Monday, November 14, 2016

And now with more feeling?

One of the single profound, most eye-opening, things I have learned as a social scientist was the idea that my feelings are like the temperature gauge on my car. They are simple emotional reactions to a real physical situation that tell me when something probably deserves a second, closer look.  They tell me there might be a problem and that I should begin a thinking and decision-making process.  While the temperature might indicate burning oil and might influence my direction and impact my distance of travel, it would be silly to let it decide my ultimate destination.
Yet, sometimes, I do.
There are costs to letting feelings, no matter how justified, dictate our destination:
  1. Immediate blindness. When I revel in the righteousness of my own fear, anger, happiness--whatever--I cannot see the righteousness of others' emotions or comprehend the depth of anyone else's feelings.
  2. Aborted logic. Once I give my emotions the lead, the majority vote, they overwhelm and oppress all attempts to objectively think through anything.  Emotions rule our sympathetic nervous system, which like any good emergency operator puts all of its resources into making the system immediately safe through any means possible.  Our SNS chokes off higher-order reasoning and throws out the objectivity with the bathwater screaming, "This is war, dammit." Even if it isn't.
  3. Escalated emotions, especially the bad ones. Emotional reaction begets more emotional reaction. Sometimes this works in our favor, like when sex and intimacy ramp up our feelings of love and contentment. But usually not. Humans excel at negative pattern recognition.  We hone in especially well to what doesn't feel right or good so that we can avoid it. This is part of why it is so easy to focus on what is wrong with the world and get caught in a downward depressive spiral.
  4. Regret and shame. In retrospect, letting my emotions have the majority vote in deciding my action or reaction to something usually causes me to be disappointed in myself because it usually means I was blind to what others were feeling, I gave in to fear, and/ or I publicly perpetuated a negative sentiment. If my emotional reaction succeeded in persuading others then it did so by somehow appealing to their baser emotions and not by figuring out what is in our best interests or for the greater good (and I have then become my worst nightmare).
In my experience, and in research, these costs far out-weigh the benefits (e.g. temporary satisfaction) of letting my emotions rule my actions.  These costs compound interest as they frequently lead to relationship traumas and social crises, too.  Awareness of all of this is somewhat helpful, but it isn't a panacea.  Maybe there isn't one, but through writing and meditation I have learned some things that help when I want to respond with more feeling (maybe too much):
  1. I accept my feeling.  I don't need anyone else to validate it. They can't. It's mine and therefore it is legitimate, and I  probably have others I need to explore too. Some may even contradict each other.  Ever been crying happy? Raging sad? Painfully pleased? It's just a temperature gauge telling me to explore why my oil is burning--and it is always worth asking if my gauge could be broken or miscalibrated too.
  2. I nurture my curiosity about others' feelings, especially those who seem to be feeling entirely differently than I do.  Part of it is that understanding others enables my compassion, which I know from research increases my odds of living happily ever after.  Part of it is that the larger sampling of what people feel and why allows me to shape my feelings and reactions with more intelligence. "There is no better intelligence than the enemy's marching orders" (Napoleon, I think...). Curiosity avoids aborted logic and the awful art of satisficing.
  3. I chant until I believe it, "It's none of my business what any one else thinks of me, but how I act is entirely my responsibility alone."  I am an existential humanist so authenticity and responsibility play equally large part in giving my life meaning. Having a faith or a core philosophy helps me parse and value my emotions, but I need the reminder that having a moral code doesn't excuse me from having to carefully parse and value each and every emotion.
  4. Always consider the wisdom in doing nothing. Emotions push us to react, right now. Sometimes it helps just to ask myself if there is any harm in waiting to decide how to react, in doing nothing for a day, a week, a month, a year. This also helps me time my reaction better if one is needed or desired.
  5. Constantly solicit advice and insights. Yours. What do you do when your head is hot and your body is shouting at you to do something with more feeling this time? Why? How does it turn out? What would do instead or again if you could?
Accepting and acting on a feeling, like hugging a frightened pussy, can be good for everyone in the right context.

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