In the midst of painful and confused feelings, we can ask ourselves whether we would be better off without feelings. Does my anxiety serve any purpose? Does my depression have meaning, or is it just biological bad luck? What benefit can there be to obsessive love, unrelenting guilt, repeating seasons of grief? Why do feelings have to be so painful and last so long?
As we seek answers to the problems posed by our feelings, it may be helpful to appreciate the positive role feelings are meant to play in our life. The more we can align our feelings with a positive understanding of what they can do for us, the more we can try trusting them to carry us forward in our lives.
Feelings Help Us To Survive
Feelings evolved in humans for the purpose of alerting us to everyday threats to our survival. We constantly scan our environment for dangers and opportunities, to satisfy our most basic needs. We get a constant body-mind report about the state of the world through our feelings. They give us a quick assessment about whether something is good for us or bad for us and they motivate us to take action accordingly.
Ask yourself in what way are my feelings trying to protect me or help me to survive? If you can understand and acknowledge this positive role of feelings, then you can reason with your feelings about how best to accomplish your goals.
Feelings Promote Emotional Attachment and Social Interaction
What are the dangers we face? What are our survival needs? Our experience as infants offers the earliest answer to these questions. The most basic need of a human infant is to engage its parents in an emotional attachment that will serve as the foundation for care, comfort, stimulation and interaction. Without emotional attachments, infants fail to thrive and die. This danger is never far from our minds at any age. Are we being abandoned? Who will care for us? Is our human environment intellectually and emotionally stimulating? Are feelings accessible for interpersonal connection and interplay? Are people available enough that being alone can be pleasurable?
Ask yourself what are my feelings telling me about my relationships? Do I feel like I could be abandoned or not loved? Do I feel like I have to earn love? Are the major people in my life trustworthy or treacherous?
Feelings Support Growth
It is clear that infants feel enjoyment as they practice and master new skills while exploring their environment and their interpersonal world. They are incessant learners, and not because they “have to be.” It is what they do spontaneously, spurred on by feelings of accomplishment. It is amazing to watch a baby progress toward crawling and then walking. It is as if the next stage of life is pulling them forward. If they are blocked, they become emotionally upset.
This enjoyment of growth is available to us at any age. We can keep exploring, challenging ourselves, mastering and enjoying new competencies.
Ask yourself am I allowing my feelings a chance to support new growth and learning in my life? Toward what new challenges in life do my feelings want to take me?
Feelings Move Us Toward Health and “More Life”
Beyond their origins in the infant’s experience, feelings emanate from adult sources — the energy of health, the satisfaction of exercising our full adult capacities, the enjoyment of our sexuality, the integrity of ethical living, the pride of parenthood, a deepening sense of the intergenerational succession of family life, the payoffs of work that produces useful products and supports family and community life, and the evolving appreciation of wholeness and wellness and holiness. If we trust that the deepest movement and motivation of all our feelings is toward health and “more life,” then we can access and rely on their intelligence and wisdom.
Ask yourself how are my feelings guiding me to better health? How are they encouraging me toward the adult satisfactions of a mature life? What deep emotional intelligence is evolving through my experience?
Feelings Reinforce Creativity
Humans enjoy creativity. Our brains have evolved the marvelous capacity to interweave many different sensory inputs and to register their emerging patterns. These patterns can evoke other patterns we have stored as images, fantasies and memories. The mixing of patterns can generate “super-patterns” that can be fashioned into new images and linked together into new narratives. Language and movement provide avenues for conveying these narratives into the world, where they can stimulate and gather responses that fuel the evolving creative process.
Feelings motivate and guide this creative process at each step. Furthermore, all of this is enjoyable — whether at the level of a child’s impromptu game or at the level of planning the weekend or developing a business strategy.
Ask yourself what do my feelings tell me about the creative processes that are gathering momentum in my life and in my relationships with others? What new patterns seem to be emerging?
Feelings Connect Us with All Living Beings
Feelings have evolved over millions of years and across a whole range of species. They are our most ancient of characteristics and our deepest commonality with all living beings. When we see an amoeba suddenly contract, we can sense the cellular beginnings of fear. When we see an elephant trying to revive its dead comrade, we can be affected by this moment of grief. When we are greeted or even comforted by our dog, we feel such a marvelous bond. When we see whales breaching, or hear birds singing, or catch a glimpse of a doe and her fawn, we intuit something of joy and pride and love.
Beyond this sense of emotional connection, we are now learning more about the amazing similarity between the biology of our feelings and the biological processes in other species, including even the simplest of organisms. This biological similarity supports our sense of connection with all living beings.
Ask yourself how are my feelings similar to those experienced by all living beings? Am I wrapped up in myself? Can I experience my feelings wanting to break out to achieve a sympathetic and compassionate connection with others?
Feelings Are Continually Refined by Our Consciousness
In the evolution of feelings, one of the most remarkable developments has been the partnering of feelings with the expanded consciousness of human awareness. For most of us, awareness of feelings is initially experienced as a “mixed blessing.” We fight against awareness of painful and upsetting feelings. We try to ward off “dangerous feelings.” We want to cling to “good” feelings. One of the challenges of maturation is to stop fighting against certain feelings and to stop trying to cling to other feelings. Only then can a whole new level of feelings emerge — feelings that have been refined by consciousness.
Do you know someone who, through years of experience, has achieved a new sense of love, a strength of character, a wisdom about anger, a sensitivity to suffering, a mature appreciation of responsibility and guilt, a pervasive happiness? Their smile glows with a soft strength. They are so welcoming and kind. They seem so deeply and wonderfully human. They give us a hint of how feelings can evolve, beyond serving simple survival and beyond the immature confusions with which we all start life, to a fullness of being.
Ask yourself how are my feelings becoming more refined? What would be a “wiser” version of my present feeling state? Can I feel the difference it would make to welcome feelings that are unwelcome in my life now? Or what it would be like to release the feelings I continue to hold inside? How would it feel to be less hung-up, less “stuck?” How would the adventure of emotional growth carry me toward a fuller and more vital life experience?