May 11, 2008

Psych Clinic: Feelings vs. Actions

I was talking with some of my friends about something, and it turned into a really interesting discussion so I thought I'd bring it up here.

My contention was that there is "having a feeling" and there is also "acting on a feeling." I think sometimes the two things get confused: someone has a feeling and then says or does something that hurts or angers other people, and then wants to get away with it by saying they "can't help the way they feel." I say it's not an issue of "how they feel" but rather of "what they chose to do about it."

This is not to be mistaken for repressing or denying a feeling. No one is saying you can't fully appreciate all your feelings in all their glory. What we're talking about here is the decision to TAKE ACTION: saying how you feel, or acting a certain way because of the feeling. The action should sometimes be repressed or denied, if it is a wrong way to behave. You might feel like slamming someone to the ground, but you can fully experience that feeling without (a) slamming someone to the ground or (b) telling someone you feel like slamming them to the ground---both of which are actions, not feelings.

I thought we could come up with some more situations that contain examples of when it's "Feeling a Feeling" and when it's "Acting on a Feeling"---and when those actions are the good kind or the bad kind.

One of my friends came up with an excellent example about a baby shower she was invited to---that was taking place two weeks after she (my friend) had had a miscarriage. Another friend came up with another excellent example about her husband, who thinks they should share ALL their feelings with each other, in the name of "being honest." And my example had to do with venting about a friend's parenting method.

So let's look at all three examples, broken down into segments: The Feelings, some examples of actions that are appropriate ways to act on those feelings, and some examples of actions that are NOT appropriate ways to act on those feelings.

Baby Shower After Miscarriage

The Feelings: extreme sadness and disappointment over the loss of your baby; having a hard time focusing on anything else; jealousy of someone whose baby did not die; anger that your baby died; anger at people who are complaining about pregnancy symptoms; worry that this will keep happening

Rightly Acting on the Feelings: the friend it happened to had the good idea of not attending the shower but sending a gift (it isn't normally necessary to send a gift if you don't attend a shower, but in this case it's a particularly excellent gesture because it communicates that the staying-away is not from resentment of the other woman's happiness or a desire to reduce it); crying and talking with a friend you aren't angry at (that's a good way to filter for the ones who would be injured); crying and talking with your spouse; writing in a journal or talking to a therapist

Wrongly Acting on the Feelings: (1) attending the shower and spending the whole time slumped in a chair, non-smiling, running out of the room in tears, making everyone else feel terrible, sucking all the attention to yourself, or (2) not attending the shower, as in the "Rightly" section, but telling many, many people, including all the other shower attendees and also the guest of honor herself, allllllll your feelings on the subject, including the parts about being angry at pregnant women and resentful of their happiness

The feelings of jealousy, sorrow, anger and even the feeling of "not being able to be near someone else's happiness" are all normal, totally normal. The problem comes when people use those feelings as weapons to break down someone else's happiness or to draw attention belonging to others onto themselves. But of course talking about it with a spouse, or with a close friend who would not be injured (that is, NOT a pregnant friend, for example), or with a therapist, or with a journal--those are all good and appropriate ways to work through the feelings. And not attending the shower is not only perfectly understandable to anyone with half an empathy clue, but also a good way to prevent bad behavior.

Next example.

Friend With a Different Parenting Method

The Feelings: frustration when someone close to you has a radically different way of doing things; anger at a friend for saying things that seem critical or illogical; frustration at not being able to change a situation; frustration at a smug or critical attitude; frustration that your own point of view is misunderstood and/or considered inferior

Rightly Acting on the Feelings: ranting to your spouse; writing in a journal; talking with a friend who has a similar parenting method to your own; thinking things out and reminding yourself that there is no sense trying to change someone; reminding yourself that the situation can be seen differently from different angles (for example, your methods may be equally frustrating to your friend); reminding yourself that different methods work for different families; keeping the peace by keeping your mouth shut; realizing that arguing will go nowhere and will only make things unnecessarily unpleasant and you will be very sorry you said anything at all

Wrongly Acting on the Feelings: taking your anger at your friend and flinging it outwards in an attack aimed at everyone who uses a similar parenting method; venting your frustration publicly in a way that makes people who don't agree with you feel like they have to agree with you because you're "just venting"; saying hostile things that apply not only to the person you're actually angry with but also to many who are listening; acting as if it's okay to say hateful things just because you feel them when you're worked up; implying that the other person's method is wrong just because it disagrees with yours

Next example.

Sharing All Your Feelings With a Spouse

The Feelings: irritation; frustration; intense anger; occasionally wondering if you married the wrong person; occasionally feeling like you don't love your spouse anymore; occasionally wondering if you would be happier if you got a divorce; in moments of extreme agitation and anger, wanting to physically hurt your spouse

Rightly Acting on the Feelings: talking about it with a friend or therapist; cooling down; going for a walk or going shopping or going to another room; going to bed and seeing how things look in the morning; trying to solve the problem by saying what you'd like changed; telling your spouse you're so frustrated and angry about whatever it is; reminding yourself that marriages have ups and downs; blogging about it on a blog your spouse and his friends and relatives don't read

Wrongly Acting on the Feelings: physically hurting your spouse; telling your spouse you feel like hurting them; telling your spouse you wish you'd never gotten married; telling your spouse you want a divorce (when you don't literally want one); saying you don't love your spouse anymore; saying you hate your spouse; saying you wish your spouse was dead; telling your spouse's relatives or friends about the fight in the hopes of getting them on your side; blogging about it on a blog your spouse and his friends and relatives read

To sum up!

