I recently got into a discussion about the appropriate use of emotions in making important decisions with my daughter Brittany. Several points that I have never written about or which were touched on only briefly in prior posts were discussed in our conversations. I think you will find our conversation on this topic useful as she raised some questions that I’m sure some of you also would raise if you had the opportunity.
My first note to Brittany
I’ll start with a note I sent to my daughter Brittany recently after she had said something about the importance of considering our emotions when making a decision:
Here’s the thing about reason and emotion. What makes sense rationally will continue to make sense forever. The logical answer doesn’t change from day to day.
On the other hand, what you feel today you are unlikely to continue to feel forever, no matter what the feeling is. Feelings come and go. What makes rational sense does not.
Also, you have no control over your feelings; in other words, you are not sure what is causing them, where they came from, how long they will last. It doesn’t make sense making decisions (especially on something that will have a big impact on your life) on something as ephemeral as emotions.
If you do what makes sense and it doesn’t work out, at least you can say: it made sense at the time. If you ignore what makes sense and act totally on your feelings and it doesn’t work out, you are likely to feel like a fool for acting on your feelings after the feeling is long gone.
Britt’s comments and my response
Here is Britt’s response to that note and the email I sent her (my response to her is in red and in parenthesis):
Very nice note. I think everything you are saying makes sense. I will, however, add that sometimes emotions are just as important as logic. Sometimes our emotions tell us how we feel about things, uncover what we actually want or can act as roadmaps to help us better understand ourselves.
(By definition, our emotions tell us what we feel about things, but they are unlikely to tell us what we actually want. Emotions are automatic and unconscious meanings we give to meaningless events. For example, they have us get angry at things that never happened, for example, someone not doing what we asked occurs to us as they don’t love us, which has us get angry, when that is not what the person meant at all).
I know you disagree with this, because feelings are only caused by the meaning we give to meaningless events, but unfortunately, logic doesn’t always lead us making decisions that will fill our lives with joy.
(That’s true. We can certainly make mistakes using logic to make decisions. But the chance of making a decision that serves us well in the future is more likely using logic than emotion.)
By logic, I might not make many of the decisions that have made me extremely happy or provided me with invaluable learning experiences. It was not logical for me to move to San Diego (after we graduated from college) with no money rather than living with you guys or Erik’s (Britt’s fiancé) parents while we made money. But this is the best learning experience I could have imagined. Plus, we would be stuck somewhere we didn’t want to be, living with none of our own space, and we would probably be far worse off.
(Actually given how responsible you are and your ability to have things turn out for you, moving to San Diego made perfect sense. You could have predicted that it would be an incredible learning experience and that you would have been unhappy living with us for many months without privacy.)
Flying to Europe without a schedule was completely illogical. I went to Europe and did not see the Sistine Chapel! Who does that? But, I got to experience complete freedom. I can think of countless examples where I acted out of emotion and not logic and I am so grateful for those choices. If I followed all the logical paths I could have I would not be who I am today.
(You can visit Europe with or without a schedule; neither is the logical thing to do. It depends on your preference and given your preference for “freedom,” it made sense to do what you did. Given your values and what was important to you, not seeing the Sistine Chapel and going where you felt like going every day made total sense. Perhaps you were doing what you felt like doing at the time, but you knew you were acting consistently with your values, not with emotions you didn’t understand or that were inconsistent with your values.)
That does not mean that people should not consult logic. Acting without thinking is never smart. But, consulting logic and emotions and taking them both as valuable guides is what I believe.
(Almost all fear is the result of unconsciously-created meaning and rarely is there a real threat to your life. Taking the fear as a guide to action will rarely prove useful in the long run. Wanting very much to do something tells you nothing about whether it is good for you or not. That feeling of desire is the result of a meaning you created unconsciously and probably came from beliefs you are unaware of and which are never “the truth.”
(If you can trace your feeling of desire to a consciously created value, that’s useful information. For example, if you consciously value spontaneity, then traveling without a schedule and specific plans is consistent both with your feelings and logic. If you aren’t aware of the source of the feeling and the meaning that caused it, then the feeling tells you nothing you can use to make a decision, especially an important one.
