Why are feelings so important? [Blog post]

We are constantly drowning in data. This is something I realized a few years ago when I was jealous of my brother's fashion sense (the younger one, not the gorilla). I was trying to figure out why he was so good at knowing how to dress himself and it occurred to me that he was sensitive to fashion, colors, and whatever else goes into having good style. (Still have no clue, as I'm still wearing my flannel shirts from 1994.)

I, on the other hand, have never been sensitive to that stuff. When I walk down the street, I notice people, their moods, and the vibes they give off. (I don't like using the word "energy" because it immediately conjures images of people who need haircuts holding magical expensive crystals.) An architect notices structures; a designer notices branding; an officer notices safety conditions. All this information is around us, but we only attend to a small sliver of it.

I wasn't always like that. For years, I spent hours organizing ideas into logical structures. I saw ideas everywhere. So it was kind of bizarre when people started talking about feelings. Now that I'm in school for psychotherapy, my teachers talk about feelings even more, as if they're both the cause and solution to everything. Cue every therapist ever asking "how does that make you feel?"

There's been a trend in psychotherapy away from feelings and towards thoughts and behavior. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been instrumental in this shift, and so have insurance companies who demand evidence-based practices to avoid wasting money. The therapies that are supported by evidence are cognitive-behavioral (rather than emotionally-focused therapies). I can only venture a few guesses as to why this is the case. It may have to do with the fact that qualitative studies are not given merit when assessing the efficacy of a certain technique or style. I would also guess that clinical labs that producing evidence lean towards cognitive styles of therapy because most people who gravitate towards academia and research and head-strong--they may not believe feelings are that important in the grand scheme of things. Then again, maybe the other, emotionally-grounded theories and techniques just don't work as well.

So which is it?

I suspect it's both. On the one hand, some techniques in psychotherapy are based on outdated models of personality, development, and progress. A lot of theory is still locked in Freudian and post-Freudian thought, where unconscious, inner feuds drive interpersonal and intrapersonal dysfunction, and, where the therapist's only role is to evoke emotion (hence the robotic how are you feeling? questions). On the other hand, I believe that the expression of feelings is necessary, but not sufficient, for psychological progress. The reason why has to do with what causes, and ultimately soothes, psychological distress.

Think back to nearly any problem in your life or in your relationships that you've overcome. A fight with a partner, a dilemma in your career, a part of you that you hated. Now dissect it carefully. What helped you solve the problem? Ultimately, it was action or a decision, but that action and decision was preceded by a shift in your attitude, and that attitude shift was preceded by an emotional event.

Emotional events are moments where we merge with the feelings we're experiencing, rather than denying them. We let ourselves experience something even though it's intimidating. Sometimes it's the pain that you fear, other times it's the fear of losing control and the "edge" we've worked so hard to gain, even though it hasn't really helped.

Until we face our feelings, we're stuck in this state of overthinking and confusion. We're essentially trapped in a hallucination, where everyone is assigned a role in this cosmic drama: there's the victim, the perpetrator, and other satellite characters that play supporting roles. We can try and navigate that world of bullshit for years before putting it down and facing our real feelings.

That's not to say there aren't aggressors in the world. There are definitely people who are fucking up the world is very real ways. But it's impossible to see solutions as long as we fuse them with their aggressor-role, and us with our victim-role.

Facing your feelings--the sadness, the hurt, the anger--and sitting with it without any need to surpass it (that's the key) helps dissolve the role-thinking and open up new possibilities for growing and working with others.