Feelings XI: Paradoxical Feelings

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.




Difficult, Meaningless, Necessary

There are some things in life that are enjoyable and some that are not. Ideally, we have a majority of things in our lives that are enjoyable and then a few that are not so enjoyable. I want to share some ideas and experience in the whole business of “doing what you don’t want to do but seems necessary.”

Really necessary?

Not all things that seem necessary are really necessary. This is the real tough question that we need to face when confronted with the seeming necessity of doing something. And this question is not easy to answer. Let me give you an example. I just made a call to an agent of a company that we do some small business with. Luckily, I got voicemail so I didn’t have to talk to “Laura,” whoever she is. She’s probably a nice person doing her job somewhere in New York or South Dakota. Maybe she works at home and just calls customers. I didn’t really want to talk to Laura, but it seemed a gesture that might take me a minute or two to do, so I made the call. The “please call Laura” note was on my desk for 4 or 5 days. Another document on my desk is a form that I have been asked to fill out for a research study I’ve been in at the University of Wisconsin for 10 or 15 years. I am still staring at this document that I have been asked to fill out. They even promise me for it; I can’t remember how much, maybe $25 or $50. I don’t want to do this but it seems that I “should.” Since I’ve avoided filling out this document for a couple of weeks, I’ll probably get around to doing it today unless something more important comes across my desk. I also made a call to a test distributer this morning that I had been postponing for a week or so, and go my desk is almost clean from stuff I don’t want to do. And I have what insurance companies call a “preauthorization” form so we can get paid for the psychological testing that we do all the time. It’s a chore, but I can usually get it accomplished in about 5 minutes and then give it to Cheri to kindly put it on the Internet to the insurance company.

These trivial tasks are not particularly important but do take some emotional energy, whether avoiding or doing, because they are things that I don’t want to do, things that don’t really give me much pleasure, aside from having them off my desk. But larger questions and seeming important things are harder to decide about. Deb and I have a supporting wall in our house that seems to need some repair, probably serious repair. I have looked at this bulging wall in the basement for years and haven’t decided what to do, or if to do anything about it. The decision about doing something about the collapsing wall is much more serious, much more costly, and much more something that I don’t want to do. (I would hire it out, not do it myself.) It is notable that there is a certain amount of emotional energy that goes into the thinking, feeling, and wondering about such projects.

Emotional energy

This is quite important, namely that “things that I don’t want to do but seem to things that I should do” take a bit of a toll on me, as they certainly do on you. The question is always first, “Should or Should not,” but then the questions “When and How?” come up pretty quickly. While waiting and wondering, it is impossible to put such things entirely out of you mind, so there is a tendency to think too much, worry too much, and probably avoid too much. Such decisions, namely the “should/should not/when/if/how” questions are not easily made. There is always a cost, not only a financial cost, like with the basement wall, but also the emotional cost, and the rational cost. So, should I fix the basement wall for maybe $10,000 or give that amount to the Salvation Army folks who are ministering to people in Indonesia? Too often people end up thinking too much while trying to push their mixed feelings away.

Dealing with the emotional element of such questions is of utmost importance, but this is no easy task because it means, without a doubt, that you will have some loss. You will lose something and gain something. You will buy something and have less money, or you will not buy something and do without the something that you want. So there is no way out of feeling sad when you face such decisions. Deb and I have written extensively about this in our book noting that sadness is an essential element in life. And it is certainly an essential element in decision-making, especially when it comes to large and important decisions.

The four questions of decision-making

We have worked with this “four question format of decision-making” for some time and have found it valuable. The four questions are:

  • Is it necessary to be done?
  • Can I do it?
  • Do I want to do it?
  • Should I do it?

Answering these questions is not as easy as it might seem. Furthermore, it is of utmost importance that you ask the third question, “Do I want to do it?” because most people skip right over this question having answered “yes” to question 2, “Can I do it?” mistakenly thinking that if they are capable of doing something, they should do it. When someone is capable of doing something, sometimes s/he wants to do it, sometimes not. Finally, when you get to the fourth question, “Should I do it?” the answer could be “yes” or “no” but the answer needs to be whether you really think that you should do it or not. This is complicated because sometimes the “something” shouldn’t actually be done, at least by you, and sometimes the “something” should be done by you. Here is where you have to be very honest. Just because you don’t want to do it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it; just because you want to do it, doesn’t mean that you should do it. But know this: when you actually decide to do it or not do it, you will feel both joy and sorrow: joy for having done it and sorrow for having done it; or joy for having not done it and sorrow for having not it. You have to accept both of these feelings. You might profit from the 80/20 rule.

