The Evolution and Domestication of Feelings

Chapter 5a of Meeting the Voices in My Head and Searching for an Inner Adult

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I suspect I’m not going to find my Inner Adult in my feelings. There doesn’t seem to be anything adult about them. Good or bad, they are some of the most childish things I’ve got.

How can I be so down about feelings, you wonder; don’t shrinks always want to talk about them? I haven’t always been a therapist. When I was younger, I was a roofer, busting my hump, carrying packets of shingles up a ladder. I swung a hammer till my hand fell off. It was a hundred and ten on the roof, with no shade. If I thought about my feelings, I wouldn’t get the job done; I’d be under a tree, having a beer. Feelings do you no good when you’re putting on a roof. Feelings get in the way.

Each feeling I have is another little voice in my head. There’s anger, sadness, joy, fear, hurt, and a few dozen other ones. Most of the time, when I put on roofs, I had my feelings tied up and duct-taped in the basement of my mind.

How We Get Feelings

If I really want to live without feelings, I should go back to the way I was when I was a baby. I had no feelings then. Yes, you read that right. A newborn baby, who screams bloody murder whenever he wants something, has no feelings. Not in the strictest sense of the word. That cry you hear is an emotion, not a feeling. Ordinary people use those two words synonymously, but to psychologists, they’re different. An emotion is a hardwired and universal physical response to change. A feeling is the consciousness of it. Tears, a rising heart rate, a clenched fist, a stomach tightening, or a face reddening, they’re all automatic. The baby senses those things, but she doesn’t know what’s going on. Her cry is instinctual. The caretaker can regard her cry as a call or a reproach, but the baby doesn’t mean it that way. She doesn’t mean anything, she’s just reacting.

When my mother came to my crib to see what was wrong, the things she did then, and the way she did them, provided data to me about what was going on. If she changed my diaper and I felt better, then I learned my problem had been a dirty diaper. If she fed me and I became content, then I knew I had been hungry. This is the way I learned about my emotions and started to have feelings. Later, when I acquired language, I had words for all those feelings. The disgust of a dirty diaper, the pain of a rash, the hunger of an empty stomach, the powerlessness of not being able to help myself, the terror of being left alone, the bliss of hearing my mother’s loving voice, or apprehension when she was peeved, all became constructs that told me about myself, my feelings. I seized these constructs as something that saved me from the Abyss of having these sensations and not knowing what to do about them. I still depend on my feelings to tell me what is going on.

Foundational Thoughts

As time went on, I got to know my feelings and gave them all jobs to do. Fear became an important one. Its job was to keep me safe. I learned to associate danger with a rise in heart rate, a moistening of the palms, and a queasiness in the stomach. I established a scripted response to each feeling. In fear’s case, I had fight, flight, or freeze to choose from, depending on the details of the situation. Each feeling became another kind of bot in my brain, like my Parent Bots, programmed to take over my thinking and behavior whenever it was activated. If say, a tiger walked into the room, looked right at me, licked it chops, and roared, fear would take over and make me run away. That is often a good thing because there may not be time to sort out all I could do when confronted by a tiger.

Feelings get a bad name when they cause us to respond irrationally, failing to account for all the subtle factors that should go into making a decision. For instance, if I got tired working on the roof and my feelings decided I would knock off for the day, I’d have a very upset customer when it started to rain. Feelings always seem to forget something.

However, it’s a mistake to call feelings irrational or to set them up in a dichotomy of thoughts versus feelings. If a tiger walks into a room and I feel fear and run away, it’s not because fear is an irrational force, it’s because I’m acting on instructions necessitated by a prior, foundational decision. A long time ago I decided it was better to remain alive. I may not remember deciding to remain alive, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t done it. Anytime I choose to pay attention while I’m driving, I’m implicitly electing to remain alive. All those little acts of self-preservation reinforce my commitment to living.

This is another way of saying that feelings are the way I remember my basic values. Behind every feeling is a value. When I’m in love, my love represents a decision I made to choose this person and value her above the rest. Additionally, I committed myself to grieving when I chose to love. Grief was hidden in the fine print. I can’t value someone without feeling terrible when she’s gone.

I could go through all the feelings this way, but that would belabor the point. You’d get impatient with me, which is another feeling arising from a prior foundational decision. Time is too valuable to waste. The point is that my feelings are not opposed to thought, they are my first thought. My first thought is generally the best, but not always. Sometimes it needs to be refined.

Refining Feelings

No sooner did I learn about my feelings than I learned I’m sometimes wrong about them. Even my progressive, affirming parents educated me when it’s permissible to cry or not to cry by how they taught me the name and the structure of my feelings. The Parent Bots were the first managers of my feelings.

