If it’s true that “what you feel isn’t necessarily real”, you might question where your feelings stem from. In part, I believe many of your feelings and all too many of your reactions and behaviors stem from your fears. Let me give you three examples.
I recently saw Phil, a 45-year old bachelor, in therapy. He said the divorcee he was dating accused him of having anger issues for which he needed treatment. He then related several instances where she became irate with him and strongly chastised him for his “caustic tone of voice and hostile brand of humor.” Because he was frightened he might lose her, he stifled much of his typical behavior. He then attempted to act in accordance with the way he felt a cooperative, compliant individual would. A role which definitely didn’t suit him and resulted in awkward behavior that was as real as artificial grass. Once again, she chastised him, indicating that she couldn’t trust his behavior and that, if he could play either role so proficiently, she didn’t know who the real Phil was. He docilely implied it was her fault for sending conflicting messages, which caused him to have doubts over what to say or how to say it. Her retort was, “I can’t be around you any more because of your critical nature.” His conclusion was, “I feel I must be doing something wrong for her to treat me this way.”
Jo Ann sees herself as a flower in an onion field. She knows she’s different from most people, but perceives that others inappropriately vent their anger and frustration on her. She feels the victim who is in no way responsible for the treatment she receives. After all, she’s the one in the office who remembers everyone’s birthday and brings in goodies and shares them. What she doesn’t see is how quickly she becomes defensive, how much she complains and attempts to control and how passive-aggressive she can be. Don’t try to tell her differently, however. She’s convinced that what she feels is real.
Carl called my office for an emergency meeting. It was difficult to understand the nature of the problem, because he was sobbing like a baby. This wasn’t the Carl I knew. It was not only apparent that he was extremely depressed but, between the lines, I heard the message that “life isn’t worth living any more”. Consequently, I agreed to meet him at 5:30 a.m. in my office. When he arrived, he seemed no better than when I received his call the night before. He dropped into the chair and drew up into a fetal position, with his chin resting on his chest. The tears flowed profusely while he repeatedly said, “She left. She just left. I can’t believe it. She just came in and said she saw an attorney and filed for divorce. I asked if there was another man involved. She swore there wasn’t. She said she had just come to the end of her rope. I pleaded, on my behalf and the kids’, but she assured me the kids would do fine with her and that her mind was closed to any other alternative. Well, she and the kids might do well, but what about me? I have no idea why she’s so unhappy. We get along, our kids seem to be doing well, we have no financial problems and I feel like our marriage is a good one.”
I tried to console him over his grief and asked if he could concentrate long enough to hear a short story. He said he could. I told him about a friend of mine, who decided at a late age, to take up golf. He decided the first step was to find a golf pro he could relate with and then take lessons from him. He did both and his game started to improve. Then, one day, the pro told him, “You know, from your posture, it’s evident why you’re hooking the ball. In the middle of your swing your grip changes and you decidedly lower your shoulder.” “I don’t feel that”, he said. The golf pro took digital movies of my friend’s swing, then showed him ten different sequences, in slow motion, that strongly supported exactly what the pro had described. My friend shook his head and said, “It baffles me that I don’t feel it.” The pro said, “That’s because there is a decided difference between what you feel and what is real.”
That’s a statement that all of you need to remember. So many of you go through life acting and reacting on the basis of what you feel and believing it’s real. As a result, you don’t question or feel the need to verify whether your feelings and subsequent actions are appropriate, or will achieve the end results you claim you desire. When, or if, that’s the case, you need to ask someone you trust will be honest with you if your feelings are creditable.
In many ways, it’s the same for every one of you, whether you’re single, married, contemplating marriage, or experiencing difficulties interacting with your spouse, partner or friends. Don’t always believe what you feel, because it isn’t always real. Question, open up, be vulnerable and, more often than not, you may find that what you feel is really what you fear. In Phil’s case, his fear of losing his girlfriend caused him to not only accept that he was the one who had anger problems, but also to believe he was the guilty responsible party. Conversely, probably because of her desperate need to be accepted, along with her fear that she is lacking, Jo Ann preferred to feel the victim who accepts little or no responsibility for her problems. Then there’s Carl who, because of his fear of facing his own emotions and feelings, was willing to accept that “a marriage that operates like a well-oiled machine” is a good one. In all three instances, you can clearly see that, when you act out of your fears, you are very likely to act inappropriately and hurtfully. The end result being that the person you wind up hurting the most is yourself.
You may well benefit from an adage your mother one told you, “Before you explode, count to ten.” Let me add, “and ask yourself, ‘why am I so irritated, angry or upset?’, i.e., ‘what am I afraid of?’”