I don’t know about you, but I find myself making many decisions based on how I feel. When I’m bored I turn to my smartphone, for example. I’m in a particular state of mind and I do something to change that state, or to get more of it.
Except my feelings don’t necessarily reflect reality. What they reflect is the stories I tell about what I perceive.
In the book Crucial Conversations the authors talk about how there’s a step between facts and your feelings. You’d think that events happen and your react to them emotionally, but there’s a middleman: your stories.
Facts -> Stories -> Feelings
Often our stories are told so fast, out of the mental habit/conditioning that we have, that we don’t realize they are stories and they appear virtually indistinguishable from facts. But yet, facts/reality take up less space than we believe, they convey less meaning on their own. It’s our interpretation that creates the meaning, and what they mean stir up emotional reactions.
I use the word conditioning because it’s made up of scripts that are deeply engrained and automatic. For example, we assume that when someone dies it’s tragic and sad. But yet, it could be a departure of someone who lived a meaningful life and looking forward to the next adventure. Or of someone who’s finally finding relief from long and arduous battle with illness. It’s our belief system that jumps to the conclusion that all human deaths are undesirable. When in fact we can make anything out of anything.
I find it immensely helpful to be aware of this. Our feelings don’t really reflect reality but our mental conditioning. You don’t have to be a slave to your feelings. You can have a raging storm of emotions inside yet you can choose not to act on them. If you ever tried exercising regularly, you know there are days when you don’t feel like working out. But yet you feel better about yourself afterward if you soldier on.
Life is made up of experiences, and it’s natural we all want good experiences all the time. But along the way we acquire conditioning that plays against that desire, where our worries, remorses or even boredom scream at you to “fix me!” The problem is that these conditioning are only looking for immediate and momentary relief. They have no other concerns. So they mercilessly twist and spin reality into visions of its choosing. Feelings are no compass at all, and poor drivers for decisions.
What should drive our decisions are our values. Feelings come and go but well-defined values don’t change from day to day, even if they evolve over a longer period of time. When you make decisions based on values, your feelings may protest and make things uncomfortable for the time-being, but you have the rest of your life to look back and think well of your choice afterward.
That’s not to say feelings aren’t useful. It’s just that your feelings are telling you about your belief system, not about reality. Knowing your belief system further informs your value-driven decisions because it’s easier to deal with distractions and distortions when you know they are there.
I am still an emotional being, and I have very strong feelings. Sometimes it takes a lot of willpower not to let my feelings dictate my actions. But I find it helpful to see my relationship with my emotional body as friendly arm-wrestling matches. Sometimes I lose, but other times I win. Either way, the next bout is just around the corner. Life is an experiment, there’s no need to dwell on losses, even a string of them. There’s always another chance, to come out on top the next time. I just have to keep reminding myself that all the great things I accomplished in life, I did because I took charge often enough. Sometimes it feels my emotional body flings me around like a leaf in a storm, but with practice I can connect to the ground beneath me even as the storms are raging. It may not make the experience easier at that exact moment, but not giving in to feelings leave the door open for the next moment to get better.
Do you feel like you’re a slave to your feelings? Recognizing the separation between your emotional body and your true self is a step in the right direction. Play with this idea and let me know what you figure out.