Emotions: A time and a place.


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.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

11 responses »

  1. Very well-said — this entire post makes total sense to me, at least. And I’m not saying that to validate you, I’m saying it because it’s true.

    The way I see it, there are things much more important than “validating” someone’s position. Sometimes people think and even feel things that bother me. I don’t think that it does anyone any good to pretend to agree with these people, or say that their assertions are OK when they are not. I certainly do not think I can tell people how to feel, but I am perfectly willing to point out that maybe the way they feel is based on erroneous information.

    This comes into play in terms of the giving or accepting of advice as well. You’ve written about “do-gooders” before — this seems to be a concept related to the feelings-and-validation one you are discussing in this entry. The whole notion that if someone wants to help you in some way, you are somehow obligated to accept that help — even if it might do more harm than good, and even if you need something else much more desperately — because otherwise the helper won’t feel validated. While growing up, I sometimes had the very uncomfortable feeling that I was not “allowed” to get real, genuine assistance unless I occasionally (or always) accepted advice or assistance that was actually harmful. Someone once told me, “If you’re going to accept my help, you can’t just pick and choose which pieces you want to accept.”

    I think that is utter BS. The whole point of offering help, or advice, should be to let the recipient take only what he or she needs and only what is healthy. Similarly, “validation”, like “reciprocity”, is something that seems cheapened when it becomes an end unto itself. The “valid” part of validation seems to me to connote a practicality, a necessary grounding in reality. Validation is a logical response to things that are valid and useful. It is an illogical (and, I might add, emotionally unsatisfying) response to something that serves no purpose, or serves a purpose less important than some other more pertinent purpose.

    The over-emphasis of “feelings” reminds me of something I was reading about Scientology the other night. Something to the effect of, “If someone tells you that they’ve had a bad day, the ‘correct’ response is not, ‘What’s wrong?’ Rather, the correct response is ‘Thank you’.”

    No, actually, I think that, “What’s wrong?” is the much more appropriate response. I can’t even parse what the ‘Thank you’ response is supposed to mean, or how it is supposed to help anyone.

  2. “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.”

    Oh Amanda, this is such an important post in general IMHO. I think the tendency to rely on emotion is probably at the very heart of the “curbie” culture – definitely capable and often purposefully ignoring reality. By the way, I love the look of your new site!

  3. You are absolutely right on this, Amanda. I spent several years
    working for a non-profit childcare center. Although I had great
    respect in most ways for the people I worked with, they would
    frequently launch into these long (useless) discussions about feelings. I used to wonder sometimes if the building caught on fire if they would actually evacuate, or if they would sit there discussing their feelings about the fire until they all died of smoke inhalation.

  4. I think, Amanda, that you’re right in that this feelings-obsessed ‘therapy culture’ is largely an American thing. We Brits are rather too cynical for that sort of thing! Mind you, it has spread over here to a certain extent as well.

  5. “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.”

    I think this misses out something. Aren’t people’s thoughts and feelings about things ultimately determined by that person’s material experiences? I would certainly argue that they are.

  6. I don’t live up well to the emotionless logical aspie stereotype either. I can *sound* dispassionate in my online writing, but that’s the result of years of trying to find a way to keep myself calm enough to express what I really think when I’m frustrated.

    But yes– I’ve certainly seen instances where ‘validating someone’s feelings’ was considered to be an acceptable substitute for helping them, or when someone was permitted to act abusively towards others under the guise of ‘needing to express their feelings.’ Pop psychology acts as a promoter of these attitudes; ‘relationship gurus’ like the infamous John Gray have made millions of dollars by informing troubled spouses that women don’t actually *want their problems solved*; they just *want their feelings validated.* In other words, it’s better to say “I understand why you’re upset, honey. It’s okay for you to feel that way,” than to help out with a situation which is continuing to make her upset for good reason. (Conversely, it’s also okay for men to lash out at women if the woman intrudes on their masculine territory, by the same kind of thinking, because he’s just expressing the feelings that come naturally to him.)

    I think I’ve had both ends of the stick handed to me, at different times in my life. There have been times when I asked someone to tone down their aggressive or abrasive attitude towards me because I found it upsetting, and was told that this would not happen because ’emotions are for the weak’ and that I was weak for being offended. Or someone justified an outright attack as “I’m just telling you the truth, even if you don’t like it.”

    And then, on the other hand, I’ve also been told to basically shut up because I was ‘being hurtful’ and ‘attacking others’ when I was doing nothing but pointing out the truth as I saw it. My mother, in particular, was fond of this strategy– to claim I was hurting her feelings by challenging her position on any subject, even just to present evidence against any of her views. (She also claimed I was hurting her by objecting to her barrages of verbal abuse against certain other family members, because by doing so, I wasn’t “letting her have her feelings.” This, apparently, took precedence over everything else, including hurt that might be caused to *me* by having to listen to her throw around lies about them.) In ways, she was an awful lot like the curebie parents complaining about their hurt feelings. She also instructed me repeatedly and explicitly to lie to others when I had any kind of negative feeling about them– not just to take a “smile and nod” approach, but to carry out the pretense of liking someone as a masquerade for years on end.

    The message I got from this was that relationships are too fragile to withstand the truth. It’s something that’s haunted me for years, in that it put an extreme damper on my ability to express or acknowledge my real opinions, and I still fight against it a lot. It’s hurt me in more ways than the abstract. It resulted in me allowing myself to be abused because I was afraid I would hurt someone’s feelings or turn them against me if I said “no.”

    I also think we’re seeing something of a backlash against the concept of ‘everyone needs to be allowed to expess their feelings’ in the form of the ‘snark culture’ that’s been developing online, where any kind of expression of vulnerability or personal problems is derided as “drama” and “emo.” This kind of scares me too. I co-moderate a community where people seem to be constantly prefacing a request for advice or help with “Sorry for all the emo/drama/whining, but…” (even when it’s perfectly reasonable to be asking for help). That’s… not exactly my idea of a good antidote to the ‘everyone’s feelings must be validated’ therapy culture.

  7. What really bothers me about the focus on feelings instead of actual problems isn’t the importance it places on emotions, but rather the implication that the current system is right by default, and thus the feelings need to be adjusted to match the (assumed correct) system and not the other way around.

    It’s to my mind the same reasoning as that used by those who support normalisation of autistic people.

  8. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Blog Archive » On “contradictions” and so-called prodigies and so-called savants and prejudice and being a freak on display.

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