The FEELINGS are natural and normal. The ACTIONS are separate from the feelings.

The FEELINGS don't have to take other people into consideration: you don't need to think, "I shouldn't feel this way" or "I should feel this other way" (though I do think it's a good idea to keep a grip on how feelings relate to reality). The ACTIONS do have to take other people into consideration: you should think, "How is what I am about to do/say going to affect other people, and is that the effect I want, and is that the effect I should try to create?"

The FEELINGS are what they are. If you feel bitter and angry and hostile and resentful, you can try to talk yourself through it, and you can acknowledge where it's not rational, but that's about it. This is when the concept of "owning the feelings" comes into play: we can (and I think should) try to realize it when a feeling is irrational or unfair or not based in reality, and we acknowledge that and try to move on, and/or we wait for time to pass and dull the feelings. The ACTIONS can definitely be changed or modified to fit the situation: we should not use our feelings as an excuse to hurt other people, nor should we confuse "can't help the feelings" with "can't help the actions." We should not excuse our actions by saying that the actions are our feelings. They are separate, and we are responsible for our actions.

We are not responsible for our feelings. Feelings HAPPEN. We ARE responsible for what we DO with the feelings, and for how we EXPRESS our feelings, and to whom we express them, and in what context. We are responsible for how much we milk it. We are responsible for how much damage we do to others in the pursuit of making ourselves feel better.

Yay, psych clinic!


Jess said...

This is like one big PSA. A brilliant PSA. We should maybe turn it into a TV clip.

Nic said...

This is an awesome post. I cannot count the many ways in which I LOVE it.

Erin said...

I really like this discussion. It's not that I haven't thought about it before, but I definitely feel like I need to think about it MORE (like, incorporate this into my daily life more... like, concentrate on not acting on certain feelings...) because I can use some improvement on this front, no doubt. In summation: I needed this psych clinic. Thanks!

Jennifer said...

You are about a skillion times more articulate than I could ever hope to be. I'm sitting here in total agreement, yet could never be as eloquent on "paper".

Melinda said...

This post reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." - Viktor E. Frankl
I remember just being awestruck when I finally GOT that concept. You're awesome.

Mairzy said...

I enjoyed reading this very much. So many times we confuse Reaction with Response. I like the point that our feelings don't have to take others into account, but our actions do.

As for being "totally honest" in a marriage, that's never as healthy as it sounds. One of the reasons why I'm glad our church teaches confession to a priest is that I don't have to know all of August's thoughts and feelings, and he doesn't have to know all of mine.

Maggie said...

I swear you could have your own show! Or your own series of PSA's like Jess said. You are right that you can't help how you feel, but you are more than right when you say that you CAN help how you make other people feel.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes!! Now if I could just print this and hand it out in pamphlet form to many many many people I know (cough*family*cough) my world would be a better place. I think this is an ideal parenting tactic, by the way -- pose some theoretical situations to your kids and discuss as a family what the right thing to do is. Family Pysch Clinic Hour! I could start a new tradition.

fairydogmother said...

I just have to say thanks, because now I totally do not feel guilty for the two new pairs of shoes I bought earlier this week. They weren't a frivolous expense, they were a healthy way to deal with stress & relationship irritation instead of expressing every last ever-loving feeling to my partner. ;)

Plus I really DID feel better, and I actually did need one of them. Especially if I get the interview for the potential dream job that I'm going to submit my resume for later this week!

Tessie said...

Well, I struggle and STRUGGLE with this, as you know, in the context of my marriage.

My husband claims to WANT Brutal Honesty (which to me really just boils down to Brutality), but I think underneath what he's really saying he wants is total acceptance for who he is. Which I am happy to give him, WITHOUT THE HONESTY, but whatev.

the new girl said...

The doctor is IN.

Melospiza said...


And again, amen.

pseudostoops said...

My first love was an honesty always person, (I called it "feeling dumping") and it pretty much broke me. (Tessie- YES- brutal honesty just boils down to brutality for me too!) This post was a lovely, clear, cogent way of getting that point across. I wish I could make my old boyfriend read it.

Maggie said...

This post expresses so well what I've been struggling to teach my child. I want him to know that having feelings is fine because when I was a kid there was a lot of pressure never to be angry or sad. But he also has to understand what he does with those feelings is critically important. It's hard to learn. I think I'm going to have to print out the quote Melinda provided from Viktor Frankl and try to remember it next time my husband really pisses me off.

CAQuincy said...

I once listened to a huge drunken diatribe by a man who had just cheated on his wife. He claimed that his shrink justified the action because HE was the stay-at-home parent, the wife was a doctor and worked insanely long hours and was never at home and she apparently never paid attention to him or his feelings and that basically when communication breaks down like that, it's only natural for a person to "turn to" someone else who DOES. So...the cheating was HER fault.

All I could think of is how YES, you can FEEL neglected and cast-off and USED by your spouse and want to seek out those who DO pay attention to you, but it does NOT excuse the ACTION of going off and boffing the next door neighbor. You may not be able to control your feelings, but you CAN CONTROL your actions. He should have TALKED TO HIS WIFE about the problem. He should have KEPT IT IN HIS PANTS. And that therapist should be ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES.

Kelsey said...

This was a timely post for me because I just found out a very good friend is pregnant. I am so happy for her, but also having lots of weird feelings in relation because I know I will never be pregnant again and I'm still having lots of residual feelings about everything that happened during my last pregnancy. I have to remind myself over and over that my friend does not need to know that I am having these conflicting responses to her awesome news.