Why We Can’t Trust Our Feelings

I’m a fairly emotional person. Actually, if I’m being really honest, I’m very emotional. I can experience very intense feelings – both good and bad – all in the same day and sometimes even in the same hour. Sometimes that is a good thing because they help me experience positive situations intensely but the flip side is I also experience the negative ones very deeply.

For much of my life I’ve pretty much followed my feelings wherever they took me. Sometimes they have taken me to a good place but more often than not that hasn’t been the case.

My mom used to say that feelings are the caboose, meaning in most situations they are the last thing that should be considered or trusted. I always kind of brushed off that wisdom but in the last couple of years I’ve discovered, as in so many other situations, she was right. While I do believe our emotions are an important and valuable resource in helping us experience life (both the ups and downs), I’ve come to believe that in many situations we cannot trust them, especially the negative ones.

“Putting the brakes” on our emotions is hard work – like climbing up a wall . But it is worth it and it gets easier with time.

Certainly there are circumstances where our “gut reaction” is right and we need to follow it. Those feelings tend be grounded in reality and can be trusted much more. For example, if you are walking down the street and see an angry dog growling, you will feel scared and be tempted to turn and walk (or run) the other way which is probably the right decision.

But so often our feelings are actually quite detached from reality and because of that we need to be wary of how much we trust them.

In an article published in Psychology Today, Dr. Leon F. Seltzer puts it this way:

“….any present-day susceptibility to an emotion originates from some past experience(s) that we’ve never had the opportunity to adequately resolve. In a sense, all of us are “taught” how to feel as a result of prior learning. Because our minds work through analogy and association, whenever a situation reminds us, consciously or unconsciously, of a disturbing event from the past, we’re compelled—or better, “cued”–to respond to that situation just as we did earlier.

The here-and-now experience may be only coincidentally related to the past one. There may be no meaningful connection at all between what just happened to us and what we experienced years ago. But if the present-day circumstance “triggers” us, we’ll still react to it as though it were a recurrence of the original situation. Regressing to an earlier emotional state, in the moment our rational mind is impaired, unable to function logically. In short, in such instances our emotions do not derive from the current circumstance–and are, therefore, not to be trusted.”

As a Christian I would take it a step further and say that often the devil throws bad thoughts and feelings at us as well to derail us and he’s very sneaky about it. In 2 Corinthians 2:14 it says that …. “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light,” meaning he tries to imitate the Holy Spirit in the messages he flings at us making it even more difficult to discern what is true.

So what do we do?

One of the most powerful realizations for me has been the fact that our thoughts tend to control our emotions but that we can change our thoughts so they don’t have to control us. Like a muscle, through practice and exercise, our brains can be strengthened to think better. In the in Romans 12:2 this process is described as being “transformed by the renewal of your mind…”

On a practical level there are many things we can do to proactively transform our minds. One of the most helpful strategies for me is being intentional about what I put in my mind. That means trying to read, listen to and watch things that build me up as much as possible. I’m definitely not perfect at it but I try as often as I can to choose things that will strengthen my mind and not tear it down.

However, when we’re caught in the throes of negative emotions it can be super hard to keep the right perspective and not let our feelings take over.

Here is what Dr. Seltzer’s suggests we do in those situations:

“…whenever our emotions start operating independent of our rational faculties—or literally “take us over” (as in catapulting us into the throes of a negative transference reaction or a bad panic attack)—we need to learn how to calm ourselves down and reconnect with the more evolved parts of our brain. We must learn how to hit the brakes when our feelings become exaggerated or start careening out of control.”

Again there are many ways to “hit the brakes” on our feelings but here are a few that have worked for me:

  1. Gently redirecting thoughts either back to the present
  2. Taking several long deep breaths
  3. Getting moving and doing something positive like going for a walk, playing an instrument, etc., instead of dwelling on the situation
  4. Reciting a favorite Bible verse or quote that is encouraging and truthful
  5. Praying and asking God to take care of the situation that is causing the negative emotions then trusting him with it

Like all new skills, learning how to put the brakes on our emotions and think well is difficult at first but gets easier over time. Each time we do it we are strengthening our brains to think better in the future. So if you struggle with this like I do, hang in there and keep at it because brighter times are coming!