One of the most important things I think I do as a therapist is to remind clients that their feelings are almost never either all “good” or all “bad.” When I discuss feelings with clients, I do not merely ask, “how does that make you feel.” I ask, “what does that feeling tell you?” “What do you think is the purpose of that feeling in that situation?” “Why do you think you ended up having that feeling as opposed to a different feeling?”
We often have far more choice over how we respond emotionally than we think we do. We can make choices about how to feel, when we know why we feel our feelings. We can say to ourselves, I am not going to let that person’s insults hurt me no matter what he says (I actually used to say that to myself when I was doing depositions back when I was a trial lawyer). We can also say, I want to be sensitive to this person, because I love them, and if they are in pain, I want to let myself feel pain too.
I do not subscribe to the notion that “my feelings can’t be wrong!” Yes, they can. How can a feeling be “wrong?” It’s just a feeling. Well, feelings do not exist by themselves. They don’t exist in a vacuum. Feelings exist because of other things going on with us. Feelings are based on other things, like perceptions, interpretations, our own insecurities, our attitude, our values and beliefs, our personal history, and so on. Think of it this way. It might not be “wrong” to feel hurt. If you are feeling hurt, that doesn’t harm anyone, does it? How could it be wrong? The problem comes in when the person feeling pain doesn’t need to feel that kind of pain, but might just be used to feeling pain in response to certain things, and then reacts in accordance with that pain, which leads to other unwanted consequences (like hostility, defensiveness or isolation).
Guilt is another feeling that can be the result of misperception or a pattern in relationships in which someone believes they have done something they should not have done when this is not necessarily the case. Feelings based on inaccurate perceptions or interpretations can lead to low self-worth, and can keep us trying to make changes to ourselves in order to satisfy someone else’s expectations of who or how we should be. Feelings that are the result of inaccurate perceptions can also make us respond in certain ways that are detrimental to ourselves and the people in our lives. Misplaced guilt can keep us in unhealthy relationships, or they can lead us to end good relationships that do not need to end.
On the other hand, no matter what your feeling might be at any given time, even if there is some part of it that is the result of personal insecurity, or a history of self-doubt, guilt, or even trauma or abuse, that feeling is trying to tell you something, if you are willing to listen to it. Feelings always serve a purpose. They inform us about how something in the external world affects the way we see others and ourselves. When we look for the purpose of a feeling, when we try to find out why we are having a particular feeling, what caused it, an attitude, a perception, an interaction, our own personal values, we learn more about ourselves. We learn more about how the world affects us. In its simplest terms, negative feelings like hurting, guilt, loneliness, anxiety, sadness, these all tell us that we need to make changes to whatever circumstances are causing the negative feelings. Positive feelings like joy, contentment, satisfaction, relaxation, these all encourage us to follow, get closer, repeat behaviors that have caused us to have those feelings.
When a client describes having a feeling, and then makes a negative judgment, not just about the feeling, but about themselves for having the feeling, I try to remind them that having the feeling, whatever that feeling is, can be helpful, if we look for the purpose of the feeling—what is that particular feeling trying to tell my client about themselves and their situation. A common occurrence is when someone judges himself or herself after they get angry at someone they love. They might criticize themselves in the session. “I was arguing with my boyfriend, and he didn’t seem to be listening, which made me really mad and I walked away. Now I feel so stupid for getting so mad over what started as a minor issue. Why do I do that? What’s wrong with me?”
This idea that all feelings are sometimes good, healthy and appropriate, and sometimes not good, not healthy, and not appropriate, will be an ongoing theme in my blog, just as it is in my therapy sessions with clients. In fact, now that I think of it, I have already written a blog on this topic about guilt, called “Choose your guilt,” which discusses the difference between healthy guilt (which comes from within) and unhealthy guilt (which is derived from what other think or feel). In the future, I will plan to write similar blogs that make these kinds of distinctions with anger, hurt, anxiousness, loneliness, and other feelings we commonly have, all of which tell us something, and can help us lead better, more meaningful, and less painful lives, if we know what to look for and what we want to change.
Copyright, 2011, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.