Most of the posts on this blog so far have advocated a sort of brutal self-awareness and honesty, a looking at your life and your reality with a crude sense of rigour, facing it all head on, dealing with it all rationally, and then moving towards solving your problems in the most logical way possible.
Though I obviously agree with this position, the fact remains that our feelings and emotions are as much a part of reality as anything else – not something that stands detached from problems themselves. In this sense the most logical way of dealing with personal and interpersonal problems is to deal with the feelings first.
Another way of stating this is that, in many ways, our feelings are the problem, or at least as much a part of it as any of the rational elements (structure/facts/etc.), and as such they need to be dealt with before you can make any real progress towards making things better for yourself.
This post is contains fifteen short, sharp bursts exploring different issues that arise in the area of ‘feeling’s and looks at how we can learn to acknowledge them in order to solve our problems more powerfully, realistically, and effectively.
1) Be aware that our feelings can affect the choices that we make. Constantly scrutinise the motivations behind your choices. Are you making them from a place of control?
In the book Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity by Jamshid Gharajedaghi, the author brings attention to the three types of choices that human beings can make: rational choices, emotional choices, and cultural choices.
The assumption that most of us seem to make (especially in the health services) is that most people should only operate under the aegis of rational self-interest. This is a powerful assumption that affects the advice that clinicians and support service workers (dieticians, etc.) give people. Instead of understanding where people are really coming from and being able to give them advice that is relevant to their lives and situation at the time, this often leads to people being seen as textbook cases and not people in the present.
I see all three of these choice types having an influence on people’s lives at the dialysis unit I attend: Some people, for example, make the rational choice to stay attached to their dialysis machine for the prescribed four hours, regardless of any short-term discomfort they may feel; others may make the emotional choice to come off early so that they can go out and be social with their friends; and one guy I know makes the cultural choice of taking bank holidays off dialysis because he feels like he deserves a break ( perhaps this guy is a culture to himself, but there is a multidimensionality here, so in a way this is an emotional choice too).
My contention here is that there is no superiority in terms of which one of these choice types is better or worse than the other, but that there is definitely a benefit in being aware of where your choices have come from and if those choices really are the best ones for you in the situation that you have found yourself.
Sometimes acting in a purely rational way can have an adverse effect on your quality of life (you may ‘rationally’ follow the ‘rules’ of your diagnosis to a T, for example, but find that you are merely living for treatment, not being treated to live). Sometimes, acting from a purely emotional place can make our lives feel more exciting or help us to keep the black dog at bay in the short-term but it may have long-term effects that make you feel worse in the long-run.
Finally, acting purely because of cultural dictates can be the most harmful way of making choices of all because it distances you from both what is actually best for you personally, as well as your own thoughts about the matter. One dialysis patient I know felt so cripplingly embarrassed that he had become too tired to work and reduce his hours that he was afraid to go to Help the Aged for advice about benefits. Don’t let the fear of having an army of Daily Mail readers baying for your blood damage your health or peace of mind any more than it needs to be.
2) If you ignore the feelings you’re essentially wasting time and effort.
If you enter a difficult conversation or altercation with somebody and you ignore the feelings that are involved you will be unable to move forwards. The thing that you have to realise is that the ‘problem’ isn’t some distinct entity that can be handled separately from the people involved in dealing with it – the person is the person and the problem is the problem, but the people have feelings that must be acknowledged and dealt with.
Before you can move onto dealing with whatever issue is at stake, you have to try and bring the individuals that are going to be dealing with it onto the same page. If a doctor and a patient are trying to figure out a new course of treatment for the patient, for example, the conversation will be much more fruitful if the patient’s fears are dealt with first and foremost. The doctor will be better informed about the patient’s needs and the patient will be more likely to feel understood and best able to listen. You have to deal with the feelings before you can deal with the logical side of things. Clear the clouds out of the sky so that you can both see clearly.
3) The negative feelings are just as valuable as the positive ones.
