Therapists like to tell people to talk about their feelings. But why? And if it’s important to do this, why do a lot of people avoid it?
One father earnestly told his child, “Nobody wants to know how you feel. They just want to know that you will act rationally.” If so, why do we have feelings in the first place?
No one disputes the value of happiness or joy or pleasure. The difficulties surface when we talk about anger, sadness, guilt, shame, fear, and embarrassment. What do we do with these? Surely we need to do more than simply stuff negative feelings.
American public schools do not offer much help. They train us to look to our brains for answers, to justify and explain, to rely on words and logical reasoning for the solution to all problems.
Just watch a class of third graders, boys and girls about nine years old. If someone hits someone on the playground or cuts ahead in the lunch line, conflict ensues. The teacher eyeballing the situation will decide which child did the first wrong thing and will mete out justice accordingly.
A fly on the wall would notice that children repeatedly exposed to this scenario become angry and resentful. They see teachers over and over again making a snap judgment without getting input from all parties.
The teacher does not bother to determine where the story (problem) started. The teacher does not hear all points of view. The teacher scarcely listens at all. The children feel unheard. They infer that their feelings do not count, that words alone matter.
Now, I do not mean to bash public school teachers. For the most part they are a courageous, caring, hardworking lot. But their job descriptions start with facts and figures and curricula, and they are primarily expected to deliver good test scores.
Teachers generally are not encouraged to focus on that most important task of schooling, namely socialization. They do not teach children how to use and honor their feelings. In the words of the excellent School of Life on Marchmont Street in London, they do not teach any of us how to live.
Why is this so? Why are feelings such a sticky wicket? I think the answer is that they expose our innermost selves. Our feelings more than anything else are the essence of who we are. They leave us vulnerable to injury at the hands of others.
The child in a household dominated by physical abuse or drug addiction will quickly learn not just that the grownups unpredictably do terrible things but also that it is dangerous to betray your feelings under such chaotic circumstances. You could get badly hurt!
Children in this predicament learn to wear a mask. Observers, they hope, will not be able to see their distress. Other people will not be able to tell how they feel.
We are all born with the same kit. The feelings I experience are familiar to you as well. They unite us humans with each other, old and young alike. When we do not disclose them, we feel all alone in the world. The instant we voice them, however, everyone else is right there with us. Everyone has had some experience with any feeling we describe.
Feelings manifest themselves at birth and stay with us no matter what until we die.
We cannot live by our brains alone. Our brains analyze and problem solve. In contrast, our feelings, responding to input from our senses, tell us what we want, what we like, and what we don’t like. Without input from our feelings, our brain has no raw materials to work on.
We have all met (or been) people adrift in life, working a job by day, going home by night, finding life drab and unfulfilling, mystified to discover that faithful compliance with social expectations is no guarantee of joy. Without guidance from our feelings, we live in black and white rather than full color.
I see many people who are in this boat. My first task is to reconnect them with their feelings. Next people must learn how to identify the things that are most important to them in this life. The third task is to figure out how to get from Dullsville to bliss however they have defined it.
You cannot have the good life—the one that seems just right for you—without your feelings. But even if you settle for less, you are stuck with your feelings. You cannot opt out of them. They cannot and will not be ignored.
Many brilliant, idealistic judges (think Oliver Wendell Holmes and even members of the current Supreme Court) have emerged from law school utterly confident that all of life can be regulated cerebrally.
As any law student knows, however, the casebooks are rife with decisions that highlight their authors’ feelings. Throughout the legal opinions these feelings surface in insidious and often destructive ways without their authors’ knowledge.
We are of course not all jurists. We are bosses and workers, mothers and fathers, children and students, citizens and criminals, people of all ages doing all sorts of things. When our feelings are acknowledged and accepted, we feel validated. We can then right ourselves in the wake of distress and go about our business.
When our feelings are disregarded, however, we feel misunderstood, ignored, even powerless. This sense of lacking any control is the real enemy. No one survives in this world without feeling a modicum of control over his or her circumstances. Without it, people actually die. And this is a key point.
Violence occurs in our time when its perpetrators believe they have no options. People wreak havoc when they can identify only one possible course of action. Think murder and massacre. Think Columbine—or the shooting of a high school student in Hartford in November 2014 by an older, aggrieved family member.
It is important for us to voice our feelings so that they do not surface in other, more violent ways.
We therapists do not advocate talking about feelings in order to be touchy-feely. We want you to be self-aware and to respond creatively to your environment. We want you to take constructive action rather than destructive action.
We want you to find your proper work in the world, shaping the unique sculpture that is your life and your legacy. We want you to live in harmony with your feelings, joyfully and to the full.