It's just not possible to get through life well without feelings and thinking. You can't simply be a totally rational creature that moves through life without being affected by the things that happen to you and that go on around you. You also won't do very well if you let your feelings carry you off without a thought or care for the consequences. So, how do you create a balance between your thoughts and feelings? What skills and mindsets can you develop that balance and integrate these two sides of your inner life?
We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We're storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better."
– Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational)
The Two Extremes
You probably know, or perhaps are, someone who lives a little too far to one end or the other of the Thinker–Feeler range. Thinkers tend to live in their heads and would probably tell you they don't experience many significant feelings and when they do that they don't last for awfully long. If you're there when something happens or you know something "big" is going on in their life and ask about it, you're likely to find that they don't have much to say. It may be treated as far less than you would expect, or they might tell you they don't really know how they feel or just need some time to process it all. This is especially true for introverts. At its worst, you might feel like you have to pry how they really feel out of them and wonder why they're "shutdown" or just won't talk all the time.
On the other hand, if you know someone, or are someone at the other extreme, practically everyone knows how they feel about everything, even strangers. They might tell you that they don't "have a filter." Everything seems to be a big deal and you might feel exhausted or aggravated at having to listen to it all so often. Why can't they just get a grip? At its worst, you might feel like you have to walk on eggshells around them, so really bad things don't flare up. Angry, sullen moods might last for days, deep depression might go on endlessly (sometimes with threats of suicide or self-harm) or panic attacks will come out of nowhere.
Our brain is not rational. Our brain is rationalizing.
– Bart Schutz
At both extremes, life for you and the other person, is difficult to enjoy and your relationships suffer. Where do you start to create a better balance? I'm going to focus on managing the thinking side here for three reasons: it's the easier side to more consistently move in a healthier direction, it's needed in order to handle things as your awareness develops and it delivers the fastest improvements.
Everyday Logic and Probability
All of us struggle with logic and probability. It doesn't matter if you're more of a Thinker or a Feeler, keeping your head on straighter is work. Our mistakes and confusions come from both sides. Mistakes in thinking lead to more extreme feelings and more extreme feelings lead to more mistakes in thinking.
Let's take a look at what we call and how we use evidence. Evidence should be what we actually know. Evidence is "the facts" without all the colorful language. The stuff we think we know or that just "might be true" isn't evidence. That doesn't mean you have to completely ignore it. It does mean you should be ready to let it go when actual evidence is available and that you should make an effort to check it out. Taking significant actions based on "might be true" or "I've got a feeling" will get you in trouble all too often and always needlessly. It also leads to more extreme feelings.
You can also think about how strong your evidence is. How much of it do you have? Do you have questions about some of it? Is it actually relevant? What you do and how you act, needs to be based on how strong your evidence is. If you're evidence is weak or sketchy, check things out some more. It's not that often that you need to act right away without good evidence. When you do, you can temper what you do or say in case you're wrong.
I have found that people with real trust or safety issues often jump from barely conceivable to OMG certainty without any good, adequate or "extra" evidence. It's often something like, "I have a serious gut feeling, so it must be true." It's a reflection of the troubles we have when strong feelings get activated.
All of us struggle with motivated reasoning at times. It can seem like your feelings demand that you have to believe a certain way, and then you have to look for reasons to do it. Sometimes you know it and give in to it but at other times it's more subtle. You'd like to pretend you're being rational, but you're rationalizing or making excuses, mostly to yourself, to maintain an opinion so you can act in ways you probably shouldn't.
Catching yourself and practicing letting it go will improve your life quickly. If you find yourself making excuses or making weird arguments for why something is a certain way and, in a moment's reflection, realize you wouldn't accept that from someone else, you're making progress. Making weird arguments or demanding special exceptions is sometime called "special pleading."
Some of the subtler ways we make mistakes are based on biases we all have. These might be baked into the way our brains work and the way we create explanations of what's going on. The two most important are called "availability bias" and "confirmation bias."
Availability bias refers to the way you remember some things more readily than others. Some things are simply more available, and when they come to mind, they more easily become part of the story you're building about what's going on or about what you should do. You can see that this means that your personal experience will strongly color your point of view. This affects how positively or negatively you tend to frame things.
You are a confabulatory creature by nature. You are always explaining to yourself the motivations for your actions and the causes to the effects in your life, and you make them up without realizing it when you don't know the answers. Over time, these explanations become your idea of who you are and your place in the world. They are your self.… You are a story you tell yourself."
– David McRaney (You Are Not So Smart)
Whenever you're trying to figure out what's going on or what you want to do, your story is filled in with the everyday stuff you know and live with. If I start to talk about a house or a salad, you start to create one in your mind. As I tell you about it, your version of it changes to match. The important part is that you have all this stuff in there that may or may not be true at any given time. It's probably reasonable, but you don't realize it's an assumption on your part unless I add details that change things for you. These assumed bits and pieces can easily evolve into miscommunication or emotional reactions. We often have a hard time remembering our story is just a story. It might be more or less true. It has some probability attached to it and remembering to check it out becomes more and more difficult the more strongly our feelings are activated.
Confirmation bias refers to our strong habit of looking for evidence that confirms what we believe. We strongly tend to ignore, downplay or distort evidence that doesn't. We seldom look for evidence that we might be wrong and rarely welcome it. At your worst, you get dogmatically stuck in a fixed position.
