We have been studying “feelings” for some time now, and this is our latest edition. Readers may peruse the previous 10 contributions to the topic. Deb and I are furiously working on a book incorporating all what we have written about and more, but the publication of that work will be sometimes in the future, hopefully near future. We I want to discuss with you today is what we call “paradoxical feelings,” namely feelings that seem to contradict one another. Importantly, the seeming contradictory appearance of feelings has mostly to do with words.
Words aren’t feelings
This is a very important concept that is at the heart of many successful times of communication and even more times of unsuccessful times of communication. To say that words are not feelings is to say several things, not the least of which is neurological, but also relational, and even spiritual. A very brief neurological review regarding this matter is to note that the left side of the brain (actually the cerebellum, the left front part of the brain) is the “housing” of language. We know this because if someone has a stroke, that person often cannot speak well or cannot speak at all. Such a person, interestingly, however, has a sense of self, has a sense of what s/he wants to say, but is unable to put these thoughts and feelings into words. Thoughts and feelings actually reside largely in the right hemisphere of the brain (the right cerebellum). So when I speak something, whether thought or feeling, those thoughts and feelings originate neurologically in the right hemisphere of the brain and then are processed into the left hemisphere of the brain in the form of words. Understand, this brief explanation is roughly true, and true neuropsychologists would be aghast at my simplifying this complicated neurological process. This simple understanding, however, leads us to the statement, “words are not feelings” because feelings (and most thoughts) are not naturally words.
Words are one way of expressing feelings but words are not the feelings. If I could get this across to people, they would reduce their disagreements, arguments, and divorces by 90% because it is the communication of feelings in words, or rather the lack of communication in words that causes all three of these unfortunate experiences. Words express feelings approximately, but the words themselves are not feelings, only one way of communicating feelings. Not only is it true that words are not feelings, they are not the only way feelings are communicated.
Other ways of communicating feelings
The other ways of communicating feelings include emotion, music, art, work, play, physical expressions, and even silence. Many of these means of feeling expression are valuable and often it is better to communicate feelings through means other than words. Poets and composers of music work diligently to communicate feelings, sometimes very successfully although they would admit that the feeling that someone has when reading their poetry or listening to their music may not be the feeling the composer had in the composition. Feelings can be communicated by a facial expression or in some kind of work or play that often communicates one’s feelings better than words. A couple of days ago a man told me that the absolute best moments in his life were when he won a stack car race. I can’t quite imagine the feeling he had because race care driving certainly is not among my passions, but it has been one of his for many years, and when he told me about this feeling, he also noted that he hadn’t race car driven for more than a decade. I know of several “bikers,” especially those who drive Harley’s, who say that the wind in their hair, the meeting and greeting another biker, and the hobnobbing that they do at biker rallies communicates their feelings better than anything else. I have heard people express their feelings over this past week or so in the love of a sports team, the affirmation of one’s transsexual nature, sexual contact, art, music, video games, and silence. I aver that many people communicate their feelings well but not necessarily in words, and yet it is in the realm of words that people struggle to communicate feelings more than any other modality.
The paradox of paradoxical feeling expressions
Expressions of feelings are often paradoxical, seemingly inconsistent, and sometimes downright contradictory. Over the past few days I have heard the following paradoxical expressions of feelings:
- From a man whose wife has left him for another man:
- “I really want Joan home under almost any circumstance
- “I can’t imagine having Joan home. I don’t think I would allow it.”
- From a man who is in the midst of a possible life change:
- I have to leave San Francisco. The place is bad for me
- I can’t imagine leaving San Francisco
- From a teenager:
- I hate my mother more than anyone else in the world
- My mother is the most important person in the world to me
- From a man in his early 30’s:
- I can’t stay with my partner (because it is essentially without sex)
- I can’t imagine leaving partner (I can live without sex)
- From a gay man:
- I can’t leave my wife. She is the most important person in my life
- I can’t see spending the rest of my life pretending to be straight
- From a man in his mid-40’s:
- I can’t live with my wife anymore, and I know that my staying is not good for my kids.
