Feelings About Facts and Facts About Feelings

5 min read
Pexels / Pixabay

Source: Pexels / Pixabay

A verse from the Beatles song, Strawberry Fields, resonated for me as a young teenager: “Living is easy with eyes closed/Misunderstanding all you see.”

Personal experience and clinical practice have shown me that living is hard with eyes closed, thinking we understand all we see. Living with eyes closed turns the inevitable pain of life into suffering.

Part of what closes our eyes in love and politics is the confusion of feelings with facts, which makes us misunderstand both.

Feelings are always real and valid, although the perceptions, interpretations, assumptions, and judgments that underlie them are often inaccurate. We must never invalidate feelings, but we need to examine our heavily biased perceptions, interpretations, assumptions, and judgments.

The Oxford English Language Dictionary defines “fact” as: “A thing that is known or proved to be true.”

People don’t disagree about facts as much as it seems. Rather, we disagree about the meanings we give to facts. A primary example is the crime rate, a fact, as opposed to the various meanings people give—feelings power meaning.

Feelings are the conscious component of emotions. They seize our attention, so we’ll act on the motivation of emotions, which are variations in approach, avoid, and attack. They seize our attention by amplifying and magnifying stimuli. (In the highly reactive world we live in now, stimuli are called triggers.) By their nature, feelings oversimplify problems. Strong feelings make it impossible to see other perspectives. Strong feelings make perspectives narrow and rigid for as long as they last.

Feelings have a hidden logic that differs from factual analysis. For one thing, feelings are influenced by factors that have nothing to do with facts, such as personal experience, family history, genetics, metabolism, available physical and mental resources, room temperature, coping habits, and social structure. Unlike facts, feelings are subject to emotional reciprocity, which means we’re likely to get back what we put out, especially when feelings are negative or hostile.

We like to think that we make judgments and decisions based on facts. Daniel Kahneman exposed this myth with the observation, based on a lifetime of research, that we make judgments and decisions unconsciously and then look for facts to support them.

The emotional component of judgments and decisions is also unconscious. By the time we’re aware of feelings, we’ve already made the judgment. Too often, we fall prey to this fallacy: To change the uncomfortable feelings accompanying our negative judgments, we must change our partners and anyone else we disagree with. We tend to use coercion (overt or implied threats) to gain submission to our will or evoke guilt, shame, and anxiety to gain compliance with it. When we fail to change them, we pretend to be morally, intellectually, or spiritually superior to them.

Guilt, shame, and anxiety are disempowering emotions. They eventually give way to empowering emotions of resentment and anger. Any positive change achieved by evoking guilt, shame, and anxiety soon deteriorates. It might work for a while but will likely worsen things in the long run.

Lasting positive change in love and politics centers on behavior rather than feelings. Changes in behavior change feelings more than the other way around. That’s because feelings, unlike routine behavior, require attention, which is subject to depletion and distraction. If I love my partner, I consider her feelings until I’m tired or distracted. But if I’m routinely considerate of her feelings, I’m more likely to feel love for her. If I feel respect for people, I’ll behave respectfully toward them until I’m tired or distracted. If I routinely behave respectfully toward people, I’m more likely to feel respect for them.

In race relations, we seem to have regressed to the 1950s attempts to change people’s feelings in the hope of changing their behavior. For decades preceding the landmark Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated public schools (and for at least a decade afterward), attempts to improve feelings about race failed miserably, especially in the South. Forced integration eventually changed the feelings of most Southerners of both races. It’s time to target the behaviors and policies necessary for a more equitable society and end fruitless attempts to change feelings.

Targeting behavior change in love and politics is more likely to evoke cooperation and avoid the natural defenses against assaults on feelings.

Invalidation Inflames

A major barrier to positive behavior change is the tendency to invalidate each other’s feelings when we disagree with the interpretations and judgments that underlie them. When we invalidate the feelings of our partners with weaponized facts or other tactics, we grow more distant. We preach to the choir in politics while attempting to drown out the other choirs. All we make is dissonance.

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Feelings become less important when validated, inflamed, if invalidated. When feelings are inflamed, facts don’t matter.

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