Feelings are real, but they don’t always reflect the reality

Many people adopt a very ‘rational’ approach to life and relegate feelings or anything to do with emotions to a secondary position, as if they are somehow less important. In reality, of course, feelings are generally much more powerful sources of motivation than reasoning or rationality, and emotions are so often a key factor in decision making, however hard people will work to make the basis of their decisions appear entirely objective and rational, uninfluenced by such subjective matters as human emotions.

Consequently, if we pay no attention to emotions, we are leaving a major part of the equation out of the picture. However, this does not mean that we can let emotions rule the day or be given free reign. Emotions are a vitally important element of what it means to be human and, as such, they can be incredibly enriching and powerful. Unfortunately, though, they can also be highly problematic – for example, by leading to very unwise decisions or reactions.

Another way in which feelings can be problematic is when they are an understandable and justifiable response to a situation, but in those particular circumstances they do not reflect the reality of the situation. For example, imagine a situation in which a misunderstanding occurs. Person A feels that they have been insulted and demeaned by Person B, and understandably become very angry about it. But what if it is just a misunderstanding and no actual insulting has taken place. The feelings of anger and hurt are real, even if the grounds for them are not. Sadly, a common mistake in such circumstances is for those feelings to be played down because it was ‘just a misunderstanding’.

Strong emotional responses involve strong biological reactions, such as adrenaline being pumped into the bloodstream (the renowned ‘fight or flight’ mechanism). Finding out that no insult actually occurred does not make the adrenaline disappear all of a sudden or return the body or mind to their pre-emotive state. In addition, there are psychological factors to consider. For example, a strong emotional response can easily ‘open old wounds’, bringing back powerful memories of other times when they have felt slighted, disrespected or worse. Those memories will not disappear all of a sudden either, once they have resurfaced. In addition, the person concerned can feel embarrassed when it emerges that they became angry and/or upset ‘for no good reason’, especially if one or more people is not handling the situation very sensitively. These will all be real, valid feelings, despite the fact that the actual trigger was not ‘real’ in the conventional sense.

Another way in which feelings can be real, but not actually reflect reality is when people become very anxious. It is not uncommon for anxiety to lead to a vicious circle in which a small amount of anxiety (quite appropriate in the circumstances, given the level of threat involved) leads to more anxiety and then more again. What can easily happen is that this process leads to a level of anxiety that is excessive for the degree of risk or threat involved. Ironically, at times knowing that this position has been reached can make the person concerned even more anxious, recognizing or fearing that they are losing control. The level and intensity of emotional response may well not match the reality of the level of threat, but that does not make the feelings (and their impact) any less real. Nor does it make it any less unhelpful (or potentially harmful) if the significance of the feelings involved is not acknowledged and handled appropriately.

We would do well, therefore, to keep in mind the fact that a disparity between feelings and the reality of the situation they are a response to does not make the feelings any less real or any less significant.