Our culture has conditioned many, if not most, of us to believe that certain ‘negative’ or painful facets of the human condition should be avoided whenever possible, or ideally swept under the carpet and forgotten about if doing so can be lived with. This is one of the reasons why we rarely hear people talking openly and honestly about death, the one thing that we most definitely have in common and something that unites us all whether we like it or not.
On a more short-term or day to day level, this avoidance of all things ‘negative’ has led many of us to sweep our feelings under the carpet, or to nullify them with a cocktail of pills and potions that may help to alleviate some of the symptoms, but which do very little to help solve the underlying problem or cause of discontent itself. Though this might be the ‘rational’ thing to do in order to be able to function as a productive part of the social machinery, it doesn’t do much to help people to develop and blossom into the best possible versions of themselves.
Now, I don’t want to make the naive statement that everybody can stop taking their pills and suddenly face their mental illnesses or discontent as a ‘learning experience’, but I do want to suggest that in non-severe cases negative emotions can actually be an important part of a person and a perfectly normal reaction to a difficult situation.
If you’re feeling bad, don’t take the view that you have a chemical imbalance or that you’re flawed or broken in some way (or whatever else) to be the default explanation of what has caused you to feel the way you do. Ask yourself how your behaviour has contributed to the situation and what aspects of your environment need to be changed in order for things to work out better for you. Sometimes our negative feelings are a normal reaction to a messed up situation. Use them, if you can, as a healthy motivation to improve things.
4) To build character you have to face reality for what it is. Your feelings affect your reality.
One of the main threads of argument running throughout the content of this blog so far is that the only way you can make positive change or progress in life is to face the brutal reality of your situation. One of the other main arguments running throughout the content of this blog is that life itself can occasionally be pretty brutal. You might as well accept it.
If you’re building a house you need to understand the properties of the materials that you have to work with in order to make sure that it can weather the winter storms. It’s the same with the life that you build for yourself and the goals that you set for yourself – you have to be honest with yourself about what you have to work with in order to make it work.
If you find yourself in a difficult situation, be it having to deal with a chronic illness or just about any other problem, you have to cultivate the strength of character required to ‘weather the storm’, and a necessary condition for doing this is being able to face and accept the scope of possibilities available to you in your current reality (see this post for more specific info in this area).
In terms of the content of this particular post, our feelings play an important and influential part in the way that we perceive and think about our reality, our place within it, and the amount of control that we are able to exert. Learn to acknowledge your feelings and to be able to understand their appropriateness to the situation at hand.
Are you feeling more than might currently be helpful? Are your negative feelings justified or are you being overly-sensitive? Are you not feeling enough because you don’t feel entitled for some reason? How can you channel your energy into something that might help you change things?
At the risk of sounding like a total hippy, see if you can work on observing your feelings without reacting to them. Acknowledge that they are an important part of you and your experiences but let them pass instead of clinging onto them or self-identifying with them. Character comes from acknowledging the reality of your feelings but learning to control them instead of letting them control you.
5 ) Be aware of the fact that your emotions are a part of reality but that they can also cloud your view of it.
We touched on this point briefly in the previous of these ‘feelings’ posts with the suggestion that our feelings can lead to ways of thinking about or perceiving reality that cloud our experiences in a way that isn’t necessarily conducive to actually solving the problems that we may be faced with at the time. This isn’t a major scientific breakthrough or anything but it’s easy to forget sometimes.
Perhaps the clearest example here is the emotion of anger, which tends to be both self-perpetuating and highly selective in terms of the information that it allows us to take into consciousness and process as part of our experience. As a metaphor, we can say that anger puts a kind of frame around our experience, allowing us to see and focus on only a minute portion of the total picture.
When we focus on only the aspects of a situation that perpetuate what we already believe about it, it is highly unlikely that we will make meaningful progress towards improving things. The trick here is to ask yourself if you have put a frame around your experience and if there is anything you can do to expand it, acquiring information if relevant from the other people involved in the situation.
Ask yourself how things make sense from the perspective of the other person? What information do they have that you don’t? Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s actually there – it might be, of course, but you don’t know for sure unless you make the effort to find out. Don’t treat your assumptions as verified data.
