Why Feelings Are Important
Feelings Are Important
Feelings have in modern times come to have a bad reputation. Logic, rational thought, and productivity are often over-valued by modern civilization, especially when appraised from the male point of view. While women are often more inclined to see the world through the prism of their feelings, these emotions, especially sadness, anger, fear and anxiety have come to be associated with mental illness rather than personal clarity. In any event, TV commercials in the USA will typically advocate a pharmaceutical solution for whatever feeling you may be experiencing, no matter how valid.
Yet, psychologists and other behavioral scientists know better, and this tendency to dispose of feelings - as merely unhealthy -ignores the functional and useful aspects of human feelings. When I was giving a presentation in Paris, in 1985, about depression, I cited D.W. Winnicotts’ reference to a “rich full mood of sadness.” Is it not a valid reaction to some situations to harbor or even nourish some sadness?? If you lose someone close to you, should not a certain amount of sadness be a hard-fought right, assuming that you cared deeply about the person (or pet or home) that you lost? What about anger? Who is to say you should be cool, calm, and collected when someone pats you on the rear (without permission or encouragement) while you are riding public transit? Or when some injustice is perpetrated?
The Signal Function of Feelings
Feelings have a purpose- a signal function designed to alert you. An important role of feelings is similar to that of pain, it is to warn you something is wrong. If you bend my leg too far one direction, you start to feel pain, and that pain tells you that you better stop bending it. The further you bend it, the more pain you are likely to feel, and (hopefully) the more likely you are to stop bending it. The signal is important, and you really do not want to lose it. Sure, too much pain can be a burden when it goes above and beyond any kind of useful signal, but some pain often is a good thing, and can play a role in keeping you healthy.
In the above mentioned example, if someone gives you an unsolicited pat on the rear, you really might want to do something about it. Anger may be appropriate, and if you feel some anger you might take action to stop the person violating your space. You might need anger in any of a number of situations, in order to know that you need to respond in manner that prevents continued disadvantage or hurt. Too much anger can certainly be counter productive, but too little can be even more catastrophic.
So too with anxiety and fear- these feelings can be a good thing as well. No one needs to have so much anxiety as to have a panic attack or hyperventilation, and it should not prevent you from working or socializing. However, to miss the signal that something is wrong, could prove equally unsatisfactory.
Anxiety and fear are so similar that for all intents and purposes they can be treated as one and the same, the difference being that with fear you know what the danger is, and with anxiety you either do not know, or are not sure. In either case, however, it would be a mistake to ignore the warning.
The Problems With Feeling
The problem with Feelings is when the feeling gets too big. At those times the feeling loses its signal value, and the useful aspect of the emotion gets drowned out because the feeling is too big. Anxiety Management Techniques, as well as Anger Management have in common- when done correctly – that they shrink the feelings to a manageable size, so that the signal can then be addressed.
You want to shrink the feelings but not eliminate them. It is as if you are approaching a four way traffic stop with signal lights. A yellow signal should mean caution and a realistic response to a yellow light would be to slow down or speed up, so that your car is not in the middle of the road when the light changes. But imagine that the yellow light was so bright it would temporarily blind you- the sign is then lost and you might be paralyzed, sitting in the middle of the intersection wondering what happened. Equally problematic would be not seeing the yellow light at all.
You need enough of the feeling for the signal to function but not so much as to interfere.
Good Anxiety Management and effective anger management techniques like breathing exercises and grounding techniques make the anxiety more manageable, and that is an advantage over techniques like psychopharmacology. When a pill is effective in controlling anxiety or anger, it often effectively suppresses or squashes the feelings, and in the process the medication may leave the underlying problem unaddressed and likely to still pose a problem.
Sometimes therapy also can help you get the signal right, as we are not always good at knowing what the signal should be. Many cognitive approaches to therapy can challenge you to weigh your reactions and come up with the most realistic appraisal of the threat. Here the solution is not in changing the size of the feeling, but rather in making it more authentic, realistic or useful.
Photo credit: Feelings switch photo by Cycocurt
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