How a Faith in Feelings Can Enslave Your Mind

Haven’t we all blamed our circumstances or other people for our feelings?
July 15, 2019 Updated: July 15, 2019

We have been taught to trust our feelings. Being authentic, we are told, is the key to success. On college campuses, feelings have been elevated to the sacred.

Gillian McCann, a professor of religion at Canada’s Nipissing University, relates the story of her graduate school supervisor advising her “to do whatever [she] felt.” A friend listening to her story quipped, “That kind of advice has ruined a generation.”

Writing with co-author Gitte Bechsgaard, McCann observes that problems with emotional self-regulation and addiction are rapidly growing. They add that “we are living in a culture with an expectation to be authentic and expressive in all life situations—quite independent of context or consequences.”

McCann and Bechsgaard pointedly write, “A mind that is left undeveloped (or not attended to) is … potentially our worst enemy.”

One morning, after setting up my breakfast in my Instant Pot, I sat down and prepared for my workday by watching my thoughts arise. I was attending to my mind, especially noticing grievances and mild annoyances that could undermine my purpose for the day.

As I sunk into my meditation, I heard the steam hissing furiously from my Instant Pot. The pot had not sealed.

Mindless, I found myself back in the kitchen screaming in frustration.

In seconds, I was shocked by the intense emotions seething beneath my placid surface. The hissing steam exposed what was lurking in my mind.

If I was ready to learn, the hissing steam was about to teach me a lesson. I could blame the Instant Pot for my rage, or I could acknowledge my thoughts of frustration, irritation, and blame ready to erupt.

Haven’t we all blamed our circumstances or other people for our feelings? Feeling resentment, we blame our partner for not offering enough support. Feeling anxiety and stress, we blame a traffic delay. Feeling depressed, we are sure it is coming from the state of the world.

We have reversed cause and effect. As the late author Michael Crichton observed, “Wet sidewalks don’t cause rain.” Likewise, feelings don’t cause thoughts.

You can’t have a feeling without having a thought first. Take a moment now; try to feel anger. Can you feel anger without first conjuring up angry thoughts?

Splitting your thoughts from your feelings and pretending something outside yourself is causing them is the beginning of psychological enslavement. The Instant Pot didn’t cause my frustration; its hissing steam revealed my frustration. Traffic doesn’t cause anger; it reveals our anger. Relationships don’t cause resentment; they reveal resentment we are carrying within ourselves.

Yet, we stubbornly insist that our wet sidewalks cause our rain. The more intense our feelings, the more certain we are that other people and circumstances are to blame for the feelings we experience.

As our feelings become more intense, so do the associated sensations. Our heart rates may rapidly rise. Our muscles may constrict. Our thinking swirls with rapid-fire thoughts; an external situation has hijacked our attention. We seek relief from our swirling thoughts. For many of us, reaching for our smartphone is an escape from the swirl. Addictions form to escape that swirl.

This past week, you may have experienced anxiety, fear, depression, worry, resentment, frustration, or some other intense feeling. I have never met a person who claims to be immune to negative feelings. What is crucial is how we choose to process our feelings: outside-in or inside-out.

Typically, we process feelings in an outside-in manner. We believe our feelings are giving us feedback about other people, our circumstances, past events, or future possibilities.

Most of us pay special attention to some negative feelings while easily overlooking others. Judging by the growing number of prescriptions written for anxiety, many pay special attention to anxious thoughts. For some, when anxiety arises, their thinking speeds up. They are gripped by thoughts of, “Why am I feeling this way? How can I get rid of this feeling?” The more their head is filled with thinking, the less present they are to the moment. Taking a prescription drug may seem like the only way to calm the mind.

Looking at feelings through an outside-in mindset, it seems we have a lot of external circumstances to process and manage. After all, if an endless supply of other people and circumstances are causing our feelings, it is natural to have a lot on our minds.

However, we misunderstand how the mind operates when we attempt to get to the bottom of our feelings from an outside-in mindset.

There are no feelings that can ever exist separate from our thoughts. We are always experiencing our thinking and our feelings from the inside-out.

In “Meditations,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” From an inside-out mindset, our feelings are a barometer, giving us feedback on the quality of our thinking at the moment.

Understanding that we can only experience life inside-out, not outside-in, is the beginning of taking responsibility and experiencing psychological freedom.

In 1895, the first silent movie was shown in Paris. The less-than-a-minute movie simply showed a train arriving in a station. There are apocryphal accounts of audience members rushing out of the theater in fear. The audience experienced the train bearing down on them; the experience of projection was new.

The story, even if untrue, provides a good metaphor. Gripped by an outside-in mindset, we try to flee our mind’s theater by resisting the thoughts and feelings we have created. The feelings we are having in any given moment are arising from our thoughts, not from our external circumstances.

We project our thinking onto the world. In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey wrote, “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.”

Each moment, we choose whether to take responsibility for our experience of life. When we look at our experience through the lens of an outside-in mindset, we believe our feelings are giving us honest feedback about our circumstances and other people. This outside-in mindset leads to blame.

The alternative is to experience life through an inside-out mindset. Moment by moment, we can interpret our feelings as signals, giving reliable feedback on the quality of our thinking.

Life requires action. When action is needed, an inside-out mindset allows us to act from our highest purpose and values. In contrast, using an outside-in mindset, we approach a problem with a built-in lack of clarity. This lack of clarity undermines our problem-solving ability. Indeed, the harder the problem, the more the lack of clarity in the outside-in mindset works against us. As the popular saying goes, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

We can go through life kicking and screaming, or we can be a happy learner. To stubbornly maintain that life is being lived outside-in is to be devoted to misery.

To be a happy learner, remember that your interpretation of an “external” situation is a big clue to your state of mind.

Observe when intense feelings arise. Observe any thoughts blaming other people or circumstances for your feelings.

For example, do bad drivers anger you? If so, observe the accusations you are making. Perhaps you are a good driver, but inconsiderate in other situations. If you are willing to learn, life gives you insight into the contents of your thinking.

Understanding that life is lived inside-out, practice the subtraction solution: have a little willingness to say, “I must be mistaken because I’m blaming.”

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus began his life as a slave. He overcame physical bondage and then attended to his mind to free himself of his own inner chains. In the collection of his writing “The Enchiridion,” he shared his timeless discovery: “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”

Epictetus continued, “When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others.”

The good news is life’s situations—even hissing steam—will instruct us if we are willing to learn to attend to our mind from an inside-out mindset.

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of  “The Inner-Work of Leadership.” To receive Barry’s essays subscribe to Mindset Shifts at BarryBrownstein.com. This article was originally published on the Foundation for Economic Education.

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