Daily Archives: April 20, 2006

Emotions: A time and a place.

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This post has been years in coming. And it might be duplicated in previous posts. I’m having some temporary trouble with memory at the moment.

What, exactly, is the deal with feelings?

Or rather, what, exactly, is the deal with feelings being elevated in importance to the exclusion of nearly anything else?

I keep picturing this scenario: I’m drowning — I’m not a good swimmer to begin with, so that’s possible. I’m close enough to shore that someone can throw me a life preserver easily. Someone is standing there, next to a life preserver. Instead of throwing me a life preserver, the person waxes poetic about his feelings. And my feelings. His feelings of terror and hopelessness. My feelings of terror. His empathy for my feelings of terror. A long, nuanced, beautiful description of the emotional impact of what is going on, at least from his perspective. And he doesn’t throw me the life preserver. He’s too busy dealing with feelings.

I don’t know that that exact scenario would play out. But I remember, along with Laura, begging, demanding, and whatever else we could do, the Housing Authority to clean up their construction practices. There was concrete dust that wasn’t being vented properly out of the building, and it was messing with the breathing of a lot of the people here, including us, who both had asthma. The situation was getting on the level of life and death.

And the response we so often got was someone trying to “validate” our “feelings” about the matter. As if feelings were the issue there. When you can’t breathe, it’s not your fear or anger that you want fixed, it’s your breathing.

In saying things like this, I often get put into assorted categories. “Thinking” rather than “feeling” personality-type. “Rigid Aspie” rather than “sensitive autie”. “Heartless bitch”. Etc.

None of those categories are true. What I am, is a person who is incredibly emotional, in fact. I’ve just learned through experience that there are more important things in life than emotions. I’ve learned that there’s a time and place for “expressing one’s feelings” and a time and place for not doing so. Stereotyping me into one of those “ingrained” personality or neurological patterns denies the reality of learning and choice.

I’ve noticed, though, that there’s a culture that has spread throughout most of, at least, America, if not other places. A therapy culture. One in which emotions are paramount. In which expression of emotions is always okay, and encouraged, provided it’s done in a “respectful” way. In which all problems are the result of someone’s emotions. In which “validating” people’s emotions is supposed to solve many serious problems. And in which there is no such thing as a bad emotion, or an emotion that needs changing. Emotions become sacred things that appear out of nowhere, are pure, and define everything.

Emotions do not usually (certain kinds of seizures, for instance, excepted) appear out of nowhere. They are tied to ideas, experiences, actions, prejudices, and patterns of thought. They are not pure. They are as tied to the world and to the rest of us as anything else.

Emotions are useful in many situations. They guide our responses. They assist us in various ways. But to trust to them, and their expression, without thinking of anything else, is irresponsible. There’s a time and a place.

Knowing these things does not make me an unemotional person. I am an incredibly emotional person. I can be paralyzed by fear, I have a nasty temper, I feel huge depths of joy and affection, and so forth. But I know that, for instance today, when my staff had to run off to adminster CPR to someone, it wasn’t exactly the time to describe in detail how scared I was.

But it seems like a frequent response, for someone who did do that, is to act extremely hurt, and say “I was just expressing my feelings.” As if the expression of feelings is always right, and never open to question, as to whether it was right to express them right then, in that way, or (gasp) even to have those particular feelings.

If a person feels revulsion every time they look at me, as some have made abundantly clear that they do, I think there’s something wrong with how they think about people like me. That carries over into feelings of revulsion. But the feelings of revulsion are not sacred, are not out of nowhere, and they’re not even really okay. They’re products of some combination of attitudes, prejudices, thoughts, misplaced “empathy”, and a whole slew of other things. Those feelings of revulsion can be changed, with changes to those attitudes, prejudices, thoughts, misplaced “empathy”, etc. But to say so is to do something else that’s apparently quite problematic — to “tell someone how to feel”.

And then there’s the neverending situations that I go into with an attitude of problem solving. And get one of two main responses. One is to “validate” my emotions without solving the problem. Another is to react to a real or imagined perception of my emotions, in a negative way, and fail to solve the problem as well, maybe even refusing to do so until I feel differently.

Neither of these approaches seems right to me. They focus on the emotions, or the perceived emotions, or the expression of emotions, rather than the problem. They’re “Sorry I won’t give you life-saving medical treatment until you quit yelling,” and “I’m sorry you feel angry, I hear what you’re saying, I really do, and I empathize. Oh, how I empathize. I wish you did not feel angry. Is there anything I can do to keep you from feeling so angry? What do you mean the problem isn’t anger?”

“Hurting people’s feelings” is also uniformly bad in some circles, even if their feelings are hurt for reasons that have nothing to do with your doing anything wrong. Saying that I oppose an autism cure, for instance, deeply hurts the feelings of a lot of parents and probably some autistic people. I’ve seen some people describe their feelings in detail, in response to the cure thing. (Curiously, it’s often self-pity that they describe. And no, I’m not immune to that, either, I just don’t think it’s the greatest or most truth-revealing emotion on the planet by a longshot.)

Do I want life without emotions? Definitely not. Am I unaffected by my own emotions or other people’s emotions? Definitely not. Am I aware that emotions are only one piece of things, that they are not trustworthy guides to reality, that it’s possible to do devastating damage in the name of “flowing with your emotions freely”, that the “therapy culture” is probably doing more harm than good, that there’s a time and a place? Definitely yes.