The prevailing world view is that emotion and logic operate in separate spheres of the brain, and as such, we can separate the two. Now, however, there’s a solid body of research that contradicts this claim, and reflects what I believe many of us who deal in emotion have long suspected—how we think and how we feel are inexorably intertwined.
But what does this mean, practically? Why should we care that feeling and reason can’t be separated? What does it mean to say that every decision we make is influenced by our emotions?
How does it benefit us to recognize that there is no such thing as an emotion-free thought or behavior, only times where we experience our feelings as more or less intense or compelling?
Don’t Fight the Feeling
When we view emotions as wholly separate from reason, we are more likely to tell ourselves that we can control how we feel. Because we believe that we can split logic from emotion, it seems that we should be able to use reason to master our emotions. However, when we view reason and feeling as inseparable, we are freed from trying to force ourselves to feel differently. Instead, we can embrace our emotions for what they are, and choose how to respond to them.
Taking this stance is helpful because it allows us to avoid wasting our time and energy fighting our feelings, telling ourselves that we should or shouldn’t feel a certain way, or trying to deny our emotional experiences. We have lots of opinions about what our emotions should be—that we shouldn’t feel nervous about flying or giving a speech; that we should feel more in love with our partners; that we shouldn’t still have feelings for someone who treated us badly. Strangely enough, our emotions are not interested in these directives. But when we shift our perspective to acknowledge that emotions underlie all our thoughts, choices, and behaviors, we see the futility of beating ourselves up because of any particular feeling. We know that the feelings are going to be there and we have no control (in the moment, at least) over which will appear, so why get sucked into trying to make them go away?
Treat Emotions Like Data
Instead of viewing our emotions as something to be conquered, I have found it more helpful to treat them like data— information about the present and the potential future, based on our past circumstances. Our brains are constantly assessing the world around us and making predictions about what is currently happening and what might happen next. Emotions are a product of that system, taking the sum of our experiences, and trying to determine what may be important for us in any given situation.
Instead of turning away from them, practice noticing your feelings. When you feel a strong emotion—whatever it is—pay attention to how you experience it in your body. Does your chest tighten? Does your face burn? Does your stomach feel sour? Take stock of what is happening every part of your body as you experience the emotion. This helps you better determine what you’re actually feeling and why; and also helps you to slow the process down. It then becomes easier to decide how you want to respond to what’s happening, because the emotional intensity has decreased.
Honor Your Feelings and Guide Your Thoughts
One of the things I think is helpful is to cultivate a healthy respect for feelings. Emotions are much like weather reports, they are trying to provide you with information quickly, based on what’s come before, with an eye on what may be to come. They’re not always accurate or complete, but they’re better than having no information at all. As such, feelings deserve our respect, and, more importantly, we typically experience them as less powerful once we’ve acknowledged them. Recognizing and naming the emotion doesn’t quite make it go away, but it begins to feel like a process that we are a part of, as opposed to something that is simply happening to us. You can acknowledge your feelings by saying something like, ‘I’m feeling really worried right now because I don’t know how my boss is going to react to my mistake,’ or ‘I’m feeling hurt right now because my spouse turned me down for sex.’
Once you’ve acknowledged your feelings, you can put them in the proper perspective. You recognize the emotion and whatever you think may be driving it, and then you place it in its proper context. You could say something like, ‘I’m feeling worried about the mistake I made at work, and I also know that my boss values the work I do overall, and wouldn’t fire me over one mistake.’ Here, you’re recognizing that the emotional experience you’re having is real and important, but you’re also adding the rest of the story. You’re saying, yes, this feeling is true, but it doesn’t quite hold the whole truth.
Your Feelings Have Many Influences
Keep in mind that our thoughts are not the only important element that influences our feelings. The research shows that our emotions are influenced by what’s happening in our body (eg, sleep, diet, health concerns), and other factors as well. So when you’re trying to figure out why you may be feeling a particular way, remember that it is likely much more than the immediate situation that’s influencing it. For example, there’s evidence to suggest that judges are more likely to issue harsher sentences when their sports team has lost: researchers attributed this effect to their crummy feelings about the defeat impacting their view of the case before them. (Those defendants may have been better off if the judges had acknowledged where their feelings were coming from!)
It’s very easy to get caught in the trap of trying to bend emotions to your will, or even pretend they don’t exist at all. However, we are much better served when we recognize both the power and usefulness that emotions offer, and use the information they provide to choose how we react. Instead of doing battle with your feelings, recognize that they work in tandem with our thoughts.