feelings first

by Ludwig Bemelmans

I was going to start this off by telling you an anecdote about my dad. Last weekend my uncle told me that he was struggling to switch from freshwater fishing to saltwater fishing, and wished my dad was still living in Vancouver so he could help out. "Your dad,” he said, "would research everything meticulously, come up with a bunch of theories on how to solve the problem, and then make us test out all his ideas one by one. He’s great at mapping things out.” I wanted to use this anecdote to explain where I get my need to intellectualize—I’m just like my dad in that having all the information soothes me like nothing else. But then I realized I’m just doing the same thing I always do: trying to explain it all away. Developmental psychology, attachment theory, Jungian shadow work—anything to make it make sense. I’m happiest when I can present a theory, and say here, now I understand.

So, I’ll try to start somewhere else. Maybe with a simple confession: I don’t trust my feelings. I never have. They’ve always seemed irrational to me. Dangerous. I was a sensitive kid, and anything could set me off. An extra pound on the scale or an awkward encounter with a boy I liked could ruin my whole day. My emotions made me feel out of control, and I’ve never liked feeling out of control. So I paid attention to the good feelings, and I shut the bad ones away. I’ve always been scared that negative emotions would slow me down.

The thing I didn’t understand back then was that emotions tell you something important. Yes, they’re often disproportionate (sulking for a week over a perceived insult isn’t good for anyone) and it’s generally harmful to interpret them too literally (just because you feel like everything is hopeless and doomed doesn’t mean it actually is). But our feelings point to our values and our sensitivities, our pasts and our dreams. My terror of gaining weight said something meaningful about my relationship with my body, my need to be conventionally attractive. My inability to confront anyone was the result of my deep-seated desire to please. Even when emotions don’t “make sense,” they have value.

Let me give you an example to illustrate the pitfalls of always discounting your emotions. Let’s say I’m in a relationship with someone who’s not super communicative. Sometimes they’re present, but often they seem distracted, unwilling to share, on some level not quite there. Let’s say this does not make me feel good. If I’m an analytical person who doesn’t trust my feelings on any level, I might try to analyze why it doesn’t make me feel good—childhood attachment wounds, for ex. Or why he isn’t communicative—new relationship, conflicted feelings re:his ex, avoidant communication style. I could decide that based on the evidence I’m being unreasonable, that this person really does care about me and this is just his personality. I could go on and pretend nothing is wrong. But I wouldn’t have, on any level, stopped and thought: this makes me feel really bad. I don’t want to be in a relationship that makes me feel really bad.

I’m not saying that we should trust our feelings 100% of the time. But I’m saying that it’s dangerous to not trust them at all. I’ve always thought I had to rationalize everything I feel. I like deconstructing emotional phenomena—nothing soothes me more than the possibility of a clear answer. It’s only recently that I’ve realized that my constant narration isn’t actually helpful. Because my rationalization is often incorrect. Whether we like it or not, our thoughts are affected by our emotional state (have you ever had a delusional crush on someone and convinced yourself they loved you back based on prolonged eye contact? Yeah, that.) The personal is political: our perspectives on the world are first and foremost shaped by our emotional experiences. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can abandon ego-based pursuits of objectivity and look for actual truth.

I’ve always had trouble trusting my intuition, my pre-conscious judgments about the world. But lately I’ve realized that my feelings have gotten a lot of things right. I’ve always known that I love writing and derived meaning from it, for instance. The people I feel the safest with, I felt it from the first moment—I walked up to my best friend in college the first day of class and said to him, “We’re going to be very good friends.” I just knew. With ex-boyfriends who weren’t such a good fit, I felt twinges of uncertainty early on—something about their inattentiveness, something about their rigidity. But I didn’t always listen to myself, even when I had qualms. I was always looking for explanations.

The truth is, I will always look for explanations. I am always seeking, never finding. But these days, I want to listen to myself more. Now I understand that discounting my feelings is a way of discounting the deepest part of myself, my most primitive needs. My feelings aren’t anyone else’s responsibility, but they tell me what excites me, what repulses me, what brings me joy. That makes them my responsibility.

I want to become someone who is comfortable inhabiting my own responses, who doesn’t need to erect a mental barrier between myself and the world. For the first time in my life, I’m trying to put my feelings first.