The 80/20 rule

We use the “80/20” rule in such things, i.e. life should be about 80% about things that we enjoy and about 20% things that we don’t enjoy but seem necessary. But we also know that the lives of many people don’t reach the 80% enjoyable, and sometimes barely reach the level of 20% enjoyable. We meet such people every day in our work and often in our other contacts in life, whether friends, family, or brief encounters we have.

This is a whole lot harder than it seems to do. You can assess how you are doing in your life of doing and not doing by seeing how much of your life you enjoy. Hopefully, you enjoy most of your life, like 80% of it, because you are doing most of what you want. It might be helpful to consider the “spectrum of like/dislike” that we often use.

The Like/Dislike Spectrum

Consider the following spectrum of what you like and dislike from strongly like to strongly dislike with several stops in between:

Strong positive                                    Neutral                                    Strong negative


Necessary //Good (for me) //Important //Like// Dislike //Unimportant //Bad (for me)// Harmful

Consider something, someone, some place, some idea, or some project in your life and see if you can place that thing, person, place, idea, or project on this line somewhere. You may have, for instance, an acquaintance who is not particularly important in your life but you like him, or you may have someone who had a place in your life that you really like and hence is “good for you.” Now consider a project that seemingly needs to be done and place it on this spectrum, say, on the “negative” side of “don’t like” very much. Once you place the project on this line, you will see that it is a bit easier to decide whether to do it or not do it. Just because you really like a project doesn’t mean you should do it, and just because you really don’t want to do it, doesn’t mean that you should not do it. Just note how you feel, which is the operative word. Once you see how you feel, you can respect your feelings and then proceed with deciding whether to do the project, like it or not, do it or not. You have been honest to your feelings first, then have taken action (yes or no).

Difficult, necessary, meaningless

Perhaps the most meaningless tasks I have to do are the insurance preauthorizations, namely filling out an inane form that describes in objective forms what I am doing with a patient in subjective terms. How can I quantify that I care for him and see my caring as important? How can I quantify the profit that may come to a child with whom I just play marbles (because neither of her parents ever plays with her), perhaps giving this girl a sense of joy and connection? You may have some meaningless things to do in your life that are necessary for you to do, just like it think it is necessary for me to see little Sarah. It’s a small price to pay.

On the other hand there are many meaningless things that are “bad for me” or “intolerable” after the system of like/dislike noted above. Then, no matter what the cost, no matter what the loss, no matter what anyone thinks of me, I shouldn’t do them. Know that there is some danger of “pushing” the “don’t like” way out to the harmful on the spectrum just because you don’t like it.

The task is to differentiate the truly necessary and valuable in a world that seems to require some much meaningless activity. So, by the way, I have successfully avoided completing the University form in favor of doing this blog.

Seeing Unicorns

There was once a small village in a mountainous region of the world. There lived in this village a wise man. He had seemingly always been both old and wise as no one could remember him being anything else. The people in village went about their normal responsibilities taking care of their property, persons, and purposes in life without complaint. It was quite idyllic and the village was not easily located although it had an interesting reputation in various parts of the region and in the world. There were stories of people who tried to find the village without success, often coming back from arduous journeys without ever finding the village, while occasionally a simple wanderer seemed to find this village without difficulty. There didn’t seem to be a logical reason why some very experienced adventurous people could not find the village while others less sophisticated in the business of exploration seemed to happen upon the village.

One such wanderer came upon the village one late night and found the village residents warmly welcome him. They quickly found him a warm place to stay and a nutritious meal before he retired for the night. The wanderer was a relatively young man who had been wandering for some time and had had both warm receptions and hostile ones. He couldn’t seem to understand why he sometimes found some people so accepting and others so rejecting, but it had been on his mind for a long time. His night in the village passed without incident.

