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Should I Trust My Feelings?

Jonathan Hoffman, PhD, ABPP

Feelings help us experience ourselves, as well as connect and communicate with others. Life without feelings wouldn’t ... well, feel the same way. We revel in feelings such as joy, excitement, awe, and love. Other feelings, like sadness, anxiety, anger, and guilt, not so much. But regardless of what we feel about them, how much should we trust our feelings?

This is a complicated question. It is very hard to view feelings completely objectively. Some people may err in trusting their feelings too much, even when they fly completely contrary to the evidence – like feeling “lucky” when buying a lottery ticket and forgetting the objectively ridiculously low odds of winning. Or unquestioningly trusting negative feeling ‘vibes’ about another person without knowing their whole story.

Believing something is true based on feelings, not facts is a common interpretative bias that psychologists call “emotional reasoning.” Certain people engage in emotional reasoning to the extent that facts no longer matter to them, and the only evidence that counts is what they feel at any given moment. Unfortunately, when carried to an extreme emotional reasoning has the potential to be used to justify hurtful behaviors toward oneself or others.

Other people veer toward not trusting their feelings enough. Feelings may signal something important to pay attention to - or a risky or dangerous situation - before the slower-working rational mind has enough time to process what’s going on. For example, did you ever get an anxious or scary feeling about a person or situation before anything unpleasant took place that looking back you are thankful you heeded?

On the other hand, there are times when our feelings tell us something is wrong or unsafe, when this just isn’t true. There are also people that do not trust their feelings at all. When individuals lose faith in their own feelings, they risk becoming overly dependent on those of another person and can too easily be steered in the wrong direction.

Some people get to the point that they do not wish to have any relationship with their feelings or not have feelings at all. But this is no more possible, short of death, than turning off their thinking or bodily functions. Trying to block out feelings or anesthetize them with, for instance, drugs, alcohol, food, gaming, etc., usually backfires in the long run.

“Trust but verify” was a phrase used by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to describe the policy used in negotiating a nuclear disarmament treaty between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union. Both superpowers had to find a way to trust each other ‘just enough.’

Since a simple yes or no answer as to whether feelings should be trusted is not possible, I suggest using a similar “trust but verify” policy. We must find a way to co-exist with our feelings because there is no other choice. We should not trust or distrust our feelings blindly, but ‘just enough.’

Let’s end with a quote by Peter Finley Dunne from the turn of the twentieth century: “Trust everybody, but always cut the cards.” I think this wisdom applies to our feelings equally as well.

You feel me?

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