Sculpture by Antony Gormley

What Feelings Are For

The Role of Emotions in Knowing What’s Important

Feelings are widely misunderstood. Even by psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists. Certainly by designers and activists.

I’ll start with the work feelings do in us. This leads to definitions of integrity and wisdom. I’ll ask if wisdom is in decline, and find answers related to organizations and bureaucracies. Finally, I’ll look at helping others with their feelings and values.

The Work Feelings Do

Here’s the key idea:

Every feeling is a reminder of something important to us.

So:

  • Anger tells us that something important to us is blocked
  • Fear, that something important to us is threatened
  • Shame, that we haven’t been living up to something important to us
  • Confusion, that we’re missing a conception of something important to us
  • and so on

We learn about what’s important to us through our feelings. We learn about what we value.

And feelings help us consider how we’re doing with what we value. Positive feelings remind us embrace or notice what’s important to us. Negative feelings do more: a negative feeling signals a conflict between our values that we have to think about:

  • Perhaps we were pursuing value B but we forgot about value A. For instance, I was trying to be effective but I forgot that it was also important to me to be kind. This might result in embarrassment.
  • Or perhaps we are neglecting value B because we think it’s impossible to do both. For instance, I may think it’s impossible to pursue my interest in creative work while supporting my family, but both are important to me. This could result in frustration or yearning.

There are many other types of conflict. But feelings are there to tell us we have to grapple with these conflicts, not just skip over them. Feelings remind us to ask ourselves questions like:

  • Can I be kind and effective?
  • Actually do I really believe in being effective, or maybe it’s always more important to me to be kind?
  • Is it really impossible to pursue creative work while supporting my family?
  • What would actually happen if I stopped supporting my family?

Often these are questions we don’t want to ask. But the feelings keep coming until we do. Until we take time to reconcile all these conflicts as best we can, there’s a gap between how we’re living and what’s important to us. This gap means we can’t be proud of who we are. So, we have to grapple with conflicts to accept ourselves and the choices we make.

Do You Have Integrity?

Often we fail at receiving the messages of our feelings. We can fail for three reasons:

  • Repression. If a person doesn’t know they have feelings, or doesn’t let themselves feel them, they’re repressing them. Feelings can go away entirely when you repress them. A person becomes numb, depressed, or anxious.
  • Venting. Other people do feel their feelings, but they aren’t taken seriously as carriers of what’s important. The feelings come back again and again, and the person becomes melodramatic.
  • Avoidance. A third group gets all the way to recognizing what’s important, but doesn’t grapple with the conflicts revealed or reconcile them. People who do this will be perpetually lost, conflicted, confused, and escapist.

To avoid these problems, feel all the way through the situations of your life, starting with the emotions, ending with a reconciliation of values:

feeling → appreciating → grappling → reconciling

Someone who’s felt through all their situations has integrity. They’re grounded. Integrity means they know what’s important to them and they’ve grappled with all the conflicts.

Integrity is easiest when your situation changes slowly: you have lots of time to notice your feelings, to find out what’s important to you, and to grapple with conflicts.

How about Wisdom?

The more dynamic your life — the more you deal with a variety of people and challenging situations every day — the quicker you must be at feeling through. The most important skill for leaders is this: quickness in feeling through things. Such a person is discerning or wise.

It’s easy to see if someone is wise: they’ll be very articulate about their feelings, their values, and how they’ve grappled with and reconciled their values in different situations.

They’ll also be creative. A wise person aims their life and their social activity in unusual, creative directions. They have values that can only be discovered by grappling with conflicts.

Here’s an example:

  • I used to try to be liked by people. At some point, I realized this conflicted with my value of being at ease. I discovered I was being tense and fake in the name of being liked. Feeling appalled and embarrassed helped me decide not to aim at being liked, and instead try to be authentic and caring.
  • Later, my new value of being authentic and caring came into conflict with being effective. I noticed myself being uncaring while pushing groups to be effective. Feeling frustrated and confused encouraged me to resolve this. I switched to a new view of effectiveness, about fostering capacity in myself and others.

