Friday, November 22, 2013

Feeling deeply, Thinking clearly

Have you ever thought about people who fall on either side of two extremes – the over-thinkers and over-feelers of the world? And drawn the conclusion that the reason the over-thinkers cannot feel is because they think too much. And the over-feelers cannot think because they feel too much. But is this always true? Are feeling and thoughts as antagonistic to each other as we’ve been taught to believe? 

In his wonderful book, Honoring the Self, Nathaniel Branden delves deep into our psyches to answer these questions. What he emerges with are insights that give us a new understanding of how our thoughts and feelings interact with each other. Branden starts by saying: “Feelings are often the first form in which we become aware that something is wrong with our life. We need thought in order to know what to do, but feelings often alert us to the existence of a problem.” If our response to these uncomfortable feelings is to suppress or ignore them, then we effectively cut ourselves off from awareness. This disowning of our feelings muddies our thinking. Since we are unable to integrate the knowledge that our feelings contain, our only option is to keep on living in a pre-programmed, automatic way. Branden says: “In the area of our personal life, if we cannot feel deeply, it is very difficult to think clearly. This is contrary to the notion that thinking and feeling are opposed functions and that each entails the denial of the other.”

Naming and owning our feelings, instead of banishing them to our unconscious, is an act of courage and honesty. To describe our feelings correctly, to say “I am angry or sad or hopeless at this moment” is not self-pity. What is self-pity is when we make a statement like: “I am in a hopeless situation.” In the first case, we own the truth about what we feel. In the second, we are making, what Branden says is, “a statement of alleged fact.” Most of us have never been taught to make this important distinction. While self-pity is destructive, owning our feelings means that we accept our painful experiences. When we can acknowledge them, we also have the option of working to confront and resolve them. Branden says: “We cannot liberate ourselves from that which we have never experienced; we cannot leave a place that we have never been.” 

So, how do we access blocked feelings? While this is a unique process for each of us, if our wounds are deep and ancient, it often requires professional help. The first part of this process, however, is simple and profound. Branden says: “Opening the breathing is generally the first step to opening the feelings.” Deepening and being aware of our breath creates a stillness in which we stop running away from our emotions. In this space, our emotions can actually register in our conscious experience. This is one of the reasons why meditation is such a powerful practice – it can help release buried feelings. But Branden gives us advance warning - in the beginning, because of its emphasis on breathing and being still, a meditative practice can cause emotional outbursts that we can perceive as highly threatening. The sludge is being brought to the surface. It is often only at later stages that meditation leads to calm. This means that a meditation teacher who can guide us through this process is invaluable – we need a guide who can help us navigate the hills and valleys of our emotional experience.     

Once we’ve made our way through, we come to a place of greater freedom. We’ve courageously owned parts of ourselves that we’d abandoned. We’ve mourned losses that were buried deep in our psyches. We’ve confronted uncomfortable feelings like anger and released them in healthy ways. It is only through releasing feelings stuck deep in the body, can we ever hope to transcend them. As feelings are experiences and released, the shadows that they cast on the mind are also cleared. We no longer deny parts of ourselves. We can acknowledge the truth of our experience. And when we can do that, we can see our experience more objectively. Basically, we think more clearly. Then, finally, we are in a place where we are free to choose our actions – where we can act in conscious, autonomous ways instead of the mechanical, conditioned ways we’ve been taught.


  1. This is an interesting post though my take has usually been to keep feelings and action separate. I feel that I can make more sound decisions if I am thinking rather than feeling. I guess what scares me is that if one opens themselves to feelings it might be like opening a can of worms or Pandora's box and which might take a lot to be undone. Entire life might be spent digging through those feelings and in the mean time opportunities would be lost as life passes by.

  2. The question then comes is when are you allowed to feel? If you keep your feelings separate from your thinking all the time, and suppress the feelings in this quest to think clearly, when are we allowed to act on how we feel? Is it then wrong to feel, especially if you cannot act on how you feel? Then we are only living a mechanical life.

