Follow your feelings?

If you google “follow your feelings” you’ll find disparate advice.

Some people say you should follow your feelings, “listen to your heart” and so on.

Others say that this is terrible advice. You need to think clearly, reasonably, objectively, before you act.

So which is it? Are your feelings an infallible inner guide, or bound to lead you astray?

Different personality types

We can find exemplars and tragic cases to illustrate either side: people who follow their feelings…and leave a trail of destruction in their wake, or those who ignore their feelings only to end up leading hollow, empty lives.

But if we take seriously a personality theory like the MBTI, it quickly becomes clear that feeling and thinking play different roles in people’s personalities.

In the MBTI feeling and thinking are distinct cognitive functions. Those who are “good at” thinking tend to be bad at feeling and vice-versa. But throughout the course of our lives we also tend to go through a process of embracing our weaker, “inferior” function, relying on it too much, and finally coming to accept its subordinate role in our personality.

So for example, a feeling-dominant person discovers the untapped potential of their inferior thinking function and embraces it. Thinking seems mysterious and powerful, but they’re not naturally adept at it and are blind to the weaknesses and flaws in their use of it.

Eventually they will come to realise the limitations of thinking, and return to their dominant feeling function.

Someone who goes through this journey may well describe it as the discovery that they should have “followed their heart” all along. That’s because denying their feelings and pursuing their weaker thinking function was essentially a self-limiting and flawed approach to life.

By the end of this journey, the individual should be more balanced and centred, and objectively happier.

Thinking-dominant

A thinking-dominant person will go through the inverse process – embracing their inferior feeling function at some point in their early life, and pursuing it beyond its natural limits in their personality.

For the thinking-dominant person, their feeling function really will lead them astray.

Eventually they too will reach a point where the limits of feeling become clear to them, and they resolve to return to their dominant thinking function.

Someone who goes through this journey may well reject the illusory wisdom of “follow your feelings”. They will reassert the merits of their thinking function. The image they project and the narrative they recount will be at odds with the feeling-dominant person, but the general shape of the journey should be analogous.

If you put these two different personalities side-by-side they will describe the same kind of process of disintegration and reintegration, of abandoning and then rediscovering their strength, but they may nonetheless still argue with each other and vehemently disagree about the role of thinking versus feeling.

Intuition and sensing

The same process should theoretically occur for people who are either intuition-dominant or sensing-dominant according to the MBTI. This dichotomy might be described as “follow your intuition” versus “stick to the facts”.

Depending what is called your “functional stack” both dichotomies will emerge throughout your life.

For example, if your functional stack is FiNeSiTe (INFP), you’ll experience a major pull toward your inferior thinking function, and an eventual return to your dominant feeling function. But at the same time you may also experience a more muted struggle to make sense of your auxiliary intuition and your tertiary sensing functions.

By contrast, an INFJ has a different functional stack: NiFeTiSe. They’ll experience a strong pull toward their inferior sensing function, distracting from or overriding their dominant intuition. At the same time they will struggle to work out the balance between their feeling and thinking functions, though on a less dramatic level than the struggle experienced by the INFP.

Who should you listen to?

The problem is that people can make compelling cases for either side in the two dichotomies…because people generally are experiencing both sides of the struggle.

If we don’t know our own personality, we can become confused about which direction we’re meant to be headed.

A feeling-dominant person struggling in ignorance to suppress their feeling function may find encouragement in the advice of thinking-dominant people who have overcome their struggle with inferior feeling.

But that would be a mistake.

The two circumstances are quite different. Feeling-dominant people will not be led astray by their feelings. Thinking-dominant people will be.

What makes these struggles even more confusing is that stress, abuse, and suffering in early life will contribute to the embrace of the inferior function as people seek out adaptive strategies to survive difficult circumstances.

So some people will find that embracing their inferior function is the only way they know how to live. You might be a feeling-dominant personality, but if you feel terrible you aren’t exactly going to revel in the rediscovery of your dominant function.

Perhaps the best we can do is to become aware of the limitations in our inferior functions. We might enjoy using them, we might even be very good at them, but they will have serious deficiencies or blind-spots, and take significantly more energy to use than the functions that ought to come more naturally.

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Symbolism of posture

I’ve known for a while that there’s something wrong with my posture, but it’s only in the last year that I’ve resorted to learning basic functional anatomy to troubleshoot the problems for myself.

