The way we deal with emotion is the most frequent source of difficulty in our relations with others. Although feelings about other people and about ourselves are happening 100% of the time, most of us have not yet learned to accept and use our emotions constructively. Not only are we uncomfortable when others express strong feelings, in addition, most of us do not even recognize, much less accept, many of our own feelings.
We know, intellectually, that it is natural to have feelings. We know that the capacity to feel is as much a part of being a human being as is the capacity to think and reason. We are not aware of incompleteness in the one who seems only to think about life and does not seem to feel—to care about, enjoy, be angered and hurt by what goes on around him. We know all this, and yet we often act as if feelings are disruptive, the source of obstacles and/or problems in living and working with other people.
However, it is not the feelings themselves that are the source of difficulty in our relations with others, but the way we deal with them, or our failure to use them that creates our problems.
The Denial of Feelings
Because of our negative attitude toward emotions, our fear of and discomfort with them, we spend a lot of effort trying, in one way or another, to deny or ignore them. Look around you and observe how you and the people you know respond to expressions of emotion. Make your own observations and see if they support or contradict the point that our usual response is some variation of “Don’t feel that way.”
• To the person expressing disappointment, discouragement, or depression, we say things like, “Cheer up.” “Don’t let it get you down.” “There’s no use crying over spilt milk. ” “Things will get better.” In short, “Don’t feel that way.”
• To sorrowing or hurting people we advise, “Don’t cry. Put your mind on something positive.”
• We tell the angry person, “Simmer down. There’s no point in getting angry. Let’s be objective about this.” “I’ll come back when you’re ready to discuss this rationally.”
• To people expressing joy and satisfaction with something they have done we caution, “Better watch out. Pride goeth before a fall.” “Don’t get cocky.”
• In meetings we tell each other, “Let’s keep feelings out of this. Let’s be rational.”
Distance and Ease with Feelings
Another sign of the difficulty we experience in working with feelings is that the more distant and remote the feelings, the easier it is to discuss them. Pay attention to yourself and others when talking about feelings and ask, “How distant are the feelings being discussed?” I predict that you will find relatively few discussions of feelings that someone is having “right now” in comparison with the number of discussions about feelings they had in the past toward somebody else.
As you observe yourself and others discussing feelings, see whether the following scale represents what you find:
Most Distant Least Difficult
• I tell you how one someone else felt toward another person, neither one being present, e.g., “Joe was angry at Sue.”
• I tell you my past feelings about somebody not present, e.g., “I was angry with her.”
• I tell you my present feelings about somebody not present, e.g., “I am angry with her.”
• I tell you my past feelings about you, e.g., “I was angry with you last month when you…”
• I tell you my present feelings I am having right now about you, e.g., I am angry with you.
Here and Now Most Difficult
In general, the closer the feelings are to here-and-now (to you and me in this present moment) the more difficult they are to discuss openly. The scale above implies many more subdivisions than are shown. For example, it implies that I am more comfortable telling you that I was angry with you a year ago than that I was angry with you last week. Likewise, I can more easily tell you of last week’s anger than of my annoyance with you yesterday.
This scale doesn’t mean that people do not get angry in the present, only that to openly discuss your present anger is more difficult than to discuss your past anger.
Why Emotions Appear as Problems
Why are we uncomfortable in dealing with feelings, both our own and others? What is it that moves us to try to deny or ignore present feelings? Why do we look upon emotions as problems?
I be1ieve it is that we recognize that we have less control over what we feel than over what we do.
I see myself as being in control of my own actions. If I wish to run, I so. When I wish to stop running, I stop. I can even decide longer spans of action, such as deciding to take a trip to the coast for the weekend, and then carry out my intention. With somewhat less certainty, I see myself as sometimes able to control my thoughts. If I wish to plan a trip to the coast, I can think about that. If I wish to think about last week’s trip, I can d o that. When I am unable to stop thinking of something it is usually because some strong feeling has been aroused.
My feelings, by contrast, seem to have a life of their own. I cannot start and stop them as I can my actions. Just because I want to feel happy does not lead me to feel happy. I can’t want to feel love for a person and then always feel it. I cannot keep myself from feeling fear just by deciding not to be afraid, although I can carry out an intention not to show my fear, e.g. not to run away. I have a lot less control over what I will feel than over what I will do.
Feelings and Control
Feelings are spontaneous responses to factors over which we have little direct control. To control the arousal of our feelings, we attempt to arrange the external environment so that it will evoke the feelings we desire and not those we wish to avoid. Much of the interaction between people can be viewed as an effort by each to control which feelings will show up. That is, I try to get you to act in ways that will elicit feelings in me that I desire and not those I dislike. You, in turn, attempt to get me to act in ways that will have a similar effect on your feelings. Each of us, thus, is trying to control the relationship—and the other’s behavior—as a way of controlling our own feelings.
Others, therefore, seem to have more control over what we feel than we do ourselves. People often say, “You made me angry,” rather than, “I’ve become angry.” One classic popular song declared, “You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it.” Maybe our discomfort with our own feelings springs from a belief (or is it a recognition?) that to feel something toward another person is to surrender some of our control to them. Certainly, if we believe that the other person “made” us angry or “made us love them,” the illusion is that they has some control over us.
Paradoxically, however, if we hold the other person responsible for our anger, we probably expect that they should stop their annoying behavior because we feel angry. Our anger, then, is not just a felt inner state, but is felt as a claim against the other person who “caused” it. Likewise, if we feel that the other person “made” us love them, we will probably expect them to return our affection. Note your own tendency when somebody
expresses affection for you to feel that you should reciprocate, a “you’re-nice-too” effect. I believe much of our discomfort with our own and others’ feelings arises because
interpersonal feelings precipitate a struggle for control between people. Which of us will yield—and thus give up some of their identity? Do I have control over you because I can make you angry? Do you have control over me because you get angry or hurt when I act in a certain way?
You and I must come to some shared understanding of the meaning of your feelings of anger, of my feelings of being hurt, of your feelings of affection, of my feelings of inadequacy around you, etc. Are the feelings each of us has about the other really claims on the other, obligations to be and act in a certain way? Or are our feelings phenomena to be noticed, accepted and then understood. Your anger may tell us something about you—and about me, if we can understand it.
To interact with another person is to risk having feelings aroused by them and to risk arousing feelings in them. You and the other person cannot turn on and off your feelings toward each other merely by wanting to. Un less you avoid each other totally and forever, you must each share some of yourself with the other. To feel something toward another person—whether anger, disgust, fear, interest, enjoyment—is to become related. As we become interdependent with another person we lose some of our control over our own life. This means that relating to each other requires an act of faith, of trust, in our capacity to survive and thrive with the other person as we share what we feel—and come to understand each other that much more fully.