(I know that strong feelings feel like “this is me,” especially if you are emotionally kinesthetic and identify with your feelings. Nonetheless, we have feelings; we aren’t our feelings.)
But, I just want to suggest, that maybe while logic stays and emotions generally don’t, sometimes emotions and feelings might be more valuable than you think. That’s all. Love you lots and talk to you at 3. Xoxo
(If you start with your feelings and then check and see if they make logical sense—and if you know where the feelings came from, that’s fine. Making decisions based solely on feelings and ignoring logic is a long-term recipe for disaster. Love, DAD)
Britt disagreed with my response.
Shortly after Britt read my response she called me and said: “I disagree with you totally.” She went on to argue the points she disagreed with and ended the conversation by exclaiming in frustration when she couldn’t convince me of her point of view: “You’re in a box the size of a pea!”
Was Brittany right? Was I not being open to another point of view? After a lot of careful reflection, I don’t think so. But her comments made me realize that I hadn’t responded to all her questions and disagreements as completely as I could have. I hadn’t presented my case as completely as possible.
So here are a few of the points I hadn’t covered completely in our exchange of notes:
1. Britt said that she trusted her intuition and I wasn’t taking that into account. Although it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between emotions and intuition, there is a big difference between them.
Intuitions are usually experienced as information (which can cause a feeling). Intuition is thinking something is true without conscious evidence, or expecting something to happen, etc. The intuition is generally in the form of a thought that seems to be true, such as, going on this trip is going to be a disaster or we ought to decline this party invitation as we probably won’t have a good time. The prediction-like quality of an intuition can be experienced as a feeling, but it clearly is very different from a specific emotion like fear, anger, and guilt.
2. As I’ve written before, we can choose our values (which are merely a type of belief) consciously knowing they are not “the truth,” but nonetheless deciding that they are how we want to live our lives. So we can consciously decide to value telling the truth, respecting other people, and not harming others.
Once we have done that our emotions can tell us if we are living consistently with our values. In such a case, we know where the emotion is coming from and can decide to give validity to the emotion because it is based on a consciously-chosen value belief.
That is totally different from an emotion that automatically arises from an unconsciously generated occurring/meaning, which is turn is primarily caused by beliefs we were not conscious of forming and which are never “the truth.”
3. The next point I made, which is related to the prior one, is that if you take the time to find the source of your emotion and conclude you consciously agree with it, then you can use the emotion as a guide to action. In such a case however, you are not really being guided by the emotion but the meanings and beliefs that generated the emotion that you have consciously identified and carefully considered.
4. Here’s what might have been going on with Britt and others who sometimes want to hold on to their emotions so desperately. As I wrote in an earlier post, we often want our emotion to validate our occurring. In other words, if an event occurs to us as dangerous and we feel fear, in some way we want the fear because it validates our emotion of fear. Similarly, if we say someone wronged us and we can’t do anything about it and we feel anger toward that person, in some way we want to experience anger because it “proves” that our appraisal that we were wronged is valid.
5. Nothing I’ve said is meant to invalidate emotions. I am not saying emotions are bad or even irrelevant. I am only saying that emotions, as such, should never serve as the primary basis for making a decision.
This post is unlikely to be the last word between my daughter and me on the relationship between emotions and logic/reason and when (if ever) it is appropriate to rely on emotions when making decisions. I’m sure that many of you still have some questions about my point of view. But this is a good start.
Thanks for reading my blog. Do you agree or disagree with the points I made in this post? Why? Do you have something to add? Your comments will add value for thousands of readers. I read them all and respond to as many as I can.
I’ve written several earlier posts about emotions: why negative ones are unnecessary, how they are the result of the meaning we give meaningless events, etc.
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Copyright © 2012 Morty Lefkoe
Use this information to improve your life
The next time you notice a decision of yours is being influenced by a strong emotion, do the following:
1. Ask yourself if you are having an intuition about what you should or should not be doing, in other words, a thought with information, or is there a very specific emotion like fear, anger or guilt?
2. If it is a clear emotion, determine what meaning you have given the event that is causing the emotion.
3. Notice if some part of you wants to hold on to the emotion to justify some meaning you have given the situation.
4. If you make a clear distinction between the event and the meaning, the meaning will dissolve along with the emotion it has caused.