There’s an important distinction that can be very helpful for how you evaluate your actions and what goes on in your life.

Feelings are not facts.

I started thinking about this while reading Rand Fishkin’s “Lost and Founder”. In the book, he transparently shares his struggles with anxiety and depression and marks this realization as an important change in perspective.

As educated people engaged in a process of lifelong learning, we find this statement obvious. However, like many obvious ideas, it’s not until we unpack its implications that we realize how important it is to apply this distinction in our daily lives.

There are several important aspects to the “feelings are not facts” idea that are worth thinking about.

 

What goes wrong when you mistake feelings for facts

The first relates to the dangers of emotional reasoning.

Emotional reasoning is a cognitive process by which a person concludes that his/her emotional reaction proves something is true, regardless of the observed evidence.

People that often rely on emotional reasoning are biased and frequently draw incorrect conclusions based on their distorted perception of an event. Their reaction to stressful situations amplifies issues and problems instead of trying to objectively and constructively solve them.

I have someone in my close family who is a textbook example of how emotional reasoning not only makes her life more difficult but actually leads her to experience somatization.

Because she relies on emotional reasoning a lot, it affects her decision-making process and her reactions to the point where stress intensifies until it affects her physical health.

I also experienced this firsthand when I was struggling with depression.

Not only were my body and mind in a constant state of heightened anxiety but I was under the strong impression that because everything felt bad and scary, it really was bad and dangerous.

These cognitive distortions are risky and can harm us in a very real way.

When we treat feelings as facts:

  • We feel there’s no need to test our conclusions
  • We selectively look for facts that support our feelings and conclusions (confirmation bias)
  • We might even reject facts altogether (“I know I’m right”)
  • We become more extreme and more certain in our views, developing blindness to constructive debate, nuance, and complex dimensions
  • We project behaviors and reactions onto others based on our feelings.

This is our brain on autopilot. Emotions have such a powerful impact on how we perceive the world and ourselves because they came first. From an evolutionary standpoint, the limbic system was the first to form, while our prefrontal cortex, that governs our reasoning, developed later.

That’s why we oftentimes fall back to emotions in crisis situations. Thinking objectively doesn’t come naturally to humans, so it’s up to us to override this automatism and cultivate the habit of thinking in an unbiased manner.

Feelings are not facts.

Here’s what they actually are (according to science).

In her TED talk, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett reveals one of the most interesting findings of her 25 years of studying emotions:

Emotions are guesses.

Here are two of the most interesting snippets from her talk:

“[…] the bottom line is that emotions are not built into your brain at birth. They are just built.”

“Predictions are basically the way your brain works. It’s business as usual for your brain. Predictions are the basis of every experience that you have. They are the basis of every action that you take. In fact, predictions are what allow you to understand the words that I’m speaking as they come out of my —

Audience: Mouth. Lisa Feldman Barrett: Mouth. Exactly.

Predictions are primal. They help us to make sense of the world in a quick and efficient way. So your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain predicts and constructs your experience of the world.”

I highly recommend watching the entire talk for context and more useful insights:

How all of this impacts your decision-making process

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for becoming soulless, emotionless robots. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. Our limbic system won’t allow it.

What I’m keen on is figuring out how to strike a healthy balance between these two ways of making decisions.

Enter the dual process theory.

“The dual process account asserts that human beings have two separate methods for moral reasoning. The first refers to intuitive or instinctual responses to moral violations. These responses are implicit and the factors affecting them may be consciously inaccessible. Greene asserts that these responses are supported by emotional activation.

The second method refers to conscious, controlled reasoning processes. These processes ignore the emotional aspects of decision making, instead focusing on maximizing gain or obtaining the most desirable overall outcome.

In everyday decision making, most decisions use one or other system, but in moral dilemmas in which an individual must compromise between violating moral rules and maximizing overall good, the systems come into conflict.

One of the implications is that, in everyday situations, we decide based on feelings and then use reasoning to build a supporting argument for our choices. But the facts we choose are not commanded by our rationality but rather by the emotions which, as we just learned, are guesses about how the world works.

And there’s one last thing that I found worth mentioning.

 

Why we shouldn’t treat feelings as facts: a practical example

Neuroscience also reveals that our brains react to threats to our social status as it would to actual pain.

Here’s how it works:

When others disagree with our opinions or decisions (just recall your last social media feud), it activates our emotions because we experience what feels like real pain.

“Neuroscientists in Italy have discovered that “social pain” activates the same brain regions as physical pain. […]

Social pain is caused by events such as feeling excluded from social connections or activities, rejection, bullying, the sickness or death of a loved one, a romantic break-up…”

Another medical paper called “Social pain and physical pain: shared paths to resilience” highlights the same:

“Emerging neuroscience and psychological evidence suggests a substantial overlap between physical pain and social pain, which includes commonalities in genetic variants, inflammatory responses and neural pathways.

Social pain, like physical pain, may serve an adaptive evolutionary function, which may explain its similarities with physical pain. […]

Social factors may increase vulnerability to chronic pain via both focal exposure to major life stressors (e.g., trauma) and through chronic exposure to socially painful situations (e.g., ostracism, isolation and prolonged social conflict).”

So when we experience stress, our body feels the pain and it causes us to get physically sick (which, in turn, leads to a poor mental state that goes on to build a vicious cycle). Understanding this and learning to manage our emotions becomes key to our health.

An increasing number of people are talking about the real, quantifiable, and scientifically proven damage that social media inflicts on us as individuals and as a society. This reality has become painfully true in the last few years and it is bound to intensify.

If only for the sake of remaining sane, healthy, and enjoying our lives in this increasingly complex world, it is worth making an effort to build a mindset that can support us.

The path I personally strive for balance.

Of course, feelings are not bad. They are actually a core human trait but they’re only half of what it takes to make good decisions.

I believe we can have the best of both worlds if we learn to integrate our emotions and our actions in a way that helps us thrive.

 

P.S. This was originally sent on February 9th, 2019 (with minor updates added to reflect my current habits).

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