- It is absolutely impossible for me to leave (largely because of the kids)
- From a lifelong Democrat:
- I can’t think of any possibility of voting Republican for the rest of my life
- I truly believe that I will vote for this one Republican
- From a mother:
- I can’t stand my child
- I can’t live without my child
- From a sports fan:
- I have given up on my favorite team
- I will never give up on my favorite team
These seemingly contradictory statements came from intelligent people, often from people who are quite emotionally mature and spiritually mature. Why would people make such statements, sometimes in quick succession? Wouldn’t they think that one of these statements is true while the other is false? Many people get caught in this dilemma and end up quite confused and frustrated. I try to help them understand that words are not feelings, that feelings often represent the deepest part of who we are, but that it is necessary to muddle through the murky waters of feelings with approximate, even contradictory statements until these deep feelings can be trusted.
Feel, Think, and Act
Feeling, thinking and acting are the three ingredients of psychological functioning. We have to feel something, need to think about things, and need to do things. Thinking about things lends itself well to words, and doing something is also the result of talking and musing about what might be done, but feelings do not lend themselves very well to words. When I “feel something,” I feel this first physically and then emotionally, but the initial sense of feeling has nothing to with words. It has to do with a sense of something, the right about something, the wrong about something, the beauty about something, the ugliness about something, and may other ways of getting to the understanding that feelings, however important and central in human existence, are not words. So when I put my feelings into words, not only do they pass first through my physical experience, but also my emotional experience before they get to my left brain when I construct words to express these feelings.
Some years ago Deb came up with the 10-2-1 program of doing the right thing. What she meant by this is that to do the right thing, you need to think clearly about what you should do, often choosing between two different possibilities. However, in order to think clearly, you need to have felt through the matter ten times. So, the program is: feel about ten times, think twice, and then act once. It is the “feeling” part of this that is hardest because feelings do not lend themselves to exact words. The task is to allow the feelings to be expressed in approximate words that is hardest. What we tell our patients is this: Feel, feel, feel, and finish feeling your feelings so you can think clearly and ultimately act appropriately. But how do you do this? You allow for the expression of paradoxical feelings.
Allowing for paradoxical feelings
This is quite simple: give yourself a wide berth in expressing your feelings knowing that whenever you express feelings in words, the words are approximate at best, that the words are imprecise, and the words are but a vague expression of the murky waters of feelings. This means, quite simply, that you need to say something one day and quite different thing the next day. And sometimes it isn’t days separating these statements; it might be minutes or seconds. If for instance, I find myself something like, “I can’t stand where I live” at one time and “I love where I live” at another, allow these statements to be feeling statements, not factual statements. Both of these statements are true to some degree and false to some degree. If you allow yourself the freedom to say both of these imprecise statements, you will eventually finish your feelings and be able to think clearly. The danger is jumping from “I hate where I live” to moving, or “I love where I live” to staying. You can get to the truth of where you should live if you simply allow these feelings to come out in imprecise words knowing that the words are but a poor reflection of your inner feeling. This is no easy task because people either want to race right through their emotion and make a rational decision, or stay with their emotion and make an emotional decision. What you need to do is make a feeling statement, or statements until it makes sense to you what you should do. Of course, you want it both ways.
Wanting it both ways
The essence of feeling-based statements is the fact that you want it both ways. If you are in a quandary about moving, for instance, you want the joys of staying and you want the joys of leaving. Likewise, you want to get out of the difficulty of staying while at the same time you want to avoid the difficulty of moving. Moving or staying can only be a rational and right decision after you have rambled through the difficulty of feeling through the whole matter of moving. You will be sad if your stay because, perhaps, because you will miss out of what you might have in a new place. You will be sad if you leave because you will miss out on what you have had in your present location. You will be sad on either account. Likely, you will note the fear associated with staying or leaving first before you can allow yourself to feel the sadness of both of these actions. So when you ramble through these paradoxical statements that erupt from your inner feelings, give yourself the freedom to feel the implicit sadness of any decision you have to make. In fact, Deb and I don’t think it is really a decision so much as it is a discovery. You can discover the right thing to do when you have given lots of room for your inner feelings to be expressed, albeit imprecisely and paradoxically.