To show you how that works, let’s go back to the tiger that someone let into the room. In this case, the room is an indoor part of the zoo and there are stout bars between me and the tiger. He looks right at me, roars, and licks his chops. I’m safe, but my body, in its eagerness to stay safe, still reacts in a way that I call fear. It can’t help itself. But that’s not all that’s happening. No one around me is running from the tiger. They’re staying put. They even seem to value looking at the animal more than their own lives because they know they’re safe. That’s interesting. My body seems to be saying one thing and the Face of the Other, another. I decide to call my feeling something different to reflect this detail. Instead of fear, I call this feeling fascination, awe, wonder, dread, thrill, trepidation. It could be any of them. All these names of feelings are ways of capturing a precise combination of visceral response, situation, value, and scripted behavior at a highly granular level. All those variations of fear permit me to be stirred by the experience of seeing a tiger ten feet away, while not running in terror from the room.

The ability to make fine distinctions between various states of feelings is an important skill to have. That sensation in my stomach, is it hunger or a bellyache? With one, I’ll go for tacos, with the other, I’m chugging Pepto-Bismol. Just as soon as I began to acquire feelings in infancy, I was hard at work sorting them out, distinguishing shades of difference between one and another, coming up with new categories for the way I felt.

People with a large vocabulary of feelings have a lot more choices. They’re able to fine-tune their responses to situations, tailoring their reactions to the specific problem at hand. Many others, when asked them how they’re feeling, are either feeling fine or pissed off. This doesn’t give them lot of choices. Imagine a chef with a palette of two flavors to cook with, or a musician who could only play two chords. Some of these same people can tell you the make, model, and year of every car that passes them on the highway. They can debate the merits of every player in the NFL. There’s nothing wrong with their ability to distinguish small differences. Why can’t they with their own feelings? It can only be one thing. Something is interfering. They’ve chosen to discredit their feelings because their feelings give them too much trouble.

Confusion Over Feelings

Of course, having a large vocabulary does not prevent all problems. Sometimes people have so many feelings at once, they need to see someone like me to help sort them out and select the right one. For instance, the other day I saw a woman who talked about how her husband cheated on her. She had no shortage of strong, contradictory feelings on the matter. Anger, sadness, contempt, despair, shame, envy, fear, confusion, inquisitiveness, and guilt were all vying for control. I pictured them arrayed in the boardroom of her mind, quarrelling over which feeling’s perspective should prevail. One moment, rage has taken the floor, arguing for divorce, the next she’s blaming herself. I wondered, is there any one voice that can take control over all the feelings, or is she expecting me to do it for her?

I knew what was going on with her. She was re-experiencing the Abyss I described in Chapter One and she’s coping with it in the ways I laid out in Chapter Three. Her husband’s betrayal revealed the Security Blankets labeled Love, Marriage, and Commitment were empty. Her anger, contempt, and envy are none other but Firefighters, come to save the day by giving her the illusion of power. Her sadness, shame, despair, and confusion are the Fuck-Its, giving her the illusion she has agency. Her feeling of guilt and inquisitiveness are more Security Blankets, a way to cover up and explain everything.

It would be better if she called off the Firefighters and the Fuck-Its before they make a mess of things, and acknowledge this revelation is nothing new, we have always lived at the edge of the Abyss. She needs to know the truth about the emptiness of words, but then she needs to find something she can believe in. However, for her to do this, she would need to get control of these feelings. Some feelings should cease and desist, so that others could have their way. She either needs someone who can tell her what to feel, or she needs an inner adult that can handle all those squabbling feelings and make them behave.

The Domesticators of Feelings

When I listen to the voices in my own head, I find many that attempt to manage my feelings. Most of the time, they keep a tight leash on them, as they did when I was working on those roofs. There are many parts of me that lend a hand. Chief among them are my Simulated Parents and bots of other important people in my life. They are the voices that name, define, and refine my feelings. But, at other times, when there is a riot of feelings and when they are vying for dominance, so loudly I can’t even think, then no amount of defining or refining will do me any good. I need some part of me to take control. I need a domesticator of feelings.

There are two ways to exert influence. There’s force and there’s magic. Force is the use of brutal violence, threat, intimidation, ultimatum, or suppression to get what I want. I can use force with other people, or parts of me can force other parts of me to comply. I was using force up on the roof when I silenced parts of me that wanted to stop working. Force is what I use when I don’t know magic, or before I knew what magic really was.

Magic is not what it seems. It appears to be something supernatural, but the magician understands nature better than anyone and subtly works with it to achieve the desired effect. I can work magic when I know how to give the other party what it wants.

Take, for instance, when I’m walking my dog. There are two ways of walking a dog if I don’t want the dog to be walking me, pulling me around the neighborhood from squirrel to squirrel. I can use force and drag him around by his leash, beat him when he pulls back, and scream at him if he even looks at a squirrel. That method will work, but at the cost of making your dog fear you. The other method is to learn to think like a dog, anticipate what he’ll do, and utilize his loves of treats and attention to train him to behave the way I want.

I have the same two approaches with domesticating my feelings. I can boss them around, denigrate them, discredit them, and punish myself for having them; or I can learn what values my feelings stand for, anticipate what will trigger them, and enter into a covenant with them that makes us both happy. Let’s go through an experience I had so you can see what I mean.

Next Week: Fear at the Grand Canyon

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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