What you feel may not be real!

A Delaware Wave reader from Connecticut writes,

Dear Dr. Hurd,

My ‘new age’ friends are always telling me to ‘Go with my feelings and say what I feel.’ But is it advisable to just blurt out whatever happens to pop into your head—right, wrong or indifferent?


Dear Wave Reader,

There’s more to life than feelings. Of course, emotions are part of who we are, and to deny or eliminate them is wrong and unhealthy. But feelings are not necessarily facts, and it’s just as wrong and unhealthy to give words to your feelings without any regard for reality.

I’m not just talking about consideration toward others. Consideration toward others is fine, but let’s start with pride and respect for yourself. Have you ever spoken your ’emotional mind’ to somebody and then felt foolish afterwards? If so, this is a clear signal that you’re doing a good job of ‘saying what you feel,’ but that you’re not necessarily doing a good job of backing up those feelings with thought. And that’s the key: Feelings are fine, and there are times and places for expressing them. But the point is that you don’t impulsively blurt out what you’re feeling without giving yourself time to think and reason first.

This is particularly important with email, IMing, texting and all the rest. People have told me of their regret over sending emotional emails to personal or business associates. ‘I wish I had worded it differently,’ they lament. ‘Now it’s engraved in stone.’ Yet email offers the lure of instant gratification in an age of ‘attention deficits’—real OR imagined. But like everything else, instant gratification comes with a price: You could end up feeling foolish (at best), or (at worst) damaging or losing a relationship that was important to you.

In the interest of making sure you can stand behind your feelings, I recommend that you pay some attention to the subject of thought. Thought provides a sense of the ‘big picture’ that feelings can never provide. Feelings tend to focus on ‘right now’—right this very second. Thought, on the other hand, helps us focus on facts that might not feel important or relevant in this very moment, but might well become relevant in a few seconds, minutes or days. Maybe you feel like yelling at a friend, spouse or other important person. Yet, if you hold your tongue, back up and regroup, you might consider the impact of verbal abuse on this person you supposedly care about.

Rational thought can also help you evaluate the practical advantages and disadvantages of lashing out at a stranger. There’s the safety factor and the humanity factor; not to mention how you’ll feel after you overreact to a stranger’s actions. Somebody’s irritating behavior on the road, in the grocery store, on the beach or at a restaurant could simply be ignored. Is there a need for escalation? Probably not. You can be minimalist and ultimately more effective by simply pausing ‘ and thinking.

Saying what you feel without first putting some calm, rational thought into it is like expecting to buy something for nothing. It’s like wanting people to respect your point of view without your having to provide reasons or facts to back it up. When you blindly say what you feel, you are, in a sense, trying to ‘sell’ an idea or a perspective that’s your own. You want someone to honor it, agree with it—or at least acknowledge it. That’s fine. But you have to consider the person ‘buying’ what you have to sell. Is he or she going to accept it merely because you say so, or that you want it that way? I doubt you would do this, so why expect it of someone else?

There are all kinds of ways to keep your feelings in check while still being true to yourself. Before sending an emotional email, write it out and send it to yourself first. Sleep on it. Give it an hour or a day. Review it. Make sure it REALLY says what you want it to say—in the short- AND the long-run. Before having an important, emotional conversation with a boss, friend or spouse, rehearse it with somebody else. Or write a letter to that person without sending it.

The point here isn’t to rehearse your words so much as the thinking process behind the words you will eventually say. Always consider the point of view of the person to whom you’re going to speak. And never underestimate them! Writers are taught to ‘consider their audience.’ In the same way, your personal emotions are all well and good, but if you don’t give some thought to the perspective of the person to whom you’re expressing those emotions, he or she isn’t going to hear you.

So, to repeat a metaphor I used a few years ago on these same pages: ‘Make sure your brain is in gear before you engage your mouth.’