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The Function of Feelings
(You Mean There's a Point to All This Misery?)
What is the purpose of feelings?
From what our culture and families teach us about feelings, you’d think that they’re irrelevant or incidental to our well-being at best, that they have no valid function, and are merely annoying distractions. However, feelings actually do have a function—a crucial one—for everyone on the planet, today and throughout history. Hard-wired into us, they are an essential part of being human. Imagine a world filled with beings lacking emotions! The name for them is robots (even though some of them can mimic human affect.)
This brings up an important point: If we all have the capacity to feel, then feelings are neither accidental nor incidental and must have an evolutionary purpose.
The function of emotions is to tell us about our internal world, just as senses provide guidance in the external world.
Think about how grateful we are for our senses, how much we value the ability to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. We don’t get angry at our senses or try to ignore them. Instead, we accept them because we’ve figured out their purpose: to help us negotiate the external world. Hurray for our senses! We’d be in a sorry state—maybe even dead—without them.
When it comes to feelings, though, we’re ready to close up shop and go fishing. Emotions scare, puzzle, and confuse us. They drive us to eat, shop, drink, starve, gamble, work, exercise, talk nonstop, live dangerously, and take drugs in order not to feel them. Imagine doing that to avoid your senses! Sounds downright silly, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s just as silly to avoid your emotions, because their purpose is the exactly the same as that of your senses: to keep you safe and out of harm’s way, to steer you toward what’s healthy and life-affirming, and deter you from what’s dangerous and life-threatening. Feelings point us towards what’s pleasurable and what’s painful so we can make appropriate choices.
Of course, both pleasure and pain are relative, arbitrary, and idiosyncratic to each person. That’s why some people are actuaries and some are mercenaries, why there are lion-tamers and librarians, why monks choose to live in a cloistered monastery, and archaeologists wing from continent to continent excavating ruins. People also have varying tolerance for pain: Some will complain at a hangnail, while others will ignore a migraine.
However, despite our differing innate and learned responses, we all share major commonalities. I’ve never met anyone who jumped for joy at the idea of going to the dentist or who didn’t go ga-ga over some kind of picturesque panorama. There’s good reason for this. We have a better chance at physical survival if we are biologically programmed to be highly sensitive to both pleasure and pain. Well, believe it or not, we’re also programmed for emotional survival—if we value and pay attention to them, our feelings will help us live and prosper. The bottom line is that both physical and emotional health are required to ensure the success of our species.
To sum up, you cannot live a happy, meaningful, satisfying life without experiencing the full range of feelings—good, bad, or indifferent. If you shut them off, you’re asking for trouble, because they’re the built-in radar system you need to interact effectively with the world. If you want to lead a rich and fulfilling life, accept that your emotions have a vital purpose and read on.
How do I know when I have a feeling or an emotion?
An emotion is a sensation that initially develops on a physical level. It can start out a bit vague and fuzzy, turn acute and sharp, erupt like a geyser, or surge over you like a tidal wave. Donald A. Norman, in a fascinating book entitled Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, distinguishes between affect and emotion. He says that affect is a vague sensation that may be either conscious or subconscious, but emotion is the conscious experience of such affect. "The queasy, uneasy feeling you might experience, without knowing why, is affect," Norman writes. "Anger at Harry, the used-car salesman who overcharged you for an unsatisfactory vehicle, is emotion."
Affect or sensation becomes emotion when we make meaning of it, that is, when we place a sensation in context and tack on a label. Affect takes us from the general to the specific—what we call emotion. In Norman’s example, we recognize the cause of our uneasiness (Harry and his greed) and the emotion it produces: anger (at him and perhaps at our ourselves for ignoring our gut reaction that he was a con artist from the start).
Both feelings (or affective sensations) and emotions (conscious identification of a feeling) are part of an organic process. You know you have a feeling when you notice a physical sensation that draws attention to itself. As you become aware of the nature of that feeling, you translate it into a particular emotion. One problem with this process, however, is that affects or feelings often run below our radar screen; we kind of notice them and kind of don’t. They flit into our awareness and are gone in a flash. And, even when we’re aware of a pounding heart, hollowness in our chest, constricted throat, dry mouth, or tense muscles, we often write them off as mere physical disturbances.
