What Use Are Feelings Anyway?

This question comes up a lot in therapy.  Why would I want to focus on my feelings? What good would that do?  Such a normal and common question to have! For many of us, we learned two things about our emotions: 1. They’re irrational and 2. They’ll burden others.  

How unfortunate for us because emotions, in their purest form (a physical impulse, reaction, and sensation in the body), are never wrong and only serve as indicators to what’s going on inside of us. 

  “Never wrong? Really? What about that time I got angry at my girlfriend for taking the wrong turn on our way to dinner? That certainly was irrational.”  You might be thinking something similar, or pulling up a memory in your mind where your feelings felt inappropriate.  

Let me make a helpful distinction here.  What I’m talking about is the feelings themselves, what you’re likely thinking about is the behavior of the feeling, or rather acting them out.  In the example given above, the individuals feeling of anger was not wrong.  He was frustrated at an event that deterred their journey towards a chosen destination. His decision to act out this frustration by verbally lashing out, turned out to be more harmful than good.  

Having the feeling of anger, for instance, is not the same as acting it out.  For instance, take a recent political event (doesn’t matter the political orientation) where some injustice took place or a law passed that could potentially affect millions of people.  It would be no surprise to feel anger at this.  

The feeling itself actually isn’t hurting anyone if you allow it to be there.  In fact, it’s actually giving you vital information on what is important to you.  You would not feel angry if you didn’t care about the person, place, situation in question.  

To go back to childhood for just a moment, most of us in some form or another learned about what feelings were “appropriate” to have and which ones should be hidden in darkness. For some, anger was tantamount to being evil.  For others, they learned that happiness was a sign of laziness or self-indulgence. Whatever emotion was devalued or condemned, we as children, learned to censor.  We did this in a variety of ways, mostly completely out of our conscious awareness.  

For example, if you were scorned for feeling sad and crying, you may as an adult experience a tremendous amount of anxiety when sadness emerges.  Then, to combat the anxiety, you may have learned to change the subject, think of something else, distract yourself, avoid the topic altogether, and a myriad of other techniques for keeping this feeling off your radar.   

So, going back to the original question: What Use Are Feelings Anyway?  The truth is that feelings give us vital information that can help us get our needs met, respond adaptively to situations, and provide us with a sense of direction.  If we constantly (again, we aren’t’ usually doing this on purpose) pushing them away or ignoring them, we are likely going to feel a lot of anxiety and discomfort every time they show up. 

 We actually cannot control our emotions the way we think we can. Emotions, much like clouds in the sky, just are.  We can control them the same way we can catch a puff of smoke.  In other words, pretty impossible.  What we can do, however, is allow their existence to be and make space for the important message they have to tell us. 

If we can allow our feelings to be there, our bodies won’t tense up and we won’t spend all of our time trying to avoid the tension or other uncomfortable sensations. Once all feelings are allowed, the reactive anxiety, guilt, or shame, essentially gets turned way down.  They may still be there in a low-lying way, but become manageable and less noticeable. In addition, we won’t need to engage in potentially destructive or self-neglecting behaviors to get away from the feeling at hand.