    1. Those are good questions and I don't have an answer. I agree though that I have been guilty of suppressing my feelings and at times it can feel like a mechanical life.

      A balance between feeling and thinking is needed but from my experience I have seen people gravitate to one extreme or the other.

    2. Yes, people do tend towards the extremes. I think neither repressing/cutting off feelings nor being consumed in them is healthy. The first means you don't have access to valuable information, the second means that you become identified with them. It is a tricky balance.

  3. Interesting post! I do agree that feelings are a good warning signal, ignore them at your peril. I've found that when I ignore feelings, I end up feeling more angry and resentful later, that it snowballs. So, it seems better to heed feelings and take action early, than repress them and watch them blow up.

    But I also believe that not all feelings are important and warrant too much thought and in fact, too much attention. They're transient, and in fact, focusing on them makes them larger than they deserve. So, it's also important to not sweat the small stuff and take a deep breath and release the feelings.

    And lastly, I think some other feelings are actually the result of not thinking ahead. For example - not planning ahead and then feeling frustrated or overwhelmed when everything needs to be done at once. In these cases, I think it's best to pre-empt these feelings :)

    Again, thought provoking post! :)

  4. Thanks ! Yes, I agree. When feelings give information, they are really helpful. If something makes me angry or discounted, then I know it's important to me. I also agree that some feelings are transitory and it's not good to focus on them. Sometimes, I tend to identify too closely with my feelings, and that's bad.

    It's interesting you say that about feeling overwhelmed. I think that needs to be part of my happiness project. I also think I read somewhere that HSPs need to attend to the small, every day irritants first and then you can concentrate on what you want. That's something that seemed counter-intuitive to me, but I think it's true. Planning and avoiding feelings of overwhelm and frustration would really contribute a lot to my happiness.

    There's no one way to deal with feelings. I guess that's what makes it so tricky.

    1. Ritu... I dont know if i told you but this is something which has been golden in my life...
      Feelings and Thinking are kind of inseparable... Correct me if i am wrong on this... I read somewhere that our brain is divided into two hemispheres.. one which processes information and the second which makes sense of it ... simplifies so to speak--- on moral terms....Good/Bad.. Love/Hate... Clear/Unclear..Like/Unlike..Fair/Unfair.. And then comes the feelings part...
      I guess what i wanted to say was feelings come basic information!!..

      But note this... naming feelings is helpful.. gives us a sense of self awareness..But what state are we in when we name our feelings... What is it that disturbed/or made me happy ??/ Information??//Why??// --- Name your feeling!!..

    2. Another thing i sometimes practice... feelings are entegral to who we are!! / they are precious... // protect your heart.. DO NOT LET THEM LEAD YOU!!!

    3. Yes, I completely agree. I think that's what I am working to learn as well Hersh, to not be led by my feelings. Feelings are precious, but they can also be transient and make us reactive if we just follow them everytime. That makes you weak, and less purposeful. Also, it makes you hold on to things longer than required.

      Yes, naming our feelings is very important. It can be very hard though. If we've buried our feelings, it's hard to feel and name them. I think feelings and thinking are inseperable because if you deny your feelings, you deny the truth and distort your thinking.

      Thank you for sharing Hersh!

    4. Just wanted to add something....

      More than naming your feelings i tend to know why is it that i am feeling what i am feeling...!!! And instead putting new adjectives to feeling.. i try to have a dichotomous view on feeling-- like/unlike!! .. what is it thats to good /bad... this leads me to objectivity!!!

      Does it make any sense to u??

    5. No, I didn't quite understand. Do you mean seeing the reason behind your feelings helps you think about them objectively and put them into perspective ?

  5. not the reason... For example... in a conversation.someone calls my point of view "studip" or "too idealistic..." .. i dont like the feeling i get... [I am 'hurt or irritated'].. i ask myself why did it hurt/or irritate me.. The entire process gives me so much information..using one part of the brain!! that leads me to make a mora judgement..[from the other part of the brain].. which leads me feelings!!