Always acting on your feelings can be hazardous to your health!

I was at the red light at Rts. 113 and 20 last week when a large pickup truck blatantly sped through the light—on the shoulder and around the stopped cars. He never looked. He never slowed down.

Drivers on the road adjacent to the Wildlife Refuge near Bethany Beach often travel at extremely high rates of speed, in spite of the deer known to cross the road, and in spite of residents pulling out of the nearby neighborhoods.

No, this is not a tirade against irresponsible and careless drivers. We’ll leave that to the editorial pages. This tirade is about the fundamental psychological attitude that contributes to behavior such as this. In philosophical circles it is referred to as subjectivism. The basic idea of subjectivism is that moral judgments are fundamentally subjective, i.e., based on feelings. Subjectivism offers no concrete basis for what may in reality be right or wrong.

So, the thought process on Rt. 113 last week was simple: ‘It feels good to go very fast, so I will. Is there a possibility I might kill someone crossing the intersection? Or maybe even kill myself? I don’t feel that at the moment (for whatever reason), so it doesn’t matter.’ Or, ‘I like this nice straight road, so I will pretend for a moment that I am at the Dover International Speedway. Could I hit a deer and kill myself? Is there a possibility I won’t be able to stop if another driver pulls onto the road? Nope—it doesn’t count if I don’t feel it.’

There are examples of subjectivism all over the world: Hysterical, violent reactions to newspaper publications; consumer fury over hot coffee spilled while driving; murderers going free because of phony ‘disorders’ and convenient, pseudo-scientific labels. Bottom line: ‘If I feel it, then it must be true!’

Good psychological health requires that our daily thoughts not be contaminated by subjectivism. Feelings are not facts. So many of my clients over the years find relief from their problems when they finally realize that we all have the right—actually, the duty—to challenge our feelings and make sure they correspond to the facts. Straying from this way of thinking can signal the beginning of mental illness, or, at the very minimum, unhappiness and frustration.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not encouraging emotional repression, either. Feelings and emotions are a critical element of the human experience. We deny, ignore or minimize them at our own expense. At the same time, we have to take responsibility for managing our emotions rather than letting them run the show.

When you hear about parents who beat up and abuse their kids, and you ask yourself, ‘How could somebody do something like that to a child?’ you can be sure that subjectivism is lurking nearby. Most parents, if they’re honest about it, have probably felt like raising their hands against their kids at one time or another. But they don’t, because they realize there are significant consequences. One is the obvious danger of physically hurting the child; another is the permanent damage done to the relationship. Still another is the recognition that if the child sees it’s OK for the parent to hit, then it’s OK for the child to initiate violence, too. So what’s the difference between a parent who abuses his or her kids versus the one who doesn’t? The presence—or absence—of the subjective sense that, ‘I feel like doing this, so I’ll do it.’

The same mindset is at work with people who abuse animals, don’t bother to pay their bills, or who verbally abuse people in their lives. It’s not that they consciously ‘decide’ to think subjectively, so much as they just ‘let it happen.’ It’s kind of like letting your house or your car deteriorate over time. You don’t keep up with the paint jobs or the oil changes, and then you wonder why you have problems. The same is true with your mental health. If you don’t manage your feelings, and try to connect them to objective reality in some way, you end up causing pain to others and, most assuredly, to yourself.

Whoever ran that red light felt like he was in control and having a good time, but was actually undermining his ability to cope in the real world. In fact, people who do things like this—with a complete lack of concern for any consequences whatsoever—usually don’t have much power in their lives, and don’t feel like they’re in charge of much anyway. So they desperately clutch at whatever sense of false competence they possibly can. Having the wisdom and maturity to look beyond your immediate urges and feelings is good for your mental health. Refusing to do so can be hazardous—on the road, and in your life.