I’ve been learning about extension and flexion of the various joints, bony landmarks, specific muscles and their antagonists, as well as common postural deficiencies like forward head posture, excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine, kyphosis of the thoracic spine, pelvic tilt, rib flare, and so on.

There are lots of variables to examine and many of them are inter-dependent. For example: I started with the issue of rounded shoulders, which is really about protraction of the scapulae. I worked on trying to fix that for a while, but with limited success. Eventually I realised I was flaring out my ribs too much, which is really an issue of excessive extension at the thoraco-lumbar spine – the middle of the spine.

To correct the rib flare requires engaging abdominal muscles to pull the ribs down, but this in turn is not feasible unless the pelvis is correctly aligned. Anterior pelvic tilt tends to weaken the abdominals and the gluteals, while shortening the lower back muscles and the hip flexors.

By the time I’d worked all this out I’d forgotten about the shoulder protraction issue, so it’s come full-circle again.

Beyond anatomy

I think there’s also a symbolic or psychological aspect to these postural issues.

Posture is directly linked to the psyche in two main ways: first, we use posture to communicate with others. Defensive and submissive postures indicate to others that we wish to avoid confrontation. Hunching or rounding the shoulders, dropping the head, collapsing the chest all communicate submission by making us appear physically smaller and weaker.

Second, bad posture feels awful. It makes us irritable and stressed, takes more energy to maintain, and discourages us from the physical exertion required to accomplish daily activities and meaningful projects.

Forward head posture

So let’s take forward head posture as an example.

There’s a simple behavioural component, in that we spend a lot of time sitting at computers or staring at mobile phones or tablets. These activities tend to encourage forward movement of the head.

But moving your head forward to stare at the computer screen isn’t necessary. Perhaps it’s a by-product of intense focus, or maybe it’s a result of the conflict between a sedentary seating position combined with active visual attention.

Even before I began looking into posture I knew I had problems with my neck. It feels incredibly stiff at times, and occasionally it would ache from the tension. Symbolically, I used to relate this tension to my analytical and overly-intellectual approach to life.

I think a lot. I think about everything, all the time. 80-90% of my waking hours involve thinking about something, and this hasn’t changed in over a decade.

I’ve tried a lot of things to let go of this excessive intellection, but I’ve never found a simple solution. The complex solution has been to keep thinking about it, or at least try to improve the efficiency of my thinking in hopes that I’d eventually find the answer.

Trying to think of a solution to excessive thinking may sound counter-intuitive. As Maslow wrote:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

But if the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s not too outrageous to prioritise all your hammering tasks…maybe see how far hammering alone will get you.

Nonetheless, I can’t ignore the symbolism of forward head posture as a psychosomatic effort to lead with one’s head – putting one’s mind out in front.

And compared to what?

Well if I try to correct my head position, I immediately feel that my throat, chest, and whole torso are more open and exposed. That’s why dropping the head is a defensive position: better to get hit in the chin than in the throat.

If the head is associated with thinking, the chest or the heart is associated with feeling. Perhaps the symbolism of forward head posture is an attempt to use thinking, intellect, and analysis, to get out in front of feeling?

Melancholics are, after all, feeling-oriented. The effort to analyse life rather than feeling it directly is an established trope or cliche, and it makes sense that a feeling-oriented person would compromise their posture through such an effort. Feeling can be a confusing and seemingly ineffectual function. It gives long, slow answers when what we might prefer are short, convenient, and maybe conventional solutions. Feeling often points a direction with no hint as to the final destination.

We can easily blame behaviour for bad posture, and it certainly plays a role. But our psychology also makes us more susceptible to particular behaviours. Maintaining a postural deficiency takes constant effort, and trying to explain it as merely the outcome of certain behaviours like staring at a computer screen is question-begging. Why, after all, am I spending so much time happily staring at a computer screen if it is damaging my posture?

Looking at a postural problem in the broader context of one’s behaviours, psychology, and temperament can reveal symbolic relationships and even solutions.

Not that I found the solution by examining the symbolism, mind you. It’s eight to ten years since I first thought my neck trouble might be linked to my intellectual outlook, but the more I hammered away at that question, the more ingrained my intellectual efforts became.

It’s taken life experience, grudging and sometimes grueling lessons to reveal the real meaning and importance of feeling in my life, and how this mysterious function is to be embraced.

So now my old speculations about the symbolism of posture have come to mind, more like a memory or a realisation than a solution. The solution has happened on a deeper level, and now the recognition of it comes like an afterword, tying up loose ends when the real story is done.