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Acting on Feelings or Beliefs?

THE BEST USES OF EMOTIONS AND BELIEFS

A client recently taught me a helpful little verse:

Feel your feelings,

     and talk them out.

Believe your beliefs,

     and act them out.

I can think of three ways we often violate this helpful little guideline.

  1. We neglect it altogether. When we mess up a situation, we are often too proud, scared, or guilty to go back and fix it. Even when we have handled a situation badly, it helps to go back later to correct our response. It’s never too late to talk out our feelings and act out our beliefs.
  1. We do either one without doing the other, and that doesn’t work very well. Expressing our emotions but taking no principled actions gets us sympathy but very little respect. Acting out our beliefs without letting people know how we feel may get immediate and superficial cooperation, but it will not inspire much ongoing loyalty, obedience, or wisdom.
  1. All too often we do the reverse of the verse – we talk out our beliefs, but when it’s time to make a decision, we act out our feelings. Things don’t turn out so well that way, and here’s why.

We need to remember that our feelings are due mostly to our assumptions and beliefs about the situation and the people involved, and not so much to the situation and the people themselves. Our feelings are primarily a reflection of the contextual meaning we give to the situation. The situation and the people are made better or worse by our healthy or unhealthy beliefs about them. For example, it helps to believe that people and situations can change for the better, and that once they are given a choice, all people need to be held responsible for their own beliefs, actions, and even for their emotions.

The word emotion comes from the Latin words “to move from.” The purpose of emotion is to move us from where we are to take some action. We talk our feelings out to connect us with others, to relieve internal pressure, and to move all who share the feeling to create change by acting together.

But emotions are often a very poor guide to action, especially painful feelings like hurt, anger, fear, shame, and grief. Emotional pain moves us to do things that take the feeling away, like taking a pain pill does. And like taking a sedative, there are harmful and hidden side effects. These emotionally driven actions, and especially the reactions of others to these choices, usually end up leaving us with even more hurt, anger, fear, shame or grief then we had to start with.

Just as pain-killers merely delay and expand our pain, acting out painful emotions leads to painful consequences. There are good and bad ways to talk out painful feelings. Rather than holding your feelings in or acting them out, it pays to talk our feelings out in a calm and brief way. This helps others to understand and trust us. If we vomit our feelings out verbally in a loud and long emotional discharge, it usually puts people off and drives them away, spreading abroad our painful feelings instead of our healthy beliefs.

Safer and wiser outlets are available for our emotions. We can discharge them vertically to God in prayer, if we believe in prayer, and then we can listen in meditation for a response. We can discharge our emotions horizontally, by calling hotlines staffed with people trained to hear our situation, our assumptions about it, and our feelings. Then they can point us to helpful resources. Or we can discharge our thoughts and feelings to close friends whom we trust to keep details to themselves, to remind us of our true beliefs, and hopefully, to answer for us this spoken or unspoken question: how am I creating or compounding this situation by my actions, or by doing nothing?

Beliefs are a much better guide for action than feelings are. Emotions can be a good guide for the tone of our behavior, but not for its direction. Our decisions are better based on guidelines for conduct and principles of life that address what’s best for all concerned, across the fullness of time. We need to take time to read or remember these guidelines, and we need to think and pray about how to apply them in a given situation. So just how might we go about talking out our feelings and acting out our beliefs?

For example, let’s say you are the parent or grandparent of a strong-willed little girl. She is sleepy right now because you haven’t given her a nap today. And like most nights, last evening you let her stay up late for fear that she would make a scene. Now she and her big brother are fighting over the one toy they found in the back seat of your car. Her brother as usual is polite and obedient, but his little sister is starting to come unglued.

You have a lot of feelings toward the sister, and not many toward the brother who is so easily overlooked. To act on your emotions, you might ignore the argument, or jerk the toy away from them both and then ignore their complaints. Out of your fear and guilt, you might give the toy to the little sister. Or you might just out-scream the little girl and have a tantrum of your own, perhaps talking out your beliefs as you preach a tense little sermon. None of these things would likely end the fight or prevent the next one.

But talking out your feelings and acting out your beliefs would have a different result. It might involve teaching both children to share or take turns, to treat each other as they would like to be treated. Your feelings toward the little girl could be talked out like this: “I am sorry I didn’t give you a nap, so if you’re going to pout for a little while, I understand. Listening to you now will teach me not to skip your nap next time. Since you need more sleep, I feel guilty for letting you stay up as long as your brother does every night. So I’m going to stop doing that too. Your brother minds me better than you do, so I will appreciate him by giving him the first turn with the toy, and the first chance to share.”

The bottom line is that I am teaching this little verse now to our grandchildren. When I use it to explain how I am solving a problem for them, I am talking out my feelings and acting out my beliefs, inspiring in them not so much my human emotions of pain as my helpful beliefs of peace.

 

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About Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Shelbyville, KY, 502 633 2860.