Understanding the Difference Between Feeling and Acting

Have you noticed how often people confuse a feeling with how they act on that feeling?

For example, when parents beat their kids, and you ask them why, they might say, “I was angry.”

But that isn’t an answer. It’s a description of an emotional state. An answer would be, “I chose to act on my anger by beating my kid.” It was one of multiple options for how they could have handled their anger. “I was angry” is not an answer. It’s not an excuse for inflicting harm.

Even if the action isn’t something as severe as a beating, it can still be a damaging choice. “Screaming at,” for instance, or “putting down