We have a habit of acting as if we're trying to answer one of two questions when we should always be asking a third. For things that we like or want to believe we ask, "Can I believe it?" If there's anything that looks promising, we say yes and move on. For things we don't like or don't want to believe we ask, "Do I have to believe it?" We then demand or are only willing to accept the most ironclad and irrefutable evidence possible if we accept any at all.
Think of a conversation you've had with someone with strong political or religious beliefs. When you tried to offer evidence for something different, even about a minor detail, what happened? You rather quickly discovered your evidence was worthless or somehow got turned around to prove their point. This is an example of you working from "Can I believe?" and the other person working from "Do I have to believe?"
The question we should all be working from more often is: "Should I believe?" Is the strength of your belief proportional or reasonable given the evidence? This doesn't mean you run around being skeptical of everything all the time. It means you're aware of the limits of what you know and you're willing to listen to other evidence and weigh its value in good faith. It also means you know you're wrong about a lot of stuff, at least in the details, and when opportunities come that help you be less wrong, you take them.
How to Play This Out Every Day
If you start paying attention to the way in which you're framing things, what shape your stories are taking and what your evidence really looks like, you start to have more options. That starts to look like hope and opportunity. When you are interacting with others, you can practice being more interested in what they have to say. What do you still need to know from them? Where are they coming from? What's their story? How can you shift it or contribute to it? You don't have to argue so much because you're trying to understand. You don't have to agree, but you will eventually have to work with what they're giving you as a starting place.
How does this apply when you're dealing with yourself? If you're a Feeler, it's time to pay attention to how you let your feelings lead your thoughts astray. If you're a Thinker, it time to put more attention into how you actually feel about things. That might start with noticing how your body is reacting.
If you have a habit of making rather extreme statements and getting into funky moods, you can stop yourself and check your evidence. You can think your way back down and make what you're thinking more accurate and reasonable. When your thoughts and feelings are in better balance, your life still has its ups and downs, but they are far less extreme, even in the bad times. You can restart at any time with: "How else can I think about this?" or "How can I change this story?"
Improving on the Feelings Side
I've focused on the thinking side but want to add that there are a few simple things that can help on the feelings side. They all work by recognizing that your feelings are very connected to your body's wellbeing. So first, eat a little better. Second, get a little more exercise or activity into your day. Third, get the right amount of sleep. For most of us, 7 to 8 hours is good. You don't need to go on a campaign about these, just step it up a little at a time. Changing these habits isn't quick and easy, your body is very used to things being a certain way and will resist you trying to change things too quickly.
The most confused you will ever get is when you try to convince your heart and spirit of something your mind knows is a lie.
– Shannon L. Alder
If there are quality friends you can spend a little more time around, that's a bonus. If you have opportunities to help others or do a little community service or volunteering that's a bonus, too. In any case, take the time to be grateful. One way to do this is to remember a few of the things that have blessed you in the past in the morning as you get dressed and to remember a few from your day in the evening as you get ready for bed. Spend some time reflecting on them. I find that doing it while I brush my teeth works well.
Keys to Remember
- You know, and you act like you know, that you're limited, fallible and regularly make mistakes and miscommunicate. You demonstrate a willingness to be wrong. Your goal is to become less wrong every day, all the time. You make allowance for others having the same problem, even if they don't have the same response or mindset.
- When you're having trouble, figure out which of the basic questions you seem to be working from. Are you trying to believe or not believe something? Are you honestly letting the evidence speak to you? What should you accept and believe?
- You know, and act like you know, that thoughts and feelings are just stuff that happens in your head. They aren't "Reality" or "The Truth," however much they might contain or reflect some of it. They're simply your story at the moment. You practice living in the real world instead of Cartoon World.
- You want to be learning to listen to understand instead of listening to reply. Connection and compassion are becoming more important to you than being "right" or "winning." You get the fact that no one wins an argument and that love and happiness are in short supply when respect keeps getting stepped on and lost or when someone's need for trust or safety keeps getting ignored. Maintaining and developing relationships is most important to you.
- You start working from the position that other people always have a real point. It might be lost in and buried under lots of verbal garbage, but it's in there somewhere. You recognize you need to find it, acknowledge it and work with it in good faith. Help the other person be heard and you will almost certainly be listened to as well.
Questions for Journaling
- What strategies have helped you keep your feelings in check long enough to sort or work things out?
- What type of ideas or reactions pop up most easily for you? Do they tend to focus on you or other people?
- Remember a time when your understanding of something changed radically (for the better) because you we unaware of one little thing? How did it change things for you?
- Are you more of a Thinker or a Feeler? Do you tend to bottle feelings up or just let them fly? How about the other important people in your life? How has it affected your relationships?
Veritasium, The Science of Thinking
Spartan Up, What is Confirmation Bias? (Spartan MIND 051)
Julia Galef, How to Spot a Rationalization
Quotes of the Week
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
François de La Rochefoucauld
The surest way to be deceived is to think oneself more clever than others.
George Bernard Shaw
The single biggest problem in communications is the illusion that is has taken place.
Walt Whitman (Camden Conversations)
I like the scientific spirit – the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine – it always keeps the way beyond open – always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake – after a wrong guess.
Verse for the Week
1 Corinthians 14:20
My friends, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
Prayer for the Week
Help me pay attention to how I'm feeling and thinking. I want to notice how I bring my thoughts into line with my feelings. Help me also notice the times I actively use my thinking to shift the way I feel. Help me recognize what works for me and others and that will make our lives together happier and more loving. I want to be better balanced in the way I use the tools that you have built into my mind and body. Amen.