How many times have you been told to “trust your gut” or to “listen to your heart?” People are often advised from a young age to do “what feels right” and this type of mood dependent decision-making spills over into adulthood. From deciding what to eat for dinner to ending a long-term relationship, people use their emotional temperature to make decisions.
Is this a bad thing? Well, at times it may be! Our emotions are an important part of our human make up and understanding our ever-changing emotional states is an important step to self-awareness. However, often times we attribute so much meaning to our transient emotional states that we create unnecessary distress and pain in our lives.
What do I mean by this? Well, first let’s take a minute to review how feelings come about. In order for a person to experience emotions, one must first perceive an event. Based on how one understands that event, one experiences a feeling. So, this means that one comes in contact with an event, has a thought about it, and then has a feeling related to those thoughts. So, you could say that your feelings are a mirror of what you are thinking. If that is the case, then the way we interpret the world has a great deal of impact on how we feel.
Keeping that in mind, let’s say that for whatever reason you start having negative thoughts about yourself, and you start to believe them. All of a sudden you get stuck feeling crummy, and while you are experiencing a significant amount of self doubt, your whole world seems to be unraveling. Now, I believe that you may truly be experiencing some significant hardships, but because you are already feeling “less than,” every situation around you becomes tainted with a negative filter. This means that your brain is essentially seeking to prove that your negative thoughts are correct, and that you are indeed worthless. The positive things that happen in your day-to-day life are disqualified rather quickly and the “bad” stuff is emphasized. Since we are usually taught to believe our emotional state, we start to think, “well, something must be wrong with me because I feel so bad.”
Aha, and there it is! You feel so bad, so therefore it must be true. FALSE! This is the trap! Beware. Dr. David Burns disputes this fallacy multiple times in his book, Feeling Good, by saying “feelings are not facts.” Our emotions can feel very realistic, and they can thereby reinforce negative thoughts by giving them an emotional anchor. However, this is merely a distorted air of credibility. Once you are able to identify how your negative feeling is associated with a negative thought, and then dispute the accuracy of that negative thought, you will be less likely to buy into the thought. Once you begin teaching your brain that the critical thoughts you are having are insignificant, the strong negative feelings you are experiencing will begin to lessen and one’s depression begins to lift.
Now, by no means do I believe one should not experience sadness, but there is a grave difference in developed emotional processing that helps one appreciate genuine sadness versus the entrapment of depression. Depression is a dark mask that veils the spectrum of emotions to such a degree that sadness and emptiness become home base for a person. This is a painful reality for many, but there is hope. Acknowledging the powerful role one’s thoughts play in perpetuating feelings and thereby one’s outlook is the first step to healing.