Sometimes Feelings Can Be Downright Dangerous

Have you driven on the highways lately? It seems to me that people are driving more aggressively than ever before. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I was sitting at a red light thinking about that very thing when a large pickup truck sped by — on the shoulder and around stopped cars – and ran the light. He never looked. He never slowed down. He could not have cared less.

This is not a tirade against irresponsible drivers. We’ll leave that to the editorial pages. This is about the fundamental psychological attitude that contributes to behaviors such as this. In philosophy it’s referred to as subjectivism. The basic idea of subjectivism is that moral judgments are subjective, i.e., based on nothing more than your feelings, with no concrete basis for what might actually be right or wrong.

The thought process at that intersection was simple: “It feels good to go fast in my really cool truck, so I will. Is there a possibility I might kill someone, or even myself? I don’t feel that at the moment, so it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t count if I don’t feel it.”

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

Good psychological health requires that our thoughts not be contaminated by subjectivism. Feelings are not always facts! Many of my clients find relief from their problems when they realize that we all have the right — indeed, the duty — to challenge our feelings and make sure they correspond to the facts. Straying from this can signal the beginning of mental illness, or at the minimum, unhappiness and frustration.

No, I’m not encouraging that we repress our emotions. Feelings are a critical part of the human experience. But 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 abuse their kids, and you ask yourself, “How could somebody do something like that?” you can be sure that subjectivism is lurking nearby. Most parents, if they’re honest about it, have probably felt like raising their hand against their kids at one time or another. But they don’t, because they know there are significant consequences for doing that. Worse yet, if the child sees that it’s OK for the parent to hit, then it’s OK for the child to initiate violence too. The difference between the abusive parent and the one who’s not is simple: The presence (or absence) of the subjective idea that, “I feel like doing this now, so I’ll do it.”

The same mindset is at work with people who abuse animals, don’t bother to pay their bills or verbally abuse others. It’s not that they consciously “decide” to think subjectively, as much as they just let it happen; not unlike letting your car or house deteriorate over time. You don’t keep up with the oil changes or the roof leaks, and then you wonder why you have problems. The same applies to mental health. If you don’t connect your feelings to reality, you end up causing pain to others and to yourself.

While whoever ran that red light felt like he was in control, he was actually undermining his ability to cope in reality. In fact, people who do things like that often don’t have much power in their lives anyway, so they desperately clutch at whatever moment of false competence that they can. And for a fleeting instant, it makes them feel good. Having the wisdom and maturity to look beyond immediate urges is good for your mental health. Refusing to do so can be hazardous — on the road, and in your life.