Feelings belong to our primitive defense system and are rooted in our collective biology and the history of the species. They are neurological, biochemical reactions that happen on a cellular level in response to stimuli. They don’t require thinking. A bear charges at you and you run like hell due to an innate response called fear. However, if you were Barney the Bear’s trainer and Barney lumbered over to you every morning as you set out his slab of breakfast meat, you might experience joy at being greeted by your furry friend. Your understanding of the context of the advancing bear influences your response, which, in turn, generates a specific reaction.
Here’s another example of affect and emotion. Say you used to be crazy about Ben and every time you saw him, your heart did cartwheels, your knees got weak, and your brain turned to maple syrup. Not surprisingly, you might have labeled this constellation of physical sensations as love or infatuation. But ever since you found Ben cheating on you, you see him and your heart starts to pound, there’s a knot in your stomach, your face grows beet red, and a surge of tingling energy shoots through your arms and legs. You now call what you feel hate. Same stimulus, different context.
You know you’re experiencing emotion when you’re not sick and your body, particularly your major organs—heart, lungs, and intestines—have a strong physical reaction to a stimuli.
Why won’t bad feelings simply go away?
The truth is, there’s actually no such thing as a "bad" feeling. By labeling a feeling negatively, what you mean is that it causes you to feel badly (that is, not pleasurably), or that experiencing it makes you feel as if you’re a bad person. Feelings are feelings, just as colors are colors and musical notes are musical notes (and food is food). Think of affects as clouds that have no intrinsic value; whether you welcome them or not is situation-dependent. A cloud blocks out the sun on a scorcher of a day in the middle of a ten-mile hike and you’re overjoyed for the respite. A cloud comes along while you’re sunbathing and you’re momentarily bummed out. How you feel about the clouds is relative, all in your perspective. The same is true of emotions.
If you’re wondering why feelings that generate discomfort—what you might call "bad" feelings—won’t go and stay away, that’s another question entirely and makes me wonder what you believe about emotions. If you believe you’re always supposed to feel good, then feeling bad is sure to upset your apple cart. You’re not supposed to feel good all the time; it’s simply not possible. You—we all—have a range of emotions that come and go and that’s the way life is supposed to work. If your colleague blames you for something that’s not your fault, you’ll probably feel misunderstood. If you’ve been ignoring your brother for months, you may feel ashamed or guilty; if your best friend steals your girlfriend, you’ll likely feel betrayed; if you didn’t get the job you thought was a shoo-in, there’s a good chance you’ll feel disappointed. In all of these instances, you’ll feel badly. But these feelings do eventually go away. Of course, the problem is that they’ll come back again in another circumstance because that’s the way the emotional ball bounces.
We only brush away our feelings if we don’t understand their function and value their purpose—if we forget that they exist, for the most part, to instruct us.
To become a whole, healthy person, you have to stop trying to avoid feeling badly and welcome all your emotions without judgment, no matter what they are.
It might seem hard to imagine right now, but perhaps some day you’ll be glad you can embrace feeling helpless, disappointed, sad, lonely, or confused. It will mean that you are functioning appropriately, that you possess the ability to be honest with yourself, that you’ve reached a high level of consciousness and emotional maturity, and that you no longer have to live in terror of what’s inside of you. Imagine what that would feel like!
I guarantee that understanding and experiencing your full range of emotions will change your life. You’ll no longer have to search in restaurants, supermarkets, the refrigerator, a co-worker’s candy dish, or your kitchen cabinets for emotional sustenance and nourishment. Happiness will no longer come in a box, bag, container, carton, jar, or can. It won’t arise from a magical number on the scale or the false pride and fleeting high of rejecting food.
By knowing what you feel, you’ll know what you need—calm and quiet, risk and excitement, a warm body, a hug, a challenge, to tell off your boss, space of your own, a piano, community, children, work, a good cry, a sense of accomplishment, to return to college, marriage, divorce, a vacation in the mountains, a puppy, to move to Alaska, to grieve your losses, to paint, a trip around the world, to dive head first into your future and shout, "Get ready ’cause here I come!"
Think of accepting your feelings as a "two-fer." You’ll be substituting a new feeling focus for your old obsession with food and you’ll be getting more out of life, to boot!