Your Feelings Don’t Always Matter and That’s a Good Thing

Repeatedly, we’re told that feelings aren’t facts.

This usually means that reality doesn’t have to acquiesce to your desires – simply because you want something to be true doesn’t mean it will be. But, it can also mean that, sometimes, your intuition lies to you. Consider this simple example: You’re walking in a forrest and it’s getting dark. You hear something in the bushes and you can’t make out what it is. So, you assess there’s a 50/50 chance that you’re in danger, subsequently choosing to walk faster or run away. This is an instance of emotional reasoning, looking to your feelings to interpret reality, instead of vice versa. The decision to run, in this case, is solely based on your fear.

Our minds evolved to think in this way for obvious reasons. Daniel Kahneman was one of the first to discover that we aren’t natural statisticians, reasoning fairly poorly without actual data. In the above case, the stroller conceived of two options (i.e. he’s either in danger or not) and reasoned that each have a 50/50 chance of being likely. Unfortunately, with limited data, many of us consistently reason in this way in various areas of our lives. I do it every year, when I have to get a blood test. I tell myself that either my blood work is fine or isn’t, so the odds are even. But if I were to look at my priors, to use a Bayesian term, examining the last blood test I took, my state of health around the time of taking the test, my age, and family medical history, I’d have to assign a fairly low probability to the possibility of receiving a really bad result.

I would argue that I should have some anxiety about the result, but it shouldn’t matter, or be of importance. So, even though we’re frequently taught to honor our intuitions, they get it wrong a lot of the time, especially when related to the ways in which they’re used to estimate probabilities.

And, as you can imagine, this crops up in relationships, even in the ones going well. For some, the uncertainty of loss and mistreatment feels intolerable partially because of the high probabilities assigned to each. Intuition nags the individual, pointing to every clue hinting at heartbreak. You may argue, “Well, of course, they feel that way. They’ve been hurt in the past.” While true, I’d ask: how many times? Due to our negative biases, we only require intermittent reinforcement to develop phobias. This implies that if I’m attacked by a dog only once, subsequently developing cynophobia becomes a strong possibility.

When caregivers are our entire worlds, their mistakes inform our daydreams. The notable trauma therapist Bessel van der Kolk notes, “For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.” Yet, that process is complicated by the odds assigned to the repetition of sorrow. Both maddening and mournful, only one instance of terror is required to send the mind into shock. And we develop defenses for the sole purpose of precluding more of a similar pain.

With Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the individual searches for perfect certainty because, otherwise, life is pure chaos, seething with the limitless possibility of doom. With respect to OCD, reasoning is limited in a black and white way, utilized only in service of creating solace. I’ve had many patients with OCD tell me that they can’t make different decisions because they “don’t feel” a certain way, whether they don’t feel lovable or that they can trust their partners. But the feeling itself is that remnant of primal reasoning, both naturally occurring and reinforced by negative experiences. Since many of my OCD patients struggle with making decisions, they frequently utilize confirmation bias to give themselves a million reasons why they should opt-out of taking even apparently minimal risks. When considered, those reasons are more often than not fairly striking, composed of emotionally vivid, anecdotal accounts, which data scientists detest.

So, they’re searching for some potion or formula to completely negate that unpleasant feeling before deciding to act. Sometimes, it’s unfortunate how much our experiences mean to us and how our minds misuse them to assess risk. But, ultimately, the lesson here is that we don’t always have to honor our intuitions. On the one hand, they’ve formed to protect us. But, on the other, they frequently don’t.

Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams writes: “The main nonspecific result of good psychotherapy is an increase in ego strength and self-connectivity. A person wants to learn how to cope with difficulties without falling apart and not feeling completely destroyed. Or he hopes that after the completion of psychotherapy, he will be able to withstand the temporary regression and destabilization necessary for development, to learn, according to Epstein’s apt expression, “to crack at the seams without collapsing.”” In this respect, in addition to work on improving one’s ability to reason, therapy aims to help the client cultivate her ability to withstand more heartache. How do we deal with the worst case scenarios, which sometimes occur?

Many of my OCD clients have experienced further disappointments, and realized that they didn’t need to spend so much of their time attempting to thwart them. Just like with simple phobias, too much of our lives are given over to improbable and exaggerated fears. More often than not, especially when acknowledging how much we’ve already overcome, we realize that we’re capable of falling down yet again.

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