Emotions Are Not Your Guide. Without Reason They Will Lead You Astray.

Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 9)

Buried within many self-help and spiritual writings is a curious and subtle message: Your emotions should be a source of wisdom. We should do what our heart tells us, follow our gut, and not over-think things. But emotions can lead people astray in very dangerous ways. Anger can lead to our destroying what we love. Fear can lead to avoidance of meaningful parts of life. Seeking euphoric joy can lead to the slavery of substance abuse. Depression can lead to a downward spiral of withdrawal and inactivity.

Biology tells us that emotions are an ancient system based on brain structures that we share with many other creatures—even reptiles. I don’t know about you, but I would not be content with the wisdom of an alligator. Humans have the capacity for more because we are capable of developing reason. The wise person may take their emotions into account, but emotions themselves are not a source of wisdom.

Emotions and thoughts are not as separate as we might think. Our thoughts shape and alter our emotions. When our thoughts are not reasonable—when they are overly demanding, illogical, and underestimate our resilience they will distort our emotions, sometimes twisting a healthy emotional response into something that feels overwhelming and seems grotesque. But once you accept that through your beliefs (or what you are telling yourself at any given moment) you can change the nature of what you feel, then something amazing happens. Your emotions can change. Unhealthy, destructive emotions can transform into the helpful, insightful, wise variety. This tells us something very important: We are largely responsible for how we feel.

This is the exact opposite message that we so often receive from others. We are often encouraged to believe that other people and other situations cause our emotions:

  • Someone disrespecting me=anger.
  • Winning the lottery=happiness.
  • The world is dangerous=anxiety.

If true, these “equations” would place our emotions out of our control. Reason tells us otherwise.  By changing the way we think we can help ourselves focus on what is under our control, and how we can be more effective.

In a Nutshell:

Emotions, by themselves, are not a source of wisdom. Because our beliefs shape our emotions, emotions can become unhealthy when the beliefs related to them are not shaped by reason. Fortunately, we can learn to apply reason to our thoughts, and in doing so, we can gain limited control over our emotional world.

How to Use This Idea:

When you are feeling a strong negative emotion, ask yourself, “What are I telling myself here?” Try to determine what the belief is that is driving the emotion.  Then ask yourself, what would the healthy version of this emotion be? Then try to identify what you could tell yourself instead that would lead to the healthier emotion. Here is a hint: the 12 helpful thinking styles in this series are examples of the kind of thinking that helps. I know all of this is far easier said than done, but this essentially is what learning about cognitive therapy (particularly Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) will help you do.

The Fine Print:

This idea does not mean that you should banish all emotions from your life. Emotions are necessary, and the lack of emotions doesn’t actually turn humans into super problem solvers (people who cannot experience emotions due to neurological deficits have significant difficulties in multiple areas of life). And while reasonable thoughts can change your emotions from the unhealthy variety to the healthy kind, healthy emotions are not always pleasant. Sometimes the “right” thing to feel is downright unpleasant. You will never have total control over your emotions. Some emotional reactions that are non-negotiable. But healthy emotions can be a source of insight. Healthy emotions might push us in the right direction. For example, concern might alert us to a risk we need to consider. Sadness might prompt us to accept a loss. Frustration can cue us in to our need to evaluate what we can change in a disadvantageous situation.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

This idea will help you avoid the extremes of unhealthy emotions including unhealthy anger, depression, envy, and anxiety.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to solve  solve practical problems. Wisdom is diminished by excessive, unhealthy emotions.  Under the sway of such passions problem solving is impossible and we resort to crude, primitive, ineffective strategies. But when we can use reason to temper our emotions, effective solutions become easier to identify.

The Source of this Idea:

This idea draws heavily on Rational Emotive Behavior therapy (and in particular on the theory’s distinction between healthy and unhealthy emotions). This idea is also present in ancient Stoic philosophy in which the concept of the “passions” is analogous to what I have been referring to as unhealthy negative emotions.  This conceptualization also reflects from Marsha Linehan’s concept (in Dialectical Behavior Therapy) of the “wisemind”, which is a type of thinking that combines the “emotion mind” and “reason mind.”

