Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | May 23, 2015

Fear of Feelings

Our culture fears feeling, branding sub-cultures that honor feeling as inferior — sometimes as weak, mushy, spineless and sometimes as hedonistic and perverted. So I’m very glad that psychologists and sociologists are helping us to realize that feelings — like compassion and empathy, for starters — are not risk-prone defects but fundamental to sanity and reason.

Ask 100 Westerners what would happen if everyone just did whatever they felt like, and you’ll probably get 99.5 answers to the tune of “chaos would erupt.”

Oh really?

Does chaos erupt in the love bed when two people (or more sometimes) do whatever the fuck they feel like? Rarely. But if it happens, they stop and do something else, because otherwise the love-making is over.

Does chaos erupt in the city park where hundreds or even thousands of people, all strangers except to the ones they’re with, do whatever they happen to feel like, even with nary a cop in sight?

We already know how to do this shit.

The cultural narrative would have us believe that our feelings are just sizzling under the surface, ready to erupt and do irreparable harm, so we need to keep a lid on them. But that’s not what’s going on. We keep a lid on them not out of concern for how we affect others — which, although flattering, probably gives us more credit for selflessness than we’re due — but out of fear of repercussions we’ll face if others judge, mock, blame, or even retaliate against us for acting on our feelings openly and honestly. Just like used to happen when we as kids innocently acted openly and honestly, but got shut down and made to feel like fools and evildoers just for being who we really were.

Our feelings aren’t the problem.

The fact is that — except for feeling forced to do otherwise — doing whatever we feel like is exactly what we all do. Not only that, it’s what we all want to do; except we’ve been conditioned to fear the prospect.

People who do wrong or harmful things simply because they felt like doing them fall into two categories.

  1. Those who have internalized all the abuse they can tolerate and it feels good to let some of it out on others. They really don’t want to hurt others per se. They don’t like it. But something makes them do it (they put it that way themselves): force of circumstance; others “asked for it” or “had it coming”; it was “justice”; etc. Pressure-relief and sharing their misery makes them feel better.
  2. Those who internalized so much abuse that they came to enjoy abuse per se. In other words, psychopaths. To them, imposition and force and infliction are “power” and they crave it.

Do we see ourselves in either category? Some of us should but don’t. But at least most of us don’t want to be in either. So, there’s hope for us.

When it comes to people who don’t fit into either of those categories, (which is a bit of a stretch for cynics who think there aren’t many like that,) one of two things happen when they do exactly what they feel like doing.

Sometimes, really wonderful things happen. They express love, joy, bring peace, and inspire others, make music, create marvels, and it’s contagious.

Sometimes, they cause problems, hurt people, ruin things, not because they intended to, but more like kids do. They’re just being honest. They can’t see far enough ahead. They don’t yet grasp how their actions affect other people. When they realize what they did, they feel badly and want to learn and improve.

Forcing behavioral rules on us under threat of punishment not only doesn’t help, it interferes. It triggers a whole slew of self-defensive feelings that retard growth and shut us down, closing us off to the experiences that could help us develop. We become less vulnerable, more guarded, even more adversarial. We can get stuck.

A lot of the stupid things that adults do are the result of their emotional development getting stymied in adolescence. No wonder feelings scare us. We didn’t learn how to use them, so letting them free would pose a big problem.

So the solution is to recognize that feelings aren’t the problem, but that alienating and vilifying and fearing them is. We need to figure out how to get on friendly terms again. At some stage when we were kids, feelings were our friends — until adults made us believe the opposite.

In light of that, consider these words from the Bible.

I will put My laws upon their heart, And on their mind I will write them.
— Hebrews 10:16

 
Rules at best are externalized codifications of constraints intended to produce the outcomes that usually result naturally from benevolent desires. When we want to do what’s beneficial, rules become irrelevant, except as possibly helpful information that need not be expressed as rules. When the wisdom behind a rule is internalized, it’s not a rule anymore — it becomes what we love, which means it becomes a part of who we are, and our feelings reflect that. Then, doing what we feel like isn’t a problem. On the contrary.

Or these lines from the first Psalm:

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.//
— Psalm 1:1-3

 
When we love and loving is our delight, then doing what we feel like does not result in chaos. Usually, far from it. So we can pretty much let ‘er rip!

And letting ‘er rip is the fastest way to get there. When you’re open about your feelings and some of them are off, you get all kinds of help to straighten out! 😀

Our real problem is getting over the fear of feelings that was browbeat into us all our lives, because until we feel safe enough to be truly honest, we’ll continue hiding and lying. Factual dishonesty isn’t the more serious form of untruthfulness. Emotional dishonesty is far more destructive.

And if you don’t delight in love or at least want to, why not?

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Responses

  1. Excellent write. Got me thinking, laughing… That’s all I need;)

  2. Hi Millard, Thank you for this great article about feelings.
    It is so liberating to be able to express feelings openly and honestly. I experienced that it often takes courage, because it’s so far off of my upbringing. Hiding own feelings and intuitive reflexes was called being ‘humble’, showing ‘neighbourly love’ or ‘kindness’ to ‘protect’ others. Now I think: “For whát am I protecting them? For your real, honest feelings?”. As if I would be ‘arrogant’, ‘unloving’ or ‘unkind’ to say/show what I really felt. It comes down to playing a role, just to please or ‘protect’ others for reality. Such an attitude can lead someone to dissociate, can’t it? Like a split personality. After leaving the high control group, I grew up in, I had to learn how to express my right to feel whatever I felt ánd feel good about it. Once I crossed that line, and start expressing what I really felt (including accepting the risk of rejection), it didn’t feel good to go back to old habits. Although I dó fall back to being to polite or kind, while I feel different inside, I understand much better where it comes from and stopped punishing myself to harshly about it. It takes time to act upon these reflexes with newlearned understanding of the rewards of being congruent and real. One of the things that helped me to accept my own vulnerability is the Ted-talk and book of Brené Brown. She writes about the Power of Vulnerability.

    • Thanks Frances! Yes, my experience has been very similar. One of the most powerful things we can to for each other is to let others know that we honor their feelings and stand with them in their right to see things as they do and feel as they do. Sympathetic witnesses. They don’t need us to change to suit them, but to appreciate who they are without demanding that they change. It “costs” so little to do and has such a great effect. Brene Brown’s work has affected me a lot, too. Real power is something far different than most of us think. I hope you’re doing well! Will you go to Stockholm this summer for ICSA’s conference? I won’t be able to make it, but maybe in 2016! 🙂


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