Close Connections: Fighting feelings & thoughts
By Nancy Norman
Do you spend a lot of time wondering where your less attractive feelings and thoughts come from? Or trying to make the “really bad ones” go away?
We have lots of beliefs about this part of our humanity: Feelings get us into trouble. We shouldn’t think wicked thoughts. Thinking something is as bad as doing it. We should be judged on what we think and feel.
When I was young, I was full of “bad” feelings. I felt a murderous hatred for Lee Harvey Oswald. I wanted to steal my best friend’s boyfriend. I felt ashamed of my despondency, a sorrow about life itself even though we had plenty (a sin called “tristitia” in olden times). And I was certainly angry with God.
I became more and more depressed. I believed I was bad for feeling what I felt. The more I thought feelings and actions should be judged with the same rigor, the stronger the feelings got and the worse I felt about myself.
Now, mind you, I hadn’t done anything. I felt these feelings and “unacceptable” thoughts, but had not acted on them.
I found my way to therapy, carrying the burden of all those “wrong and bad feelings.” It’s a wonder I could walk. I was lucky to find a therapist whose acceptance of me – despite what I told him – began to lighten my heart’s burden.
It was extraordinary! He was saying there needs to be, in a healthy life, a vast difference between how a person feels about having feelings and thinking something, and actually doing what they’re feeling or thinking. “Can you see the difference,” he asked, “between feeling like slapping someone and actually slapping them? And how you judge yourself for both?”
He believed, as I do since then, that good people have “bad” thoughts and feelings: plotting revenge after being hurt, fantasizing making love with someone else’s husband, wanting to hit someone, hating your brother with a passion, to name a few.
As I began to loosen my grip on this incarcerating belief of “thinking or feeling is doing,” I began to feel freer. First it was scary to “let the feelings be” without fleeing from or attacking them. Then gradually I was able to say, “Oh well, it’s just a feeling. Don’t waste time judging. Work at understanding it.”
The huge irony here is that by facing head on the thoughts and feelings that seemed so wrong – without condemnation or flight – they lessened in intensity. I began to understand where they came from and didn’t feel so bad about myself for having them. Trying to squash them had made them bigger!
Granted, there are those who are impaired so they cannot separate thoughts and feelings from action and will act on their feelings without regard for self or others. But for most of us regular folks (and we can all be impulsive), we can look at our feelings and thoughts, and trust ourselves to choose what to do. Our thoughts and feelings then become free for the experiencing.
Nancy Norman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, musician with The Storys duo and former “Intimacy” columnist for The Wichita Eagle. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.