Free Will: The Engine of Mental Health

Q: Your ideas on psychology and self-help make sense. I know they are rational, but I don’t always feel them. My logic is rational, but my feelings are not. What am I supposed to do? Just ignore my feelings? What role can psychological counseling play, if any?


Dr. Hurd replies: This is what many people say to me (or themselves) when faced with an inner conflict. Think about what it means. In effect, you are saying: reality is no more important than my emotions. What I feel is just as important as what’s objectively true.

It’s almost as if you expect your feelings to be valid no matter how much logic and experience shows you otherwise. You need to change the way you look at your feelings — not just abstractly and intellectually, but step-by-concrete-step. Feelings are not blind guides to action. When your feelings are not self-defeating or self-destructive, you should of course indulge them guiltlessly. But feelings which bring objective pain or harm to your life should not be indulged. You should do everything in your power to correct them, challenge them and — above all —not act on them.

Of course you can’t snap your fingers and make this happen all at once. Psychological change requires time and effort. But it’s not impossible. Like anything, it requires a long-range focus and persistence.

Many mental health professionals love to tell you how you are powerless over your emotions. In one sense this is true. None of us have literal, direct control over our feelings. None of us can turn off, like a light switch, a desire to do something objectively self-defeating.

But it does not follow from this fact that we are helpless or powerless. Feelings are like tape recordings going off in your mind — sometimes very much against your will. It can be really difficult to turn off those tapes.

That’s why it’s more realistic to set the goal of ‘making new tapes;’ of recording new ‘tapes’ over the old ones. We all possess the ability to re-program our minds, where we judge it necessary and desirable. With repeated effort, we can replace the undesirable thoughts, ideas, and actions with ones we judge to be desirable.

Examples? Making and maintaining a hierarchy of priorities and values. Any of us can decide (with cool, objective detachment) what’s most important to us, what’s moderately important, and what’s minimally important. And then, when feelings (in the heat of everyday life) pull us in different directions from the hierarchy, we can revert back to the hierarchy. We
can all tell ourselves: ‘I’m going to do what I know is best for me — no matter what my feelings say.’

If working on your business is objectively more important to your life than an extra two hours of golf, then you can discipline yourself to put the business first. Not because someone else says so; but because you say so. After all, it’s your hierarchy of priorities. It’s all a matter of free will. Free will means choosing to think—and choosing to act in a way that advances your life goals, rather than undermining them. Free will is the engine of mental health.

Imagine, for example, that you are in a personal relationship with somebody who does not share your priorities. Perhaps you find the individual good looking, or charismatic. But he also likes to drink and party more than you do. He does not show much respect or interest in your career. He wants to stay out till 4 am on Saturday nights, while you want to get to bed earlier so you can spend part of Sunday building your new business or writing your book.

Your hierarchy of values tells you not to sacrifice your career interests for this man. Yet your emotions continue to push you to spend time with him, even more than you know is a good
idea. Should you follow your feelings, and allow them to take over? Or should you put your objective hierarchy of values first? Like it or not, there’s no escaping this responsibility. Putting mind over emotions is very hard in this Age of Feelings. The so-called experts tell us—or at least imply — that we merely need to talk about, be aware of, and accept our feelings. Supposedly, it’s that simple.

When your emotions are life-enhancing and not self-destructive, there’s certainly nothing wrong with following them. Indulge your life-serving emotions fully. But if the emotions are harmful to your life, and you know for sure that to act on them is counterproductive, then you need to pursue a different course. Action is also very important. Self-change is not only cognitive; it’s also behavioral.

If you feel like telling your boss off, even though you know you don’t have full evidence for your feelings, then don’t act on the feeling. If you determine that you have good reason to be angry at your boss, then: think about your evidence, rehearse a professional way to phrase your grievance, and follow through with your decision. The same applies to dealings with your spouse, your children, your parents—or whomever you encounter.

Failing to live by reason—not just as some remote intellectual abstraction, but every waking moment of your life — can have dire consequences. To cite an extreme example, look at the increasing violence in today’s schools. Children are increasingly taught that their feelings are what matter most. Some school districts, it has been documented, have even ‘readjusted’
the test scores of students to higher than they really are. (Why? To spare their feelings.)

Some students feel justified in taking this mistaken premise to its ultimate conclusion. If feelings are the most important thing in the world, and if you feel like shooting the classmates who get on your nerves, then what’s really so wrong about it? Nobody will be judgmental, that’s for sure!

No matter what you are told, you have free will. Be suspicious of people who deny or minimize the existence of free will—even if they are physicians or professors or mental health ‘experts.’ Always consider the source. Think critically, even when you’re vulnerable. What do the experts’ denial or minimization of free will say about them? Might it mean that they feel out of control of their own lives? If so, you probably don’t want to accept guidance or direction from them.

Or— worse yet—might the experts’ rejection of free will mean they like the idea of your depending upon them? And that one way to compel you to be dependent is to convince you that you are helpless and powerless? Think about it. Therapists, like anyone else, can have hidden agendas.

Don’t indulge in psychological snake-oil measures. Instead, work on finding ways to live according to your hierarchy of values and priorities. Accept the responsibility of free will; and enjoy the feeling of liberation it will bring you.

Seek professional help or counseling. There’s no more ‘weakness’ in doing so than going to the doctor for medical consultation. But seek psychological help from someone who wants you to live by your rational, independent mind, rather than by your blind feelings; from somebody who wants you to flourish, not collapse into dependence and despair.