Warning: What You FEEL Might Not Be REAL!

A Delaware Wave reader emails, “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?”

Oh, Dear Reader, there’s more to life than just feelings. Yes, emotions are part of who we are, and to deny them can be unhealthy. But feelings are not necessarily facts, and it’s just as wrong to give words to your feelings without any regard for reality.

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 saying what you feel, but that you’re not backing up those feelings with thought. Feelings are fine, and there are times and places for expressing them. But you don’t impulsively blurt out what you’re feeling without first giving yourself time to think.

This is particularly important with email, texting and all the rest! People tell me over and over about 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.” Email offers instant gratification in an age of “attention deficits” — real OR imagined. But instant gratification comes with a price. You could end up feeling foolish (at best), or (at worst) damaging a relationship.

To make sure you can stand behind your feelings, pay attention to the subject of thought. Thought provides the “big picture” that feelings can never provide. Feelings tend to focus on “right now,” but thought helps us focus on facts that might not feel relevant at the moment, but could become relevant in a few seconds, minutes or days. Maybe you feel like yelling at a friend or other important person. Yet, if you hold your tongue, you might consider the impact of verbal abuse on this person you supposedly care about.

Rational thought can help you evaluate the 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 often be more effective by simply pausing and thinking.

Saying what you feel before putting 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 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 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?

There are ways to keep your feelings in check. Before sending an emotional email, write it out and send it to yourself first. Sleep on it. Give it an hour or a day. Make sure it REALLY says what you want it to say — in the short- AND the long-run. Before having an important, emotional conversation, rehearse it, or write a letter without sending it.

The point isn’t to rehearse your words as much as the thinking behind the words. Always consider the point of view of the person to whom you’re going to speak. Writers are taught to “consider their audience.” 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, I’ll repeat a metaphor I occasionally use to make this point: “Make sure your brain is in gear before you engage your mouth.”