Whatever you say about feelings, it won’t do them justice.
Like a bulldozer
Like a summer breeze
Like an ax
Like a scalpel
Pushed and pulled
Propped up and tripped
Luring and deflecting
Sucked in and spit out
Like a surfer can I choose the feeling I will ride?
Or am I the victim of an off-shore emotional earthquake?
Can I control or
Am I a thing with which to be toyed?
Say what you will about feelings.
Let me know when you’ve got it figured out.
I just want to drive my car where I want to drive it.
It would be difficult to overstate the power of our feelings. Our emotions can add a great deal of quality to our lives, yet they can also steer us in self-serving, destructive directions and seemingly drain us of self-control. This is because we place a lot of value on feeling good. We constantly monitor how we feel about everything from the temperature of the air around us, to the quality of the food set before us, to the way we are being treated by a colleague or loved one, to the image we see when we look in the mirror. Evaluating our feelings seems endless.
I believe that feeling good is so important that many people will go to almost any length to achieve it, even if it involves using artificial means as a prop. There are healthy ways to feel good. Glasser described how some activities could add creativity and power to our lives in his book, Positive Addiction (1976). When our needs are satisfied in way that adds value to our lives and that doesn’t erode our personal freedom the end result is a healthy feeling of accomplishment and happiness.
Unfortunately, there are also unhealthy ways to feel good. This can happen when we settle for a feeling of fleeting pleasure, rather than working for longer-lasting happiness. Achieving the moment of pleasure can also give us a temporary feeling of being in control. The many different ways we self-medicate are all testament to this pursuit of a feeling of pleasure. The illegal drug “industry” and to an extent, the legal drug industry are a huge part of this pursuit, however there are hundreds of other ways we self-medicate, too. Food, sex, gambling, shopping, and escaping into books and movies can each be part of this pursuit.
Something in choice theory that helps us understand the role of feelings in our lives is the concept of total behavior. Total behavior is based on several key beliefs –
1. Human beings are constantly behaving.
2. All behavior is purposeful.
3. All behavior is a total behavior.
Total behavior describes how each of our behaviors—whether making coffee in the morning, driving in morning rush hour, relaxing with a good book, arguing with an irate customer, or vigorously exercising at the local club—is made up of four parts. The total behavior is the result of a mixture of four distinct parts—one part representing our thinking, one part representing our acting, one part representing our feelings, and one part representing our physiology. The metaphor of a car is often used to graphically describe how total behavior works. Each of the tires represents one of the four behavior parts. Our thinking and our acting are represented by the front two tires, because in the same way we have direct control over the front two tires when we drive, we also have direct control over the thinking and acting parts of our behavior. Our feeling and our physiology are represented by the two back tires, because in the same way we don’t have direct control over the direction of the back tires, neither do we have direct control over our feelings or physiology.
To begin to understand how total behavior describes behavior, let’s take one of the behaviors mentioned above—making coffee in the morning—and attempt to define each of its parts.
Thinking – I’m thinking about the process; do I have the right amount of water and coffee? I may be thinking about the coming day, too.
Acting – I’m actually making the coffee, installing the paper filter, turning the maker on.
Feeling – The house is still quiet, yet I may be feeling tense due to everything that faces me that day.
Physiology – My eyes are still waking up, heart rate is starting to pick up a bit, breathing normal.
These four parts make up the behavior of making coffee in the morning.
The total behavior of riding my bike up the hill to Angwin would be much different (approx. 6 miles with an elevation gain of close to 1,700 feet):
Thinking – I think about the route, the road in front of me, especially going down the hill at 40 mph. Going up the hill I am often thinking about ideas, like what to write in this blog.
Acting – I am pedaling and steering and keeping my balance.
Feeling – Sometimes exhilarating; occasionally discouraged, but it is hard to stay discouraged while riding a bike up a hill. I often feel satisfied (even as others pass me) as I ride.
Physiology – pupils dilated at just the right amount; heart working fairly hard; breathing increased; sweat glands usually active; digestion facilitated, etc.
These four parts make up the behavior of riding a bike up a hill.
This way of looking at our feelings helps us to understand their roles in our lives. They are an important part of our behavior, even though we don’t have direct control over them. For some of us, the feeling tire can become extremely oversized. (Picture the total behavior graphic with a feeling tire ten times bigger than the other three tires.) A car with one huge back tire would find it difficult to operate. In the same way, when our feelings get too big we can find it difficult to operate, too.
When feelings threaten to hijack us through their size and intensity, it helps to keep two things in mind –
1. Feelings are only feelings. They are our emotional response to our perception of reality. They do not have control over us, unless we give them that power. They give us feedback as we experience life, but they are just one part of our behavior.
2. We don’t have direct control over our feelings, but we do have indirect control over them through the front tire behaviors of our thinking and our acting. For instance, I admitted that a life circumstance may have me feeling a little discouraged as I start my bike ride, but that it is hard to stay discouraged as I zoom down the hill or struggle back up it. By deciding (thinking) to ride (acting), I ultimately affect my feelings and my physiology.
Just remember what a sixth grader learning about total behavior said –
“When your feelings get too big it’s like the driver of a car, while it’s like, going, letting go of the steering wheel and climbing into the back seat. That’s not too smart.”