Sunday, 17 February 2013

Feelings. Possibly.

'I need to feel my feelings'
'I'm just avoiding my feelings'
'I need to learn to sit with my feelings'
'I need to know my feelings are valid'
'I need to honour my experience'

I don't know about you, but I feel a lot. If I stop and ask myself whether I'm feeling something, I probably am. If I concentrate really hard, I can usually find some apprehension, dissatisfaction, something simmering and unnameable somewhere just below the surface like a nascent boil. Of course, I will sometimes be overwhelmed by waves of emotion coming seemingly from nowhere. And sometimes I deliberately ask myself what I 'feel' about a situation as part of the decision-making process.

However, what I feel is not the point.

Yesterday, I was presented with a possible decision to make, and my initial 'emotional' response was one of great apprehension and guilt. For a moment, I thought, 'I just need to "listen" to that "instinct" and take it seriously'. Fortunately, I came to my senses and realised, once I was away from the situation and had time and space to talk to a friend, that the situation required cold analysis, not blind obedience to emotion. I took the situation and, using my feelings as a guide, asked myself what the pros and cons were. Some of the pros and cons were suggested by emotional responses. Others revealed themselves only on objective appraisal of the situation.

Lesson № 1: feelings alone produce a limited navigation system.

What I then observed was that some of the objections were entirely valid (the venture might have little purpose, and may not prove 'value for money'), whilst others essentially boiled down to fear of having my 'buttons pressed', i.e. having to show strength of character in the face of a potentially difficult situation. Cowardice and laziness will very often masquerade as legitimate fear or apprehension.

Lesson № 2: feelings alone produce a skewed navigation system.

'I need to feel my feelings' or 'I'm just avoiding my feelings'

Well, your choice with a feeling is either to feel it and accept that you are feeling or feel it and pretend that you are not feeling it. If you have ever had a bad feeling (fear, guilt, frustration) and tried to command yourself not to feel said feeling (with no other injunction other than to stop feeling), you will have rapidly discovered this to be impossible. Likewise, I have never been successful in prompting feelings of warmth, affection, or enthusiasm by dictate or order. I cannot choose to feel or not to feel.

It is equally useless to pretend I am not feeling something. It is like pretending I do not have diarrhoea. Even if I succeed in deceiving myself, no one else will be in any doubt.

The levers that can be pulled are thought and action. If there a difficult situation in my life, e.g. a past romantic disappointment, I can deliberately think about the negative situation and magnify the emotion through mental concentration. I can pull a Miss Havisham and renounce romantic involvement, thus crystallising my victimhood in perpetuity. Alternatively, I can deliberately think about something else. I can also take action that takes my mind off the situation or indeed moves my life forward such that the romantic disappointment becomes irrelevant (e.g. taking the positive action of joining a dating website and going on a date). By adopting one or other course, I rapidly prove that if I want my feelings to change, I will need to change my thought or my action.

I've heard people assert that engaging in good things (e.g. work, doing things for others, prayer, etc.) is just 'avoiding one's feelings' and a form of 'spiritually acceptable denial'—essentially 'fixing oneself' (as though it were a deleterious drug). This is on the basis that, when one engages in such activities, one quite forgets the earlier upset. This does not mean one has gone into denial: it means merely one has regained perspective and re-accessed the truth of the benignity of the world. When you switch on the light and discover that the ghosts you discerned in the darkness are unreal, you are not in denial; you are in reality.

One caveat: it is possible to use excessive activity to avoid a matter that must be faced: some decision or action that needs to be taken or some fear, resentment, or shame that requires a cognitive adjustment for peace to be achieved or restored.

It is important to discern between this illegitimate avoidance and the decision not to over-indulge negative emotion. It should be noted, in particular, that illegitimate avoidance is avoidance not necessarily of feeling but of inventory, confession, humility before God, restitution, and true service. The problem is not one of feeling but one of resistance to change.

'I need to learn to sit with my feelings'

Whether or not this is valid depends on the situation.

If it means, 'I need to stop rushing round for long enough to admit the truth of what I feel, examine objectively the thoughts and actions that have given rise to it, and make a decision to trust God with regard to what I cannot change and seek God's guidance and strength with regard to what I can change', then this is wonderful advice. Very often, I can trace my defective thinking (for from this flows all evil) only through negative emotion as the gateway. It is no accident that the first two inventories forming part of Step Four in the Big Book concern resentment (disturbance at what was or is) and fear (disturbance at what may be): we are most acutely aware of emotion, and it might only be via emotion that we can access the cognitive culprits in the recesses of our minds: the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs (cf. page 27 of Alcoholics Anonymous) that need to change.

If it means simply retreating from outward-turned action and refraining from the mental discipline of turning thoughts towards the positive, instead indulging the emotion, replaying past and future scenarios of doom, and refusing to pick up the critical scalpel of the Steps to actually address the underlying causes, it is deadly.

Sadly, this injunction all too often means the latter: a friend, who was going through a difficult time a few years ago, asked an acquaintance what to do. The acquaintance suggested sitting with her feelings … and nothing else. I have never found this effective as a cure-all.

Postscript: one must certainly not berate oneself for feeling something. Whether one feels this or that is a matter not of the will but of cause and effect: if I think and act in a certain way, I will feel a certain way; target for criticism, if anything, the thought and action, not the feeling.

'I need to know my feelings are valid' or 'I need to honour my experience'

An AA member memorably recalls her sponsor saying, 'We're not going to be talking about emotions. Cuz they're based on a delusional mindset. They're based on something that isn't there. Let's talk about delusion,' (anyone who was at Stateline in 2010 may remember who this was!)
This is the rub: whatever events occur or circumstances prevail in my life, what I feel is not a direct response to such. Before I feel anything, there is cognitive processing. My ideas, attitudes, and beliefs condition what I feel. My feelings are neither valid nor invalid: they just are. What I can legitimately judge as valid or invalid are my ideas, attitudes, and beliefs. Are these rational? Are these to be trusted or disregarded? Do they help or hinder? Do they move me forward or hold me back? Do they leave me paralysed by self-pity or render me useful to others?
Some of us have had very bad experiences. I suffered some particularly unpleasant events as a child. The events were real, and the feelings were real. If a feeling is there, it is real; there is no question of that. I also drew conclusions about myself based on these events: 'I'm a bad person', 'I'm sick', 'I'm different than others', 'I'm spoiled forever'. These conclusions, too, prompted plenty of emotion. Was that emotion valid? Wrong question: the emotion was real, but based on invalid interpretations. To examine critically the false ideas, attitudes, and beliefs is not to disrespect the person or pretend the foul event or circumstance is not there but to create the conditions in which the evil spell can be lifted.
To conclude: I will continue to feel whatever I feel, but I must be careful not to navigate solely by emotion, and I must not balk at questioning the underlying ideas, attitudes, and beliefs, if I am to get and stay well.

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