In each case, the transition from old values to new remedied an error in thinking:

  • In transitioning away from being liked, I addressed limits in my idea of good relationships.
  • In transitioning away from being effective, I corrected similar misunderstandings about good teams.

I could drop the old values, precisely because I’d clarified what they’d really meant for me. The importance of the old values was entirely captured by the new, more comprehensive value.

These powerful new values and perspectives come from negative feelings. Without our feelings, we’d be stuck with primitive values like being liked and being effective.

Is Wisdom in Decline?

I believe all this—feelings, values, reconciliation—is part of being human, just like language or gesture. But many of us have lost track of it. If feelings are natural, why is the nature of feelings so obscure?

  • Individually, why are we confused about feelings and values?
  • Societally, why does that confusion become widespread?

How Individuals Get Confused

Our ability to feel through is under attack. First, broad cultural myths work to confuse us about how feelings and integrity work. Secondly, false beliefs make our values seem irreconcilable.

Cultural Myths. There are broad cultural misunderstandings of the emotions:

  • One such myth is that of the stoic person — usually a man — who somehow knows what’s important to him and reconciles his values without ever feeling his feelings. The myth is that he’s just magically a highly effective person.
  • Another myth is the hysterical person — usually a woman — whose feelings don’t mean anything about what’s important to her. The myth is that she just needs to man up or tough it out or achieve equanimity.

These myths are supported and furthered in the dominant approaches to clinical psychology: the stoic view is supported by CBT and life coaching; the hysteric view is supported by various cathartic release / expressive therapies, by mindfulness training, by some forms of family therapy, and by co-counseling.

False Beliefs. Cultural myths interrupt the process of feeling or of recognizing what’s important. Our culture is also full of false beliefs that make it seem like values are irreconcilable. Beliefs like:

  • If I say what I really want I’ll be a social outcast.
  • I’m a terrible parent if I want anything for myself.
  • You can’t make a living as an artist.
  • So long as I’m honest I don’t need to be kind.
  • I can’t be seductive without being manipulative or pushy.

When you have a false belief like this, you can’t grapple with a value conflict, and you can’t reconcile them. The false belief tells you reconciliation is impossible. Whatever feeling started the process (e.g., a shame about not being kind, an excitement about being seductive, a yearning for creative expression) is transformed into despair before you have a chance to grapple with the conflict.

If you find the false belief and question it, you can reconcile the conflict.

How Society is Optimized for Confusion

If these cultural myths and false beliefs are so bad for us on an individual level, why are they widespread? Here’s my guess: they’ve made people more predictable and thus into better social cogs.

Over the last 300 years, organizations, bureaucracies, and institutions grew more complex. To remain stable, they’ve depended on predictable choices from the people inside.

A person is easier to control when they’re not good at feeling through and when they believe their values are irreconcilable. They’ll be a better consumer and (at least in a bureaucracy) a better producer.

So the most successful subcultures will be those with cultural myths and false beliefs. And when people are trained to be successful, these cultural myths and false beliefs will be encouraged.

This would create a pattern we see today: the more successful a group, the more confused about feelings and wisdom.

Helping Others

So for now, expect to be surrounded by people who are bad at feeling through, who aren’t discerning or wise, and who are mired in cultural myths and false beliefs. This will remain the case until organizations and institutions work differently.

But you can help the people close to you:

  • If they have trouble feeling their feelings, sit with them. Ask them to feel inside themselves, to express their feelings, and treat them as valuable.
  • When someone’s expressing feelings, ask what they are about. Find out what’s important to the person. Let them know that you take it seriously. You want to help them get what’s important to them.
  • If they don’t see their values as reconcilable, try asking about their conflicting values. Show how they might be reconciled. Express optimism that their feelings will lead to wisdom.

Good luck.


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