Anger, frustration, anxiety, grief—we have all experienced the most extreme emotions available to us, and when we do, it takes over completely.
Our strongest emotions define the way we act, feel, and think, and can change our personalities for the worst. But here’s what you need to remember: emotions are just feelings, nothing more. It is the action and meaning you associate with them that defines your relationship with your feelings.
Answer this: why do we do things in life? There are two reasons: either because it feels great, or because we believe that it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes these two reasons come together, but more often, they don’t.
Reacting to your base feelings is the easiest and most natural reaction, like when you have an itch and scratch it right away. There’s no thought involved; it’s simply about feeling something and doing the first thing that comes to mind. But the satisfaction that we get from this automatic reaction is generally shallow and temporary.
But when we react to situations by thinking about them first and choosing the right decision—rather than the decision that makes you feel good—we end up with less short-term satisfaction, but much more long-term satisfaction.
By ignoring our primal impulses to scratch that itch immediately upon feeling it, we can take the time to assess the situation and apply the medicine it needs, so the itch doesn’t come back to bother again.
In situations such as these, we feel better about ourselves and we begin building our self-esteem. And with higher self-esteem, the more meaning we can find in our life.
Balancing the Brain
Does this mean that all immediate feelings should be ignored, in favor of the good or right decision? Not necessarily.
The problem boils down to your brain. Whenever your brain is faced with an ambiguous or uncertain situation, where the right answer isn’t immediately clear, it does its best to avoid it. And it avoids this decision making by convincing you that the emotional feel-good choice is equivalent to the morally good choice.
Let’s use dieting and pizza as an example. You want to lose weight, because you know your body needs to get fitter and healthier. But in the middle of your diet, you are faced with a large pizza sitting in front of you. Your brain knows that it shouldn’t, because it would put you back an entire week on your diet, but because your brain wants it, it justifies the pizza by saying, “You’ve been working hard all week. Pizza won’t hurt!” And then you end up eating the entire thing.
The same logic goes for everything—cheating on a test because you’ve been so busy with work, cheating on your spouse because you miss her so much while she’s away, stealing money from a stranger because you need to pay your bills and they probably don’t deserve it anyway—the brain can be a horrible tool when it wants to be, and if you let it, it can convince you to do the worst.
Now here’s the stark truth you don’t want to hear: every problem, every situation, and every screw up in your life probably all boils down to one thing: being impulsive to your feelings.
Feelings have this uncanny ability of making you think that you are the only thing that matters in the universe. It doesn’t help that many parents today spoil their kids, reinforcing the idea that we are supposed to get whatever our emotions and feelings desire.
But here are three realities you need to realize about your feelings:
- They are self-contained, meaning they care about you but not about the world around you.
- They are temporary, meaning if you can resist them until after the moment, you will win the battle.
- They are wrong, because they are impulsive, irrational, and without thought.
The Difficulty of Getting Over Your Feelings
Even when we are aware of the way the brain manipulates us with shallow feelings, it can still be incredibly difficult to get over them. Why? Because of something known as meta-feelings—these are the feelings that you get when you start to control your feelings. These include:
Self-loathing: Feeling bad about bad feelings
Guilt: Feeling bad about good feelings
Self-righteousness: Feeling good about bad feelings
Ego/Narcissism: Feeling good about good feelings
The meta-feelings produced by trying to avoid our impulsive feelings causes much of the anxiety and strife we experience every day.
Groups at war will both see themselves as victims; two sides fighting against each other will both paint the other as villains. We create narratives based on our meta-feelings, which are based on us failing to understand the impulsive nature of our feelings.
So how do we truly solve this?
Don’t control your feelings. Control the way you assign meaning to feelings.
Let’s go back to one of the first things we said: feelings don’t have to mean anything. We have to come to a point where we can let them exist without letting them dictate our thoughts and actions.
Disassociate “feelings” from “actions” and “thoughts”; let “feelings” exist in their own bubble, until they pop naturally on their own volition.
And remember: this doesn’t mean that you should start neglecting your feelings completely. Feel them, live them, let yourself understand them. But don’t let them change who you are and what you do. Don’t let meaning spring forth from feelings. Meaning should come from you and your choices, not your irrational impulses. In the end, you decide how you act.