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A Closer Look at Feelings

The two primary engines of human behavior are thoughts and feelings. I have blogged extensively about the power (both positive and negative) of thoughts, but less so on the power of feelings. Hence today's post.

Feelings can be generated in several ways. There are thought inspired feelings, what I call reptilian feelings, "gut" feelings, spiritually inspired feelings, and feelings of love.

Thought inspired feeelings are the most common. Thinking of a problem, an opportunity, an experience, or a memory triggers feelings and emotions. Often, however, the triggering thought is invisible, either because it was fleeting or because it was overwhelmed by the subsequent powerful feelings it generated. Among common thought based feelings are guilt, hopelessness, shame, hatred, envy, embarrasment, and jealousy. The realization that the majority of feelings arise from thoughts is a powerful one because it provides the ability to begin to exert greater control over those feelings by shifting the negative thoughts.

A common example that I see in my clients is a depressed feeling that they are stuck in a career that they have come to dislike, and that there is no obvious way of escaping the situation. When their thoughts focus on the absence of a readily apparent solution, a feeling of being trapped with no means of escape is likely to emerge. Is it really true that there is no escaping the situation? No. In fact most people who come to me with that problem succeed in finding an answer. So clearly it's the negative thinking that is the source of the depressed feeling.

Evolution has "hard-wired" certain behaviors in us that arise automatically in response to certain stimuli.  These reponses originate in the more primitive part of the brain, the brain stem, which formed earliest in our evolutionary history. It is often called the reptilian brain, which traces back millions of years and evolved to avoid danger and maximize safety. A prominent example is the startle response in infants: a loud noise will cause the infant to draw arms and legs towards the chest, providing increased protection from an external threat. Disgust is another feeling that is frequently reprilian-based. Sometimes reptilian reponses are dead on: a sudden movement by something in the environment could signal danger. But more often than not the "automatic" response generated by reptilian feelings turns out to be unecessary; how often has the perception of sudden danger turned out to be in fact dangerous?

"Gut" feelings are also evolutionarily based. They come from a source that well known author Malcolm Gladwell feels is often much better qualified to help us make decisions than is plain old rational thought. "The cognitive, emotional, and social repertoire that create those gut feelings, or what we call intuition, has evolved over the millennia specifically for making decisions. It is not some sort of mystical chemical reaction but a neurologically based behavior that evolved to ensure that we humans respond quickly when faced with a dilemma”. Gut feelings are not invariably accurate, but they certainly deserve attention.

Spiritually inspired feelings are rare for most people - a sense of peace and tranquility that comes from the sense of being connected to "the universe". These feelings can arise in religious contexts, in meditation, or in being fully in the present moment. They don't generally suggest any particular action - they are contentment with exactly what is.

Then there is that special feeling we call LOVE. It can be the intense initial feeling of oneness that is often present at the very beginning of a relationship, or the mellower feeling of some combination of security, attraction, attachment, and intimacy that underlies more "mature" relationships (romantic or platonic). But of course even love, like most other feelings, can be misleading and result in poor choices.

Don't let yourself be run by your feelings without reflection. You may feel strongly that you want to, or should do something (or, contrarily, NOT do something), but digging beneath the emotional surface can help you make wiser choices.

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