When feelings aren’t your best guide

Today, an article was posted on the ABC news website, which, amongst other things, referenced the rise of modern Stoicism, and one professor’s advice that we “stop navel gazing” and just get on with things (“Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze”, by Mira Adler-Gillies, referencing an interview with Danish psychologist Professor Svend Brinkmann, who leads an ‘anti self-help movement).

While much of Professor Brinkmann’s theory is dismissive of the very beneficial outcomes that can be found when we start taking a good, long look at ourselves, he made some valuable contributions to the argument that positive thinking isn’t everything, and how the relentless pursuit of happiness might lead us to the very opposite of what we seek.

And it got me thinking about the difference between ‘thought’ and ‘feeling’ and how they relate to positive action.

When we take action, we tend to act less on our thoughts and more on our feelings. Anyone who has ever made a decision to start or stop a particular behaviour, and then found that once the moment arrived they didn’t end up following through, will know the truth of this.

These days, we are all encouraged to ‘go deep’: to get in touch with our feelings and take action based on how we ‘feel’. Much of the self-help ‘industry’ and associated professions rest all their bikkies on this very idea: if you feel into it, you’ll know what to do.

You know that when something feels good, it’s often a pretty good guide that we should keep doing more of that thing.

And in hindsight – when we’re looking back with all the information gained from lived experience – we can pretty easily identify that something either “felt right all along”, or “didn’t feel right”.

But if we want to make a change, and we don’t have all the lived experience, feelings might not always offer the best guide of the action to take.

If, for example, you decided today that tomorrow morning you were going to get up 30 minutes earlier so you could go for a 20 minute walk, you might not ‘feel’ like it when your alarm goes off, but do you think you’ll feel regret 30 minutes later? Will your feelings be any less reliable having done the doing of it 30 minutes later when you’re walking back in the door having followed through?

Focusing only on our positive feelings (or seeking only to have positive feelings) might mean we miss out on that which we seek, whereas taking positive action in the face of negative feelings might give us exactly what we’re after.

So, by all means stand firm…but don’t get stuck. Sometimes follow the thought and not the feeling. There is great power in recognising that with some things the good feelings arise out of doing the things we know to be right for us, rather than waiting for the good feeling to be there first.

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