Intellect vs. Your Emotions — What to Do?

People say this all the time: ‘I know, intellectually, that such-and-such is true. But I don’t feel it.’

The next question is usually, ‘How can I make myself feel it?’

This is what reasonable people often expect a psychotherapist to do for them.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way. The first thing to do when you notice a conflict between your intellect and your emotions is ask, ‘What, precisely, do I feel?’ Lower all inhibitions and be brutally honest with yourself. Because what you feel is what you truly, really think.

For example. ‘I know, intellectually, that envy is irrational and immature. But when I see my friend has something that I want, I feel envy. How can I make my emotions become rational?’

That’s not the way to go about it. Your emotions are telling you something. In this case, your emotions are telling you, ‘My friend has something that I wish I had, and I don’t like it.’ This must mean that you really think others’ success is a threat to your own.

‘But I don’t think that. I don’t believe others’ success is a threat to my own well-being.’ Yet if your emotions are ones of envy, there must be some part of you that really does think that.

In other words, what you call the conflict between your intellect and your emotions is actually a conflict between two competing ideas.

In this case, the two competing ideas are: (1) Others’ achievement is no threat to my own well-being; and (2) Others’ achievement is a threat to my own well-being. The first idea leads to emotions of happiness or admiration for another’s success. The second idea leads to anxiety and envy.

You’re divided on this issue. No, you don’t want to be. But you are.

Alcoholics or smokers can relate to this. “My head tells me to quit. But I don’t WANT to.” The fact that you don’t want to means that you’re not really convinced it’s a good idea, or necessary, to quit. Stop saying you are convinced of the need to quit, because if you were convinced — you wouldn’t still want to do these things!

Another example is anger. “I’m not angry at Joe. But I feel angry. No, I don’t think he has done anything wrong. But I feel anger just the same.” Well, if you feel anger towards Joe, you DO think he has done something wrong. Maybe that’s a reasonable evaluation, or maybe it isn’t. But if you’re feeling anger and resentment towards him you DO think it — if you’re feeling it.

Actually, your emotions are telling you what you really think. On a deeper, more personal and more value-oriented level — since emotions are the way we actually experience values — your emotions are not lying to you.

Many people also say, ‘It’s hard to make my emotions consistent with my intellect.’ It’s actually not as hard as you think. Once we’re truly and deeply convinced an idea is true, the emotions usually follow without much difficulty. The most that’s required is simple reprogramming of what you already know and believe. The reason so many people find it so hard is because of fear. They fear and loathe the idea that they’re experiencing an emotion out of sync with their chosen value system. So they block it, until the anxiety grows so strong they develop psychological symptoms.

In humanistic psychology, Carl Rogers made a distinction between the ‘real self’ and the ‘ideal self.’ The ideal self is how you wish to see yourself; the real self is who you are, including on the emotional level. When the two conflict, a conscientious person feels afraid. Fear essentially sends out the message, ‘Danger! Danger! It can’t be so.’

The fear, while understandable, also leads the person to try and block out the undesired emotions. ‘I don’t agree with the emotion of envy. It’s childish and immature. That’s not me—not who I want to be anyway. I must not feel that.’

But the problem is, you do. Instead of trying to block out the feelings that are already there, it’s best to name them, identify them, give words to them. If you’re seeking a professional helper, that helper’s job is to assist you at doing precisely that.

Some conscientious people seek out a therapist in order to ‘make’ the undesired feelings go away. It’s like that old religious idea of what they call the ‘soul.’ The idea is that the soul is something which is ideally pure and clean. If you blemish it with bad thoughts or actions, it becomes ‘dirty.’ Religious practices (usually involving sacrifice or martyrdom to some degree) were designed to somehow ‘wipe’ the soul clean, kind of like waxing your car or cleaning off your dining room table.

Again, that’s not how it works! Instead of detaching yourself from the undesired emotions and trying to rid yourself of them, you ought to accept the difficult fact that these emotions—these presumably mistaken ideas—are part of you. If you want to root them out, you’ll first have to accept that they’re there.

Emotions are simply another form of thought, or ideas. Once you really grasp this fact, emotions will not seem like such a mystery. And they won’t seem so impossible to change or influence.


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