Our wandering young man rose the next morning to discover that his hosts had prepared a sumptuous and nutritious morning meal for him. There was simple chatter at the breakfast table among the host family and other guests with young and old seemingly quite interested in one another. The young man found it interesting that all in the family respected one another despite differences in age, gender, or station in life. It didn’t seem appropriate for him to ask about the demeanor of the family and the guests. He was quite taken, however, with the respect and demeanor that this group of people seemed to have for one another. There was discussion of philosophical and spiritual matters as well as matters of care of property and people. There was even debate and discussion without an argumentative spirit. There was expression of emotions, sometimes joyful, sometimes sad, but never expression of anger or fear.

About the time that our young man was about to leave this gracious host family the wise old man of the village happened to walk into the house. The old man walked in with a staff that he placed by the entry door, leaning it almost as if it belonged there. He was greeted warmly by all in attendance and was offered what appeared to be his standard choice in hot tea. He sat at table with the others and listened intently to all who spoke, only rarely speaking his thoughts and feelings. Then, to the surprise of the young man the older man asked him if he knew why he had come to the village. This question bemused the wandering young man because it hadn’t seemed to him that he had come to the village purposefully. It had seemed to him that he had quite accidentally stumbled across the village on his wanderings. The old man saw the young man’s uncertain countenance and suggested that they take a walk together. It seemed the right thing to do for the young man but he continued to wonder about this whole scene: the pleasantness of the village, the graciousness of the people, and now the mysterious nature of the old man. Yet, he felt both privileged and compelled to accept what appeared to be yet another act of graciousness that seemed to be the nature of the whole village.

The old man took the young man on a walk that fairly quickly became a bit of a brisk hike, quickly out of town and then up the closest mountain to the village. The trek up the mountain was, for reasons unknown to the young man, long but not arduous. He felt compelled to trail the old man who clearly knew the route up this mountain demonstrated by his taking carefully orchestrated steps as if he had taken this exact route many times before. When the two men reached the summit of the mountain, the young man admired the view. He could see the village quite a bit below as well as a vista of other mountains in the distance. There seemed to be so much to see that he was taken aback by the whole scene. He expected that the two men would soon descent to the village shortly, but was surprised by a question the old man asked him. It was a simple question but at the same time it was the most invigorating question he had ever heard.

The old man asked him, “What do you see on that farthest mountain?” The young man looked at that far mountain expecting simply to see a mountainscape, but then felt a strange feeling come over him, so much so that he was quite unsure as to how to respond to the question put before him. He answered the old man’s question with hesitation and with some concern because of what he thought he saw but dared to answer, “I think I see a unicorn.” The young man felt a bit awkward by saying what he had said so he quickly added, “…but know that unicorns don’t really exist, so I must be mistaken.” The young man felt a mixture of feelings at that point including a kind of exhilaration at seeming to see something so wonderful. He had learned in his personal study that unicorns are symbolic of purity. But in addition to the exhilaration he felt some embarrassment, or was it shame that he felt? He waited for the old man’s further comment. He didn’t wait long.

The old man quietly and carefully said this: “There are three things about seeing a unicorn. First, not many people ever see unicorns because it is very hard to see a unicorn. Secondly, it is very hard to believe that they are seeing a unicorn. But the hardest thing of all is to remember that you believed that you saw a unicorn. Having said that, the old man quietly and simply took a step on the path leading to the village. The young man followed equally silently. Having returned to the village, he gathered his simple pack and left. Though he never saw the village or the old man again, he remembered.


I heard this story from the person who has been my most important therapist, Dick Olney, perhaps 40 years ago. I have no idea where he heard it or if he actually created it. I have found myself compelled to tell this story to a very few people whom I deemed ready to hear the story. One of these men having spent an intensive week of therapy with me wrote to me when he returned to the UK: “there have been several sightings of unicorns here in England.” I was glad to hear of such a thing because not many people see a unicorn because they are hard to see, it is hard to believe that you are seeing a unicorn, and it is really hard to remember that you believed that you saw a unicorn. I remain grateful that I have helped a few people see the unicorns in their lives, believe it, and remember it.  I’m certainly old, but not always wise, but occasionally I help people see unicorns. What a wonderful moment it is