They are as certain as death and taxes. They dominate our life and often consume us. Even in our sleep, we experience them. They fluctuate minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year. They are responsible for some of the most magnificent creations and the most atrocious deeds. What am I talking about? Emotions and feelings.
As human beings consumed by how we feel, it seems imperative that we come to understand not just how important our emotions are, but how they can also be used in the wisest of ways. As I have written about in the past, feelings are first and foremost designed as both informants and comforts in our daily lives.
The two sides of our emotional life
When we speak about feelings designed as short-term informants — such as anxiety, fear, guilt, and the like — we find that when used well, they guide us to a desired action that aligns with God’s design.
And yet, when experienced chronically and incessantly, and not used appropriately, they typically lead to poorer physical, psychological, social, and even spiritual outcomes. For example, chronic and pervasive anxiety can elevate blood pressure, heighten paranoia, reduce relationship quality, and even leave us agnostic.
On the flip side, other feelings (which are more like states of being than feelings), such as love, trust, admiration, etc., are designed to be experienced for the long-term. They provide comfort, joy, and peace in our lives. When this occurs, human beings typically flourish in a holistic way, and are more resilient in whatever obstacles come our way.
The challenge, however, is that not only are most of us provided with little lifelong support and education to navigate the confusing landscape of emotions, but there’s an infinite number of ways that each of us might “feel” about the same situation. And when this occurs, it can lead to distress, conflict, and even detachment from those that we love.
An everyday example
Take, for instance, the time-honored example of keeping a house clean — especially for families who have a bunch of kids (like mine).
Not only can the act of cleaning result in stress and strain, but the differing feelings (or perspectives) about what is clean and reasonable and what is not can be stressful too — especially if some are more easily frustrated about clutter and uncleanliness.
To complicate things, by the time people are married or living together, various forces (e.g., temperament, formative experiences) have likely forged a strong opinion about what feels right, and what doesn’t.
So, in using the cleaning example, it’s important to consider steps you can use to reduce the unnecessary stress.
First, it’s critical to recognize that feelings are real to the person feeling them, but don’t necessarily reflect reality or truth in the broader sense.
In the example used, except in situations of OCD or household neglect, there is a reasonable difference by which cleanliness may be felt as (and actually is) important. In this typical variation, there is not necessarily a right way or means by which cleanliness should occur. So it is both critical to validate the feelings of the people involved while also acknowledging that one “right way” doesn’t necessarily exist.
Seeking to understand
Second, when feelings conflict about various matters, it’s important for all involved to take the time to understand why each person feels strongly in a certain way. Otherwise, stress and strain can easily be heightened in the short and long-term unnecessarily.
With the cleaning example, it might be that for some in the household keeping things clean reduces uneasiness associated with clutter, or that the appearance of cleanliness is both reassuring and appealing. For others, who are less concerned with cleanliness, it may be that time spent doing other things (e.g., relaxing, exercising) is perceived as more needed or desired than constant efforts to keep things orderly and tidy. Even though understanding these differences likely doesn’t eliminate the differences in preference, it does provide a more empathic way of understanding each other, and appreciating what can be learned from different perspectives.
Speaking of effort required, this relates to the third critical step in addressing issues where feelings may differ.
It’s important to compromise and collaborate to come up with creative ways to positively address people’s negative feelings, and the needs that correspond to them.
As an example in our home, where my wife and I differ about the issue of cleanliness, we recognized that one compromise was for me to institute a routine whereby I “rally the troops” for a 20-minute group cleaning in exchange for my wife, Amy, reducing her focus on getting the kids to do work around the home. Although not perfect, this has reduced the stress that all of us feel from constant redirections around cleaning while increasing the efficiency and collective nature of the process itself. It also provides more free time in the evenings to unwind from a stressful day.
Ultimately, this group effort from every individual in our family creates a sense of responsibility, accountability, and security. Offering the gift of ourselves through service to one another, and doing so in a way that is not forced, but given freely (as much as chores can be) for the greater good of the family, has been a good compromise in helping us appreciate and respond to each others’ different feelings.
Finding external and internal solutions
Finally, in regard to dealing with differing feelings, it’s important to remember that solutions don’t just fall in the external category, but also the internal one.
External solutions involve anything an individual or other people do (or don’t do) to reduce a negative feeling, such as picking up clothes or vacuuming more often.
Internal solutions involve “reframing” our attitudes and perspectives towards a particular circumstance. This specifically relates to our attribution of (a) the importance of our feelings compared to a broader reality and (b) perceived motives of the other person.
In the example provided, it might be easy to think that a person is obsessive about cleaning or that the house has to be clean “or I can’t relax.” But the reality is that even after decades of developing perspectives and habits, we have the ability to shift them in a way that can be healthier and more effective.
In the end, our instinctive feelings and reactions might be difficult to change, but our response to them doesn’t have to be. How we use them, how we learn from them, and the perspective we take towards them is always changeable―always malleable―if we are willing to prioritize a sense of genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard for ourselves and those around us, no matter how we might feel about them at the time.