6) Just because talking about feelings can be helpful doesn’t mean you should start running around and inviting everybody you meet to open up.
In the book Difficult Conversations by Stone et al, the point is made that you shouldn’t knock a wall down until you understand why it was erected in the first place. So far in this series of posts, we have made the claim that feelings are an important part of reality that often need to be acknowledged and dealt with before we can move on to the ‘rational’ aspects of seeking a solution to our problems. However, another fact about our reality is that people stand at different levels of receptiveness to spilling their guts out in front of others (metaphorically, of course – few are receptive to doing such a thing literally…).
Perhaps the obvious thing to do here is to lead by example; explain your feelings about a particular situation, explain that you know you may be lacking some important or relevant facts from the other person’s perspective, and invite them to comment on your feelings before sharing their own.
To ensure a degree of clarity, follow the time-tested method of delivering information to people:
TELL THEM WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO SAY —> TELL THEM –> TELL THEM WHAT YOU SAID
If the person that you’re dealing with wants to follow suit, then great. Just remember that other people’s responses and reactions are essentially out of your control – all you can really do is clarify your feelings and contributions to the problem and hope that they will do the same (some gentle encouragement may help, of course).
7) Have realistic expectations about feelings and anxiety. You will never feel nothing (unless you’re dead) so accept the inevitability of feeling something. Anxiety is not a sign of weakness – it’s normal, but the best you can hope for is a reduction, not a nullification.
Everybody on the planet feels some kind of anxiety every single day of their lives. Though some of us will feel it to a (much) higher degree than others, there are usually steps that we can take to decrease the amount of anxiety that we feel in the situations that we find ourselves in.
The important thing is to have (surprise surprise!) realistic expectations about what anxiety it is and the levels of anxiety reduction that a person can realistically hope for. Short and simple version: you will never get rid of anxiety completely so learn to work with it rather than against it.
In my own case, the worst thing about anxiety used to be the way in which I attached my assumptions about anxiety to my own self-concept or identity. Failing to realise that anxiety was a normal part of the human experience, I would begin to see myself as weak or deficient whenever the prickles of anxiety began to make themselves known.
This would serve to start a cycle of self-perpetuation in which the anxiety I felt would compound in the face of self-doubt and become increasingly paralysing. Since realising that anxiety is in fact ‘normal’, I have been able to stymie this cycle of self-perpetuation before it gets too unbearable and instead transmute my nervous energy into something more productive.
Don’t let your concept of what feelings and emotions actually are distance you from the reality of the situation and make the experience worse than it need be. Feeling something doesn’t define you as a person it just makes you human.
8) Acknowledging feelings is always important, but remember: there is a time and place for everything.
This is a similar point to that raised in the sixth post in this ‘feelings’ series, but it bears repeating. Whereas the comments in the previous post really deal with the appropriateness of encouraging others to share their feelings with you before they’re ready, this point raised here is really concerned with the timing of getting your own feelings out there.
The brutal truth here is that, just as with your problems, most people don’t really care about your feelings as much as you do – we’re all caught up with our own ‘stuff’ and we all have our own bubbles to entertain ourselves with. Inflicting or unleashing your personal feelings about a matter on others before they’re ready to hear them may do your case more harm than good; if you become an annoyance people are less likely to listen to you or take you seriously.
Simple solution: invite people into an exploration of feelings (on both sides, when relevant) don’t crash the party or turn up announced.
Just because sharing your feelings and perspectives with a support network is healthy and even potentially healing it doesn’t mean that you should treat everybody as a member of your support network – especially those who haven’t volunteered for the role.
Learn to be in touch with your feelings and to share them with others; don’t be so comfortable that you end up making others feel uncomfortable. Find balance so that you and those around you can get through the day in a relatively functional way.
9) Don’t judge other people’s feelings; accept them as a part of that person’s reality, and then deal with them so that you can both move on.
