Do you ever say to yourself “I can’t help how I feel.”
Part of the humour of the long running radio show Just a Minute is the mocking of its chairman Nicholas Parsons. When panellist Graham Norton was given the topic ‘Freudian slips’ he talked about ‘man love’ revealing his ‘gruntaffilic attraction to Parsons’ and saying ‘I can’t help those feelings.’ In other words “I can’t help how I feel.” Whereupon Paul Merton gets a big laugh by buzzing and shouting ‘Try!’ In other words try to feel differently. But can one really change how one feels?
Norton’s sentiment reminded me of the Hey Stephen song:
“Cause I can’t help it if you look like an angel
Can’t help it if I wanna kiss you in the rain so
Come feel this magic I’ve been feeling since I met you
Can’t help it if there’s no one else
Mmm, I can’t help myself ”
It got me thinking about my own feelings. Is it possible for me to feel differently about certain things, people, situations? Emotions I take for granted seem to be naturally part of me and always will be. But do I have to feel so irritated by certain people who cause me discomfort? Do I have to feel so attached to my favourite food? Or feel so lazy when obliged to go somewhere.
Is it possible to alter our feelings, in the sense of making ourselves stop feeling negative or stop enjoying those things we believe to be unhelpful or even just down-right wrong?
Assuming our feelings are inevitable
You might be thinking ‘Of course my feelings are part of me — feeling angry, happy, displeased, turned on, sad whatever. I need to be myself and that means keeping in touch with what I like and not being afraid to express these feelings. Isn’t that what honest living is all about?’
“Never apologize for showing your feelings. When you do, you are apologizing for the truth.” (José N. Harris)
Well okay I can buy into authenticity and being a real person in your own right and not just a conformist. But what if some of your desires are bad? What if some of your emotions are harmful? Have you no capability of changing how you are to become a better person? No ability to change what you like and want?
Don’t we learn to appreciate and enjoy things which at first are daunting and unattractive. Which beer drinkers enjoyed their very first glass of bitter? Is it not an acquired taste?
My thought can affect how I feel
You might suppose that it would be only natural to feel angry if insulted, hurt if injured, or despair if all hope is removed. However one Nazi concentration camp inmate refused to accept that feelings were automatically determined by his situation and instead tried to change the way he felt.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” (Viktor Frankl)
Psychological therapists work with intractable patients trying to make them stop loving the socially awkward things they love. The basis of cognitive therapy is the idea that harmony is the normal state of consciousness; that the mind is inclined towards congruity between thinking and emotion. We defend what we enjoy with all sorts of justifications. We find reasons for what we want to believe. The mind seems to be built that way. When feeling and thinking are no longer in harmony, we suffer discomfort, and anxiety.
So therapists challenge people’s mistaken ways of thinking to encourage the development of sensible thoughts because they have found that new feelings emerge that match the new thoughts. For example realising when there is no real danger in a specific situation, the client starts to feel calm rather than afraid: appreciating that there is no evidence of a partner’s infidelity, the client feels less uptight rather than seething with jealousy.
Awareness of social ideals
Spiritually aware people tend also to want to promote change. They want to encourage a feeling of protectiveness towards the environment, sympathy towards third world suffering, a feeling of togetherness to overcome the challenge of multicultural tension. Understanding the ideals could mean feeling a new frustration and anger with the current state of things, finding new hopes and gaining new excitement and delight in progress made. Then one could find that the old feelings of cynical resignation, negativity and disinterest were never inevitable feelings.
Awareness of personal responsibility for how I feel
Likewise gaining an understanding of the ideal self can lead to personal change. New feelings can develop whilst pursuing self-improvement. It is one thing to face in a new direction but another to set off with a will. This idea of personal choice is quite contentious because of the many factors scientists have discovered that seem to reduce our freedom: one’s individual genetic constitution, the effects of family upbringing, social pressures towards cultural norms, lack of economic opportunities etc. However, I do believe that whatever one’s situation it is possible to find the necessary courage and determination to refuse to allow setbacks to put you down, and that by examining one’s attitude one can start to feel differently about life’s frustrations.
I would suggest that to change the way you feel means first challenging the habits of thought which maintained the old feelings. For example if angry you might believe you have lost your temper. An alternative attitude is that temper isn’t something you lose: it’s something you decide to throw away.
In other words you might stop blaming things that you suppose make you feel you do — stress, tiredness, external events, natural urges and instead you could focus on your inner vision and responsibility for how you are in yourself.
I would say that you don’t have to spend time stewing in your sense of hurt or feeling hard done by. Those feelings will never go away unless you turn your back on them.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems