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Robert Dawson Ph.D.

Feelings: You Don't Have a Vote

If feelings were a choice, everyone would be happy.

You can't choose what to feel.

Feelings are automatic responses to the world around you, they are not choices. The purpose of emotions is your survival.

Instinct creates feelings. In infants, biological needs trigger feelings like hunger, thirst, and distress, which in turn cause crying to get attention, food, and protection. Over time, life experience shapes unique, additional behaviour to get attention through being different in some "individual" way. This behaviour typically strives for positive attention, but negative attention (e.g., bullying) can also work to be noticed and consequently "feel" safer.

Your instinct is continuously monitoring the world around you. It's scanning for how much attention, approval, and disapproval you are receiving. If it decides you have adequate RAi (recognition, approval, importance), it rewards you with good feelings. On the other hand, if your perceived RAi rating is low, instinct responds with the creation of bad feelings.

In summary, instinct has a 'mind' of its own. Unconscious to you, it determines how you will feel. You don't get a vote. Since there is no direct access to instinct, you can neither choose feelings, nor can you switch them off when they are upsetting. You have them whether you want them or not.

If we are to function adequately with them, we have to adjust their intensity when they are very upsetting.

So, things that follow from this view of the origin of feelings include:

Feelings are tools your instinct uses to ensure survival. Instinct creates feelings to make you do whatever it needs for you to be safe.

Feelings are never wrong. If your unique genetic memory and life experience decide that a molehill is a mountain, then for you it is! For another person with a different genetic inheritance and life experience, the molehill may not be a mountain—for them.

When your partner, children, family, or friends are upset, don't tell them they shouldn't be or imply that they have a choice about how to feel. Please don't attempt to talk them out of their upsetness. When they are upset, they want you to be on their 'side,' to support them, to give them a (metaphorical) 'hug.' So be on their side. Approve of them, tell them their feelings are valid.

As natural tools of an automatic survival mechanism, feelings cannot be blamed on inadequacy, nor are they caused by others.

Strength and resilience are not about the absence of distress but about your ability to function effectively and persist despite them.

Feelings, Persistence, Phooey

I don't want to trivialize feelings. They can be both uplifting and awful.

When instinct takes over, intense feelings will control you. Indeed, feelings (not only love) do make the world go around. Negative emotions make thinking judgmental and extreme—catastrophic.

Notice that I am saying that this happens automatically. You (or others) don't judge or catastrophize because of being weak-minded; this occurs naturally as the intensity of our feelings increases.

One crucial thing about feelings is that they don't last. The brain uses a lot of chemistry (energy) to generate feelings (that's why you get so tired when you are stressed or excited). Chemistry rapidly runs out. While the brain is creating more, the intensity of emotions subsides—temporarily.

So what you need to know to reach a goal in spite of feeling bad is this:

Being emotional is not any measure of a person's worth. Emotionality is as natural and necessary as are other automatic human responses like breathing or blinking.

The intensity of feelings comes in waves—strong at first, gradually becoming weaker and then almost going away. Then the cycle repeats itself after the brain regenerates more chemistry. So be aware that when someone 'calms down,' their survival algorithm might just be getting ready for the next wave—the calm before the storm.

The power of feelings to control what you do is stronger when they are intense.

Staying on goal during this phase requires a detour of attention to something else before returning to your plan. Once through the intense stage, you can get back on track.

Trying to reduce the intensity of your distress during the intense phase does not work. You have to shift your focus away from your pain, not lower your emotional pain.

The ideal 'something else' to focus on during the intense stage of a feeling is another feeling.

Feelings, More Feelings

My 4-year-old grandson was sobbing. An emergency had called his dad into work. Dinner was just over, and Liam was expecting his dad to put him to bed, to read his bedtime story, to make him feel loved, safe, secure.

Mum attempted to explain why Dad had to go into work and that he would be back soon. But Liam was not to be consoled. Talk of Dad earning money to buy Liam's birthday present (just a week away) also did not help. Liam only wanted his dad, and he wanted him now.

Mum finally stopped talking, picked Liam up off his chair and cuddled him. No further talk about Liam's upset, just hugging. After a few minutes, Liam stopped crying, spotted the iPad he had been playing with before dinner, and got off his mother's lap to resume his game.

A break in the night-time routine and the absence of his father at bedtime had triggered Liam's instinct for survival, which flooded Liam with negative feelings and sensations (anxiety and tears).

In the initial intense stage of fear, words don't help. But another feeling can. Being cuddled by Mum triggered feelings of safety for Liam. This lessened the intensity of his separation anxiety. The expected pleasure of playing with his iPad was an additional finishing touch.

Liam had experienced and weathered separation anxiety. His resilience in the face of changes in routine had gone up a notch.

"Feelings are more help than thoughts in coping with distress."

It has always been this way.

Technology Addiction

The search for new sensations to cope with unwanted existing feelings (e.g., boredom, resentment, envy, inadequacy, anxiety) unconsciously continues in your brain 24/7.

Never being satisfied for very long with what we have is instinct's strategy. The grass will always be greener. This will make us safer because we will always be on the lookout, seeking something better.

Technology and social networking have given instinct's search for attention and approval a limitless vista. This vista is instantly accessible and provides instant feedback. The accessibility, scope, and vastness of this information are what makes social media on your smartphone, pad, and computer highly addictive.

Coders and self-learning AI (artificial intelligence) used by social media platforms capitalize on the addictive vulnerability of our instinct.

We have been turned into 'users.' Just look around you, how many children and adults are looking at their phones? Almost everyone.

Technology, social media, and vulnerability to addiction are here to stay. We need to publicly acknowledge this reality and find ways to get meaningful things done despite it.

We can do this.

About the Author

Robert Dawson, Ph.D., a retired member of the Clinical College of the Australian Psychological Society, has lectured courses at numerous Australian universities.