One of the problems that I’ve noticed in myself when dealing with people that are coming from an ’emotional place’ is that I’ll occasionally lapse into a state where I see their feelings as being irrational, over the top, or just downright irrelevant. As I’ve grown and become more aware of this tendency, I’ve been able to catch myself doing it, but I can’t help but back track over the relationships that I’ve had and wonder if things would’ve been different if I’d realised this sooner.
Those of us who are more rational than emotional (of which I guess I am) tend to forget that emotions are a part of the problem, not distinct from it. In a way, this assumption leads us to forget that the most rational approach to dealing with ’emotional place’ people is to work through emotions and then deal onto the problem solving/logical stuff.
Our judgements are usually based on assumptions and a lack of information and so judging somebody’s emotions is really nothing more than an admission of ignorance. Judging or trying to persuade a person that their feelings are invalid or unrealistic is nothing more than a waste of time.
To truly be on the same page as another person and make meaningful progress together you need to be present with them. You can’t be present if you are judging or trying to persuade.
10) If you’ve worked to get over it, and you honestly can’t, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
I’m writing this from the UK, a place traditionally and culturally known as a place of great reservation and reticence. Though there are of course benefits to keeping certain things hidden within ourselves, the courage required to let others know how we truly feel is often tenfold that required to keep it hidden away.
Sometimes letting others know how we feel is the bravest thing we can do. It shouldn’t be discouraged just for the sake of it or because people may get their egos bruised in the process. Sometimes finding the strength to come out of hiding, to be as authentic as you possibly can be, is the most honest and brave of all the things you can do.
Anxiety is a natural consequence of growing as a person. Sometimes you have to push through it to move onto the next stage of development. Change is always going to be one of the biggest challenges that a human being will face, yet it’s a challenge that we all must face at some stage in our lifetimes.
Though this blog advocates being honest with yourself and trying to face your problems head on, sometimes you just have to admit that there’s only so much you can do by yourself and that eventually you might need a helping hand to get over the wall and move onto the next stage of the journey.
Don’t be afraid to seek out mentors or other people that have already been through similar issues to the ones you’re currently facing; the wisdom that they hopefully gained through their own experiences might be just what you need to move on or see the problem in a new light.
If you have an illness try and seek peer support from others who have the same condition; seek out family members or trusted friends; make people understand what you’re experiencing. Don’t confuse asking for help with weakness – owning up to our vulnerabilities is an act of strength in itself.
11) Expect negative feelings as inevitable, but don’t run head into them – take steps to bolster and protect yourself by developing realistic expectations.
I already typed up a whole post about the benefits of realistic expectations but the fundamental and relevant point still stands: preparing for disappointment will save you heartache and anguish in the long-term.
This doesn’t mean that you think negatively and end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and gloom, but it does mean that you at least consider the realistic negative contingencies that could be befall you in order to curtail them.
As the great scholar Kim Kardashian once said: “90% of the stuff that you worry about will probably never happen”. Although KK may have used these edifying words to encourage people to give up worrying once and for all (or at least 90% of the time), we can use them here to take comfort in the fact that what we acknowledge won’t necessarily hurt us but that, by making an effort to think about it, we will be more likely to prevail in the rare instances of these events actually unfolding.
12) Use your feelings to change the world. Channel your energy into creativity.
We live in a society where being too extreme in our displays of emotion is frowned upon, but the simple fact is that without powerful emotions to drive us nobody would ever get anything done. To stick with a difficult series of tasks until completion you need to find your passion about it, and one of the only surefire ways to do that is to combine your love of the vision with your anger or enflamed desire at not yet having got to where you need to be.
Negative and impetuous emotions or impulses will destroy you, but if you learn to regain control of your reactions to the situations that you find yourself in, you will learn to create something new and worthwhile. Transmute the nervous energy that comes from suppressing your urges into frenzied activity. Shut off the monkey mind by managing your thoughts and learning to focus. Remember that you are literally a force of nature and direct yourself accordingly.
I know all this ‘mindfulness’ stuff has become almost a bromide these days because of over-commodification and commercialisation, but it works. At it’s simplest, it revolves around a simple idea: be aware of what’s going on inside you and channel it into the world outside you. You have more power than you think you do.
13) If you feel apathetic or complacent about life then you probably aren’t challenging yourself. Find new ways to test yourself and regain the buzz of being alive.
Human beings aren’t built for the destination, we’re built for the journey. The thrill of being alive comes from setting goals for ourselves and going after them, bringing the world around to our will, growing and learning and developing as we do so. We are designed to grow: all children express this natural drive towards growth, but sadly and unfortunately most adults have it beaten out of them and become static and unchanging and start to fade away.
If you find yourself feeling apathetic about things then there’s a good chance that you don’t have any challenging goals on your plate. Maybe you don’t realise what you’re capable of so you only set yourself goals within the remit of past experience; maybe you like to see yourself in a particular light so you restrict the sphere of activity from which you select your goals; whatever it is, if your goals are too easy you won’t be stimulated by them and you will lack the thrill of being truly alive.
Regardless of your situation or condition, there is always scope for personal growth. Set yourself goals that you know will challenge you. What skills do you need to develop to be the kind of person that you want to be? What do you need to learn to make the most of your strengths? Constantly set the bar a notch or two higher than the level that you currently find yourself at. Keep moving forwards and keep growing to feel alive. You only get one shot so ensure that you’re as big as you possibly can be.
This is especially relevant if you’re stuck in a rut or have a long-term health condition. If things don’t seem to be going anywhere then you have to force yourself to take them there. Change yourself and you change the world.
14) You don’t have to feel powerless if you take a little action everyday. Power and confidence build in increments.
Understand the power of compounded action and you will understand that we are not as powerless as it may sometimes seem: if we only take one small step each day in the direction of our goals, we will be 365 steps closer by the end of a year. Force yourself to do a little every day and, by building on the foundations of what went before, you will have all of the evidence you need of your own vitality.
When we look at completed works of art or literature we can tend to forget that the person who created them didn’t bring them into the world fully formed. The great novels were written one word at a time over many weeks, months, or years; the great paintings were developed one brush stroke at a time with sometimes countless revisions and mistakes along the way. Hardly anything of great value comes into the world fully formed or good to go and the same can be said about you and your life.
Don’t just look at your life as a series of days, but as a collective whole. Though day and night lead us to think in fragmented terms, every moment of your life has ramifications for those that follow. Build a little every day so that the whole is eventually a perfect expression of what you stand for.
15 – If you desire to do something and don’t because of fear then you’re feelings about yourself will only get worse. Force yourself to feel good by doing the things that scare you but won’t hurt you.
Sometimes we want something but we’re scared to go out and get it. Maybe we’re scared of the potential rejection or what other people may say about us; maybe we feel that we’re not entitled for some reason; maybe we’ve tried before and failed and so we think that we’re doomed to repeat the same old patterns over and over again.
Whatever it is, chances are that the only thing between you and what you want is the little voice in your head and the plethora of self-limiting beliefs that it continues to churn out on repeat. Stop listening and take positive action that scares you a little.
Fear means that you’re leaving your comfort zone and leaving your comfort zone is the only sure-fire way to grow as a person; if it won’t kill you than it might actually make you stronger.
A coaching friend of mine often makes this point by asking people to imagine that the voice and chatter in their heads was embodied as a separate person in the external real world. If somebody else was sat next to you saying the kinds of things that your internal voice sometimes says, do you think you would you continue to listen to them? Probably not.
So why do we allow ourselves to talk to ourselves in such a way – especially when the one person you can control is yourself? I know it’s easier said than done and this is something that I struggle with myself sometimes (especially with public speaking or approaching girls in coffee shops, for example), but the only way to show yourself that you can do something is provide yourself evidence; and the best evidence you can give yourself is action.
Fear not rejection nor opinion. Fear not the voice in your head or the doubts of the past. Force yourself to take action and your feelings about yourself and the world will improve for the better.