Feelings are widely misunderstood. Even by psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists. But if we look at them right — in terms of the the work they do in us — we can learn a lot.
Here, I’ll start with an understanding of emotions and see what it has to say about words like integrity and wisdom. At the end, I’ll talk about helping others find their feelings and values.
The Work Feelings Do
Here’s the key idea:
Every feeling is a reminder of something important to us.
- Anger tells us that something important to us is blocked
- Fear, that something important to us is threatened
- Shame, that we haven’t been living up to something important to us
- Confusion, that we’re missing a conception of something important to us
- and so on
We learn about what’s important to us through our feelings. We learn about what we value.
And feelings help us reevaluate how we’re doing with what we value. Positive feelings remind us embrace or notice what’s important to us. Negative feelings do more: a negative feeling signals a conflict between our values that we have to think about:
- Perhaps we were pursuing value B but we forgot about value A. For instance, I was trying to be effective but I forgot that it was also important to me to be kind. This might result in embarrassment.
- Or perhaps we are neglecting value B because we think it’s impossible to do both. For instance, I may think it’s impossible to pursue my interest in creative work while supporting my family, but both are important to me. This could result in frustration or yearning.
There are many other types of conflict. But feelings are there to tell us we have to grapple with these conflicts, not just skip over them. Feelings remind us to ask ourselves questions like:
- Can I be kind and effective?
- Actually do I really believe in being effective, or maybe it’s always more important to me to be kind?
- Is it really impossible to pursue creative work while supporting my family?
- What would actually happen if I stopped supporting my family?
Often these are questions we don’t want to ask. But the feelings keep coming until we do. Until we take time to reconcile all these conflicts as best we can, there’s a gap between how we’re living and what’s important to us. This gap means we can’t be proud of who we are. So, we have to grapple with conflicts to accept ourselves and the choices we make.
People are sometimes deaf to these messages in feelings. This deafness comes in three flavors:
- Repression. If a person doesn’t know they have feelings, or doesn’t let themselves feel them, they’re repressing them. Feelings can go away entirely when you repress them. A person becomes numb, depressed, or anxious.
- Venting. Other people do feel their feelings, but they aren’t taken seriously as carriers of what’s important. The feelings come back again and again, and the person becomes melodramatic.
- Avoidance. A third group gets all the way to recognizing what’s important, but doesn’t grapple with the conflicts revealed or reconcile them. People who do this will be perpetually lost, conflicted, confused, and escapist.
To avoid these problems, feel all the way through the situations of your life, starting with the emotions, ending with a reconciliation of values:
feeling → appreciating → grappling → reconciling
Someone who’s felt through all their situations has integrity. They’re grounded. Integrity means they know what’s important to them and they’ve grappled with all the conflicts.
Integrity is easiest when your situation changes slowly: you have lots of time to notice your feelings, to find out what’s important to you, and to grapple with conflicts.
The more dynamic your life — the more you deal with a variety of people and challenging situations every day — the quicker you must be at feeling through. The most important skill for leaders is this: quickness in feeling through things. Such a person is discerning or wise.
It’s easy to see if someone is wise: they’ll be very articulate about their feelings, their values, and how they’ve grappled with and reconciled their values in different situations.
They’ll also be more creative. A wise person aims their life and their social activity in unusual, creative directions because they have developed unusual values. Grappling with conflicts leads to unusual values.
This diagram shows how a series of conflicts can lead (via feelings) to new and interesting values:
It tells the story of two conflicts:
- I used to try to be liked by people. At some point, I realized this conflicted with my value of being at ease. I discovered I was being tense and fake in the name of being liked. Feeling appalled and embarrassed helped me decide not to aim at being liked, and instead try to be authentic and caring.
- Later, my new value of being authentic and caring came into conflict with being effective. I noticed myself being uncaring while pushing groups to be effective. Feeling frustrated and confused encouraged me to resolve this. I switched to a new view of effectiveness, about fostering capacity in myself and others.
In each case, the transition from old values to new remedied an error in thinking:
- I used to think that relationships were about being liked. This was an error. In transitioning away from being liked, I repaired a misunderstanding of good relationships.
- I used to think that teams were about getting things done. In transitioning away from being effective, I corrected a similar misunderstanding about good teams.
I could drop the old values, precisely because I’d clarified what they’d really meant for me. The importance of the old values was entirely captured by the new, more comprehensive value .
These powerful new values and perspectives come from negative feelings. Without our feelings, we’d be stuck with primitive values like being liked and being effective.
I believe all this—feelings, values, reconciliation—is just part of being human, like speech or gesture. But this process is unfamiliar to many people. If feelings are natural, why is the nature of feelings so obscure?
- Individually, why are we confused about feelings and values?
- Socially, why does that confusion become widespread?
It seems that our ability to feel through is under some kind of attack. Broad cultural myths have been set up to confuse us about feelings and their relationship to integrity:
- One myth is of the stoic person — usually a man — who somehow knows what’s important to him and reconciles his values without ever feeling his feelings. The myth is that he’s just magically a highly effective person.
- Another myth is the hysterical person — usually a woman — whose feelings don’t mean anything about what’s important to her. The myth is that she should ignore her feelings — either through retail therapy, or toughing it out, or achieving equanimity, depending on her subculture.
These myths are often supported and furthered in clinical psychology: the stoic view is supported by some CBT and life coaching; the hysteric view is supported by various cathartic release / expressive therapies, by mindfulness training, by some forms of family therapy, and by co-counseling.
I wonder why these cultural myths — which are so bad for us on an individual level — are so widespread. Here’s one idea about how this happened: they make people more predictable, and thus into better social cogs.
As organizations, bureaucracies, and institutions grow more complex, they depend on predictable, incentives-aligned behavior from the people inside.
I think a person is easier to control if they’re not good at feeling through and if they believe their values are irreconcilable. They’ll be a better consumer and — within a bureaucracy — a better producer.
So perhaps the subcultures which are most successful in fitting into organizations, bureaucracies, and institutions are those with cultural myths. It therefore follows that when people are trained to be successful, these cultural myths are encouraged.
This would create a pattern we see today: the more successful a group, the more confused about feelings and wisdom.
So, for now, we are surrounded by people who are bad at feeling through, who aren’t discerning or wise, and who are mired in cultural myths. This will be true until organizations and institutions work differently.
In the meantime, you can help those close to you:
- If they have trouble feeling their feelings, sit with them. Ask them to feel inside themselves, to express their feelings, and to treat their feelings as valuable.
- When someone expresses feelings, ask what they are about. Find out what’s important to the person. Let them know that you take it seriously. Help them get what’s important to them.
- If they fear their values are irreconcilable, ask for more detail. Show them they might be reconciled. Express optimism that their feelings will lead to wisdom.
Know someone whose feelings and values are important to you? Send them this post!
Or to read more:
- Read about the philosophical underpinnings of these ideas.
- Read about the changing role of values in society.
(NEW: Translation available in German)