Should You Always Trust Your Feelings?
As a psychologist who is in the business of helping people understand their feelings, you might be surprised by my answer to this question. Should you always trust your feelings? My answer is – not always.
Although the process of healing and growth often occurs through uncovering feelings that are buried, frightening, or confusing, feelings are not always the most accurate barometer of reality. How we express our feelings and the expectations we have around what other people are supposed to do in response to our feelings is what often gets us into trouble or leads to frustration and misunderstanding in relationships.
Feelings are often triggered by expectations we have of others, yet many times those expectations are either unexamined, unrealistic, or unfair. If someone has a history of childhood trauma, feelings that become triggered in the present moment are frequently based on assumptions and fears from the past. For example, if we are disappointed that someone hasn’t listened carefully enough to us, do we automatically assume that they are “just like our father, cold and insensitive?” If we reflexively leap to this conclusion, can we see how this assumption will affect what we say next? And if what we say next is accusatory or blaming, can we see how the other person will likely feel misunderstood, likely feel they’re being treated unfairly? Being triggered by negative feelings or assumptions based on how you were treated in childhood doesn’t necessarily mean that your feelings about the person are accurate.
Many struggles that occur in intimate relationships center around the hope that our partners will be able to make up for past hurts. This in turn translates into a belief that if our partners love us, they should “take care” of our feelings, and make us feel better. This is a heavy, and somewhat unfair burden to place on anyone. For example, if a wife says to her husband, “I feel so fat, I feel disgusting” and then turns to her husband and says, “Honey, do you think I’m attractive?” And, if his response is not effusive enough, she might say, “I don’t think you love me anymore. Why aren’t you paying more attention to me? You’re so insensitive. If you love me, you would make me feel better.” If a partner hears this for the first time, he may be moved to give comfort. But what if that partner hears this for the 100th time? Is it fair to keep expecting that someone else will fix a core insecurity?
Another example is the person who gets triggered by a feeling then repeated tells you how awful you are, how much you hurt them. Their expectation is that you sit and listen until they finish, and if you interrupt or say, “You’ve already said that,” you’re accused of being insensitive or uncaring. Is this a reasonable expectation to place on another?
Yet, a further example is the person who becomes quickly argumentative or accusatory when triggered by their feelings. Somehow, these individuals believe that because they were triggered, they have a right to vent, or yell and scream until they feel better. With both of these communication styles, if the behavior is challenged, you will often hear them say, “But I have a right to express my feelings.”
Yes, we all have a right to express our feelings, but we also have a responsibility to express feelings in a way that does not become accusatory, disparaging, or even abusive. On the other hand, people who are shut off from their feelings often are uncomfortable with the expression of feelings in general. They may handle their discomfort by becoming dismissive telling you, “You’re too sensitive. You’re over-reacting, why can’t you get a grip?” This isn’t fair either.
Too often people use feelings as “ammunition” in relationships. This is unfortunate because intimate relationships ought to be a refuge, the place we find safety and trust in this world. However, trusting your feelings requires taking full responsibility for them. Getting to the core of what triggers our feelings is what transforms us from being reactive to purposeful, from blaming others for our discomfort to becoming responsible, proactive, steady, respectful, and fair-minded. This is how our relationships become a refuge and a blessing in our lives.