Why we should stop treating our feelings as if they were flawless

Photo by Isaac Mehegan on Unsplash

Feelings are an essential part of human living. In contrast to thoughts, they have two advantages: Feelings are quick: before we even consciously know, what we think about a situation, we already “have a hunch”. And feelings are convincing: In contrast to many thoughts that seem plausible yet abstract or distant, feelings are often perceived intuitively as being inherently consistent. Because feelings are quickly available and very convincing, we tend to believe that they reflect reality and that we should align our lives according to them. Often that is not a wrong thing to do. In many situations “following our hearts” will result in the desired outcome and may help us to create a meaningful life. Sometimes, however, we experience that “following our hearts” brings us further and further away from a life we consider as meaningful. In those moments, it can be helpful to think about, whether following our feelings is really in our best interest. One question may be particularly helpful to guide this process: Based on what information do our feelings actually decide, how to react in a certain situation?

To answer this question, try to think of feelings as being like a navigation device in your car: as the navigation device signals us which route to take in order to reach our destination, feelings signal us what to do in order to achieve our desired goals in life. Like our feelings, navigation devices are absolutely helpful: they take an enormous amount of cognitive load off our shoulders and enable quick decisions at every crossroads without the need to process all different route options. And since navigation devices work very well most of the time, they often enjoy our fullest trust.

But how does a car navigation device guide us? Does the device just magically know every street on the planet or generate new ideas on which route to take out of nowhere? Certainly not. There is actually not much magic in that process. The device uses maps that are stored in its memory. Whether the guidance of the navigation device is accurate, depends on how good this map is. Our inner navigation system of feelings can be understood in the same way. How well feelings guide us in a specific situation, strongly depends on how accurate our “inner map” is. Unlike the map for the navigation system for our car, we do, however, not buy or download our inner map. Instead, our inner map is mainly drawn by past experiences. For example, if at some point in our life we collected the information that some situation is dangerous, we make a note to our inner map, and it is very likely that we will feel anxious again, if we get in a similar situation.

Let us look at what distinguishes a good car navigation device from a bad one. Usually, we judge a navigation device by whether it leads us to the desired destination. And this strongly depends on whether the map it uses is up to date. However, the navigation system of your car usually does not know by itself that it is not up to date. Even if navigating you absolutely the wrong way, it will do it very convincingly by keep telling you to “turn left” or to “turn right”. It is pretty much in our responsibility to decide, whether the navigation device is working or not. We might do this by evaluating, whether driving according to the navigation device is taking us where we want to go to or not. Imagine, for example, you want to drive to a specific town you never have been before. If you kept driving according to the navigation device that works with an outdated map, it could happen that suddenly you are off-road, heading directly towards a closed off construction site. What would you do? Go further just because the navigation device tells you to? Probably not. When facing the warning signs, most people would probably turn off the navigation system, drive back for a bit, look for road signs or ask someone for help. In other words, they would stop listening to the navigation system and start to collect new, more helpful information to get to the desired destination.

As in the map that is used by the navigation device in our car, the information stored in our “inner map” can but does not have to overlap with reality. There can be old information or maybe even “errors” in our map. Maybe, for example, in our past, some specific people were mean and dismissive towards us. And our inner map saved the information: “People are dangerous. Avoid getting close to them.” However, in reality it could be that this experience was only true for very specific people and many other people are actually very nice. The information in our inner map would, in this case, be outdated. As with the navigation system in our car, our inner navigation system, our feelings, however, do not really care that the information is outdated. Our feelings just do what they learned to do. As long as they don’t get new information, they will keep guiding us according to that old map. In our example this could mean, that our feelings will signal “danger”, every time we meet new people and will try to guide us away from them.

This can protect us from rejection and disappointment, but what if our “destination” or goal is to find a friend or partner? As long as we listened to that outdated inner navigation system, we would probably never get there. Because whenever we were to start our journey to meet new people, anxiety would be signaling us to turn around and exit the relationship. If we kept listening to that advice, we would repeatedly make the experience that we just could not find friends. Just as listening to an outdated navigation system in our car would never guide us to that town, we were looking for but instead lead us over and over again towards the closed off construction site.

What would you do if you knew the navigation device in your car was outdated? Would you still use it just because it is a navigation device and navigation devices are always right? At least after a few frustrating car rides, most people would probably think: if this navigation device does not take me where I want to go, I won’t use it anymore. Or I will try to get a new map. With feelings, our inner navigation system, the same problem appears, however, to be often much less clear. Even if we KNOW that certain things are not as dangerous as we feel they are, we often tend to listen to the anxiety anyway. Even if we KNOW that the new people we meet are not the ones that were mean and dismissive towards us in the past and instead are friendly and kind, we often still listen to the feeling that says “danger” and tries to make us avoid new people. We think if the feeling is strongly signaling into a specific direction, “it must be true”. That is pretty much like saying, if the navigation system in my car says “keep going” it will be right, even though I see the closed off construction site right in front of me.

The problem with updating our “inner map” is that, unfortunately, we cannot just go buy or download a new map. As we saw earlier, our inner map is heavily influenced by our experiences. So, if we want to update our inner map, we need to update our experiences. If we don’t want to feel anxious while meeting new people, we need to make the experience that meeting new people is not dangerous. But we get experiences not by thinking about them, just by doing things. Just like when you turn of your car navigation device, you actually have to DO something to find the way to the town you want to go to: explore different roads, stop and ask people for direction, etc. The only difference is: unlike the navigation device in our car, we cannot turn off our feelings in the process of getting a new map. They are always turned on. That means in the process of updating our inner map, our feelings will, based on the old map, keep signaling us “wrong way, go back”. And since feelings are very convincing, this can irritate us heavily. But even if it can be very exhausting to make new experiences with feelings constantly signaling “danger” in the background, we can choose whether to listen to that advice or not. Feelings just offer suggestions on how to react in certain situations.

Feelings are not a mirror of reality but of past experiences that want to help us navigate in our future. Just as with car navigation devices, we can and should, however, always remain alert whether their advice helps us to approach our desired goals. And if feelings repeatedly prove to be not helpful, we should stop listening to their advice and instead do what we need to do, in order to update our inner map.