Feelings: trusted signals?

“Trust your feelings”–truth or fiction?

We’ve all heard this old adage. We use this phrase to urge others to act on gut feelings, usually suggesting that the recipient will “just know” the answer they need. These cultural underpinnings imply that actualized, emotionally healthy persons wisely let feelings be a guide.

Since my mind constantly locks onto these discrepancies in our use of language, I issue a hearty “who says?”

Sometimes, yes, we do want to trust our feelings. However, like so much of our thinking, this phrase is dangerous if we lock into feelings in a black and white way. Feelings aren’t always an indication of “Truth.” Feelings aren’t always effective guides. Take two of the most common feelings: guilt and anxiety.

In most cases, guilt is not factually-based in wrong-doing. Most of our guilt is driven by inaccurate beliefs, largely fueled by a powerful “should.” “I should be happy, I wanted this baby” when you’re overwhelmed by depression, grieving the freedom of pre-baby life. “I should spend more time on X,” when in actuality you find X boring–or you’re doing the best you can to allocate time to X. “I should feel thankful for Y,” when you’re overwhelmed by stress and having difficulty focusing on the positive. We plague ourselves with guilt for not feeling some prescribed way, rather than trusting a favorite adage of mental health professionals, i.e. that “feelings just are.” Maybe it’s ok to be where we are. Maybe we don’t need to second guess our experience.

Anxiety is an even more powerful signal that we seem to cast as reality. If I’m worried about something, we reason, there must be real danger. We give anxiety such power, translating the biochemical process of stress revving through our bodies as a signal to be heeded. Just like guilt, irrational beliefs (e.g. “it will be a catastrophe! Everything will be ruined!”) abound. Much of the time, worry and anxiety are based in conditioned responses. Our bodies habitually respond with this runaway action. As Rick Hanson says, maybe the tiger in the bushes isn’t really a tiger. We’re paying on that debt we may not owe. We’re anticipating future angst, to use a Bible verse (Matthew 6:34) shared with me this week: “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”

I preach (and try to practice myself) to first stop and evaluate, and then hopefully, to dismiss anxiety and guilt. Is this a real worry? Do I truly have anything to feel guilty about? Call it what it is: energy spent in a direction that is not necessary or helpful. “It’s just anxiety–not reality.” “I have no need to feel guilty–I’m doing the best that I can do.” Talk back to those feelings, saying what you would tell a friend. Offer yourself self-compassion, which I’ve taught for years as self-care, and now has credibility, with mention in The New York Times.

The majority of the time, there’s no magic message in anxiety and guilt. Let those feelings go.

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