, they wear out our batteries.

There are two popular myths about negative feelings. The first is that they must be expressed to avoid psychological catastrophe. Research consistently shows that cathartic expression of emotions like anger and resentment may bring short-term relief but in the long run make us angrier and more resentful. If you count your “gripe sessions” or angry emails or expressions of contempt for politicians, you’ll most likely notice an upward trend.

The second myth is that negative emotions need to be validated by others. The angry and resentful people who find each other on the internet don't calm down; they become more extreme.

In love relationships, you have two resentful people demanding validation from each other. What they resent the most is that their partners don’t care how they feel. Yet when they’re resentful, they’re unable to see each other’s perspectives, and neither cares how the other feels. The subtext of arguments becomes:

“I don’t care about how you feel, but you absolutely must care about how I feel.”

Signals

Feelings are signals about a possible reality. The signals must be checked-out. The smoke alarm doesn’t tell us that there is a fire, only that there might be one. That's why we don't scream, "We're all gonna die," when we hear a smoke alarm. All alarm systems are calibrated to give false positives because false negatives can be devastating. We don’t want a smoke alarm that only goes off when the house is in flames. So it goes off when there’s a little smoke, most often when someone is cooking or smoking in the house.

Feelings did not evolve to be accurate appraisals of the environment. They're useful signals that must be self-validated, but without prefrontal cortex evaluation, they’re poor motivators for behavior.

Unreliable Motivators

Feelings reflect what we experience at any given moment, not who we are as persons. They’re greatly influenced by physiological states—tired, hungry, thirsty, cold, hot, or sick. They’re highly reactive to the environment and mostly habituated—stimulated by mere similarity with past experience. That’s why, when emotional, we tend to make the same mistakes over and over.

Unlike moods, feelings are transitory—they come and go within minutes, provided we don't amplify, magnify, and prolong them by trying to “interpret” or “justify" them.

On the other hand, values are:

  • More about who we are than what we experience
  • Consistent over time
  • Not reactive to the environment (you’re who you are, no matter where you are or whom you’re with)
  • Far less influenced by physiological states (we won’t lose faith, love less, or become less humane when tired, hungry, uncomfortable, or sick)

Acting on values changes feelings. We feel more authentic, with less guilt, shame, and anxiety. We need fewer defenses like resentment, anger, denial, or emotional shutdown.

When acting on feelings, we’re likely to violate deeper values, causing more guilt, shame, anxiety, anger, and resentment.

Consistently acting on feelings causes identity diffusion—don't know who we are until we react to someone else.

Consistently acting on values builds a solid sense of self. 

Validate Feelings, Act on Values

Here's what it looks like:

“I feel like blaming. But I’ll try to improve the situation or my experience of it.”

“I feel like arguing. But I’ll try to understand.”

“I feel like stonewalling or shutting down. But I’ll respectfully listen and negotiate.”

“I feel like criticizing. But I’ll show respect and focus on improvement.”

“I feel like devaluing. But I’ll practice compassionate assertiveness.”

“I feel like _____________________. But I’ll _________________.”

Always validate your feelings, but act on your deeper values—the most important things to and about you.

With practice, feelings and values become consistent.