Why do feelings matter, and how does avoiding our feelings hold us back from what we want in life?
I’ve argued already that feelings matter simply because they exist in us, and avoiding them is avoiding being who we are.
But I want a better and more satisfying explanation. Why does avoiding feelings hold us back?
One approach is to start with what “feelings” really are, because the word itself doesn’t tell us much. “Feelings” just means “things we feel”. What are these things?
By inspiration I came across a sermon by an early American theologian, on the subject of “affections of the mind”. Affections are what we would call feelings. But many theologians and philosophers in their study of human nature and free will pin these feelings to the internal logic of the human mind.
According to this view, affections such as “liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting” are inclinations or movements of the will, and our “feeling” is the inward experience of these movements.
In other words, when my will inclines towards something, I feel good about it. When my will is inclined to oppose something, I feel bad about it.
These varieties of inclination of the will are traditionally sorted into categories like love, desire, delight, as our will inclines to the things we want, and hate, aversion, and sorrow as our will inclines away from things we do not want.
And the inclination of the will can vary by degrees or intensity, and it can also be combined and mixed as we encounter more complex situations and scenarios, giving rise to the full range of what we call feelings.
What does this mean for our current endeavour? It means that when we avoid feeling something like anger or sorrow or guilt or grief or fear, we are restraining our own will, based on a false belief that if we do not feel it, it cannot affect us.
Consider something you don’t like to think about. When you focus on that subject you have feelings, which are your will opposing this unwanted thing. If it is strong, you will even feel physical sensations like increased heart rate, light-headedness, an upset stomach. These are the physical correlate of your will opposing the unwanted thing.
These feelings are unpleasant, but they won’t hurt us. Yet they can be so unpleasant that we decide to stop focusing on that subject, to try to avoid feeling the discomfort or pain or other sensations. In effect we treat this movement of the will as something unwanted, and we end up afraid of feeling afraid or guilty or ashamed etc.
This means our inner life is getting more complicated, because we are now setting up internal boundaries for things we want to avoid thinking about and feelings we want to avoid feeling. It’s messy and tiring. And while we sought to be free from painful negative feelings we have actually added another layer of negative feelings.
But in addition there may be something lost to us by not allowing the full movement of our will to run its course. Back to the subject you don’t like to think about: what happens if you stay with it and allow your will to stretch and move to completion? What happens if you allow it to continue until everything has settled? What does it even mean for the will to be settled, as happens when a troubling thought no longer troubles you?
When a troubling thought no longer troubles us, it means our will is no longer moved by it or actively opposing it. We’ve all had the experience where an embarrassing incident from childhood no longer causes embarrassment. But why? Because we learn. We are constantly learning, and by sitting with the feeling of embarrassment or experiencing other embarrassments or by living more of life and learning more about life, we learn on a deep experiential level that those experiences weren’t as bad as they seemed at the time. We learn through the evidence of daily life continuing, that we have survived those moments and in hindsight they don’t really matter.
But we can’t learn if, instead, we avoid the embarrassment feeling and all thought of those incidents. And we definitely can’t learn if we seek to avoid all future embarrassment and all future negative feelings.
Since negative feelings are the inclination of our will in opposition to something, it is as much a part of who we are as our preferences and desires. The things we don’t want inform who we are just as much as what we do want.
So by feeling our feelings we are allowing ourselves to learn on a deep, conscience level the full weight and significance of what we do and don’t want. We are allowing our will and our knowing to coalesce in the person that life has made us become. When we avoid our feelings we refuse to be the person that we have already become.
This exploration has brought clarity and encouragement and if you persisted with it I hope it helped you too. From what we know now it makes perfect sense and is even inspiring to let ourselves feel the full movement of our own will. Knowing and allowing our own will to oppose what it opposes is a strength. It brings us to the forefront of who we really are.
And if you agree that life is shaped by being who we are, then it follows that we will get the life we want quicker and more easily if we be our real selves ASAP.