Next: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required. 

 

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

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You Are Not Your Thoughts. You Are Not Your Feelings. 

Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 8)

As we go about our lives, we have a front row seat to a rather curious spectacle—the pageant of our thoughts and our emotions.  Sometimes our thoughts are noble, inspired, optimistic and reasonable. Sometimes we feel joyful, proud, ecstatic, calm, curious, and pleasantly surprised. But these positive slices of life often get far less time in center-stage than their negative counterparts. There are far more negative varieties of emotion than there are positive varieties (don’t take my word for it—try to name all the positive emotions you can and then all the negative emotions). And while many of our thoughts are helpful,  it is certainly easier to dwell on the negative ones.

Often, the solution provided to us is, simply, “Stop it,”  “Don’t feel that way,” or “Don’t think like that!” As if the world is collectively saying, “What’s wrong with you!  Feel happy and be positive!”  Even the people giving that advice secretly know that it’s not so easy.  You can’t control all of your thoughts and your emotions. Often trying to suppress them just makes them worse.

And while you can make efforts to change your beliefs, change your behavior, and correct some of your problematic thoughts, you are going to have to accept that some of your negative emotions are natural and that some of your unpleasant thoughts are unavoidable.

The solution to all of this is acceptance. Stop trying to force some program of censorship onto your thoughts, and instead to acknowledge that while your thoughts and feelings are part of your experience, they are not the most important piece. You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. Your true identity can be found in the choices you make and the effect you have on others.

In a Nutshell:

Much of what occurs within the mind and body is beyond your control. Let your unwanted thoughts and feelings come and go.  Instead of battling with them, focus on the choices you have before you and the goals you want to work towards.

How to Use This Idea:

Notice your thoughts. Be aware of your feelings. But also foster your ability not to respond to every thought that occurs or every feeling you notice. Sometimes you can just allow your thoughts and feelings to pass like cars driving past your house.  They are there, but just because you notice them doesn’t mean you have to run after them. Similarly not every tiny feeling or sensation needs to dominate your experience. At each choice-point, try to live intentionally, by focusing on your goals and living according to your values—the things you do get a say in.

The Fine Print:

Feelings can be quite painful at times and thoughts can be fairly disruptive. It’s important to learn that you can allow your thoughts and feelings to be what they are, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also make use of coping skills—especially in response to emotions that are painful and overwhelming. Breathing exercises, grounding techniques, and self-soothing strategies can be useful for restoring balance.  To learn more about these techniques click here.

Also, while you can’t control all of the thoughts that pop into your mind, you can control what you believe. Beliefs can be changed with exploration, experimentation, learning, and consciously choosing more healthy, helpful or logical beliefs (such as occurs in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy). For example, you might have thoughts pop into your mind like, “I didn’t succeed at my goal. I am such a  loser.”  You can’t control whether or not this thought (and others like it) will occur to you. But this thought might be related to something you actually believe. Do you believe that not succeeding at a particular goal makes you a loser? If you do, you may be able to change this belief by making a conscious decision to adopt a different belief.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

You can use this belief to avoid obsessing on your thoughts and emotions, or falling into the trap of trying to wish them away and only making them stronger in turn. The real world is all around you and to the extent that you are tuned into your thoughts and emotions, you are not focused on reality.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a calm, curious, awareness of your situation—whether that is your mental situation or your surroundings in the real world. Mindfulness also requires an awareness of the actions you are taking.  To achieve this state your attitude towards your own mind must be nonjudgmental, allowing what goes on there to happen naturally.

Allowing your thoughts and emotions to be what they are will put you in a better position to see the world clearly.

The Source of this Idea:

Acceptance of thoughts and emotions has its roots in Buddhist thought, but in recent times it has been incorporated into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the form of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) which includes a number of techniques to assist with the acceptance of thoughts and feelings while committing to living according to our values and achieving our goals.

Next: Emotions Are Not Your Guide. Without Reason They Will Lead You Astray. 

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.