Your Feelings Are Not Your Fault (Mostly)
By Hunter Glenn
We all take responsibility for our actions; we feel guilty when we’re bad, and fulfillment when we’re good. Do you do the same for your feelings? Should you? I used to…
I alternated between priding myself on liking people and guilting myself for disliking them. Naturally, I rather preferred pride to guilt; I liked feeling virtuous, so I tried to force feelings of liking someone, or of respecting them, of forgiving, or of staying calm in the face of irritation. This left me frustrated when I failed, and I carried a lot of guilt for feeling the “wrong” way.
Well, there’s power and there’s progress in updating your beliefs. As I grew older, the thought came to me: I wasn’t asking for my feelings, they came whether I wanted them or not! Consistent with scientific findings, I really, really couldn’t just use my willpower to make them be whatever I wanted, not well, and not for long (the emotional part of our brain, the Autopilot System, is much more powerful than the rational part, the Intentional System). So it was hardly fair to keep telling myself the feelings were my fault!
Besides, doing so often trapped me in this loop:
1. I felt down
2. So I tried to force myself to feel better
3. I failed
4. I blamed myself for failing
Of course, this just made me feel worse, which made me try even harder, with even less success — rinse, wash, repeat — until crippling despair permeates the soul.
Caption: Rinse, Wash, Repeat (image credit)
Research finds this loop is common.I don’t think I ever suffered from depression, but I imagine if I did, it would have been hell to hold myself responsible for those feelings, to go through these cycles with even less control (and even less reason to blame myself for it all).
“Better,” I thought, “if I take responsibility for what I do about my feelings, rather than for the feelings themselves.” So, instead of holding myself 100 percent responsible for my actions, and 100 percent responsible for my feelings, I decided it was better to hold myself 100 percent responsible for my actions, but 0 percent responsible for my feelings.
I let my feelings off their leash and wondered where all this calm suddenly came from, as I relearned how to relax. I no longer felt like the open moments in my day had to be spent making sure my feelings had been the “right way.”
I learned: Your feelings are valid. Your feelings are what they are. Do whatever is best to do, and let your feelings be. Let them come. And then let them pass, like the waves of the sea.
That way, my negative feelings faded sooner, more easily, than when I was trying to force them to go. I had less stress and extra energy for doing, once I stopped wasting it on how I was feeling.
But, my work was not yet done. If ever you’ve felt confident you knew what was what because you knew what wasn’t, I hope you can learn from my error, because my learning was incomplete.Remember, I shifted from 100 percent responsibility for my feelings to no responsibility, using the Intentional System we all have.
The Problem with Epiphany #1
I still think this was mostly right. However, I wasn’t entirely right. Because, from my earlier experiences, I knew — though I wasn’t thinking of it at the time — that trying to force your feelings can work. A little. Your feelings are not completely decoupled from your Intentional system. Just mostly, perhaps 90%.
If you try to push your feelings more than you should, it’s a slick slip down a steep slope into debilitating cycles of wasted willpower.
Caption: Slippery slope (image credit)
But. If you push — juuust a little, juuust enough, you can make a little headway against negative feelings.
The old idea “just have a positive attitude” sticks around because it works. Sort of. It’s also a sort of hideous thing to tell someone suffering depression, or to tell someone who’s already trying and failing, slipping down a cycle into despair, implying that they just aren’t trying hard enough, so what’s wrong with them. Don’t be the one who twists that knife.
Still, if you haven’t been trying at all, I can say from experience that it’s worth trying a little. Take about 10 percent responsibility for your feelings, and 100 percent responsibility for your actions. Be intentional to reach your goals.
“Let it be” and “man up” are not entirely at odds with each other. Generally, “let it be” is better for your feelings, and “man up” is better for your actions. And sometimes, oh so carefully, juuust a little, just 10 percent for your feelings, too. Perhaps something as simple as forcing yourself to smile, since it’s been found that your emotions will follow your actions.
But saying “big girls don’t cry” is just not helpful. It’s more focused on what’s convenient for everyone else, rather than what’s healthy for the person with tears running down her face, the one who needs help more than anyone.
Now, while different people need different advice, please remember that it’s much more dangerous trying to force too much than trying to force too little. Taking a little too much responsibility is much worse than taking too little, like drinking a little too much is worse than drinking a little less. If you tend to force too much, relax. Let it be. Let your feelings come, let them go. Focus on doing rather than feeling. Let yourself not be relaxed, not be calm, not be happy. Let feelings be what they are. When you’re rested up, you can try a little, being careful not to take it too far all over again. If you’re not trying at all, you’re probably not in terrible shape. But I recommend making a little effort.
I once hurt someone I loved. She had forgiven me, and we had worked things out…but still…I felt the weight of that error. I felt pressured from every side, my will a thousand miles off, my psyche stretched thin…until it snapped. I didn’t want to try; I didn’t want to try to try, and it felt like I was supposed to feel that way.
I was wary of trying to push my feelings to be something they weren’t, but I gave it a tentative attempt. Like so:
1. I imagined how I would feel if I was over it. I gave myself permission to be over it. I was not “supposed” to feel this way.
2. I then acted like I did feel that way. I told myself I felt that way. I pushed my feelings. Juuust a little.
It worked great! A few times that day, the negative mood approached again, but I just made a small effort to resist it … and I felt just fine — and ever since, too. I call this putting a gossamer leash on my feelings. With a single strand of spider silk as a leash, I gently guided my emotions where I wanted them.
I recommend the same for you:
1) — Imagine how you want to feel,
2) — Step into that feeling, that persona, that role.
Sometimes when I do this, I get a pushback as my feelings reassert themselves. When that happens, I let it. The leash is gossamer for a reason; if an emotion pulls away, it can break free.
When a bad feeling comes, push a little, see if it works, and then let it be.
Picture yourself doing it, see yourself stretching forward, breaking the bindings of negativity, listening to your feelings, and then letting them be. Put your feelings on a gossamer leash.
Your destiny is shaped by your actions, not by your feelings. Whatever your feelings, you can make life wonderful.
Questions for Consideration:
• Why would feeling guilty about your feelings lead to a cycle of worse feelings?
• What would happen to someone suffering from depression if they did this?
• How could letting your feelings go actually help them get better?
• When in your life would it have helped you to know about this?
• What might happen if we blame other people for how they feel?
• Whom do you know that could benefit from this notion?
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Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an author, speaker, consultant, coach, scholar, and social entrepreneur specializing in science-based strategies for effective decision-making, goal achievement, emotional and social intelligence, meaning and purpose, and altruism — for more information or to hire him, see his website, GlebTsipursky.com.
He runs a nonprofit that helps people use science-based strategies to make effective decisions and reach their goals, so as to build an altruistic and flourishing world, Intentional Insights. He also serves as a tenure-track professor at Ohio State in the History of Behavioral Science and the Decision Sciences Collaborative. A best-selling author, he wrote Find Your Purpose Using Science among other books, and regular contributes to prominent venues, such as Time, The Conversation, Salon, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He appears regularly on network TV, such as affiliates of ABC and Fox, radio stations such as NPR and Sunny 95, and elsewhere.
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