Can your feelings be trusted?

Previously in my blog I’ve said that you can trust your feelings about things more than your thoughts. I gave the example of being in a relationship that I knew didn’t feel right, but my thoughts kept rationalising why we should should stay together. In that case my feelings were more reliable than my thoughts.

From an evolutionary point of view, as I said last week, feelings were designed to draw us towards things that natural selection thought were good for us and away from what it didn’t.

This begs the question, is this still the case? Are our feelings a reliable guide to what is and isn’t good for our survival?

Often, they’re not. In fact, they’re counter-productive. The enviornment we’re living in is radically different from the hunter-gather communities in which feelings evolved. But the way we’re designed is basically the same. It’s as if we’re still walking into business meetings holding a pointy stick and wearing a loincloth.

Let’s look at some examples:

Craving sweet things

This used to be helpful. It drew us towards fruit, which was good for us. Now it draws us towards Dunkin Doughnuts and Kit Kats which make us fat and give us diabetes.

Anger

Back in the day, if someone disrespected you, a display of aggression and rage was a demonstration to the rest of the tribe that you were not to be messed with, and therefore you had an evolutionary advantage.

With road-rage, you’re never going to see person who cuts you up or the other drivers again so there’s no point showing them who’s boss. By reacting angrily you’re more likely to put yourself in danger by driving dangerously, and therefore less likely to pass on your genes to the next generation.

Anxiety

Scanning for danger and anticipating it, even when most of the time there wasn’t any, used to help us survive. But these days, it often kicks in in a way that doesn’t. For example, public speaking.

Having sleepless nights in the run up, going blank or rushing your presentation because you’re anxious doesn’t benefit you at all. Our feelings are not a reliable guide as to how we should act in this situation.

So how we can we deal with this?

What I’ve noticed is that the more I’ve practiced mindfulness, the more I’ve been able resist the pull of what the feeling would have previously had me do. I can feel the itch and choose not to scratch it. Not every time, maybe not even most of the time, but increasingly so.

I have a client who, as he developed his awareness of his feelings, noticed himself feeling angry and frustrated at how slowly the person in front of her was walking. Instead of fueling that anger with further thoughts of how annoying it was, he noticed what was happening, and chose to slow down his own pace, and calm himself down.

Thus mindfulness is a tool for liberating yourself from patterns of behaviour that may be programmed into your genetics, but don’t actually serve you.

In the words of Holocaust Survivor Victor Frankl:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

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If you now have the feeling that you’d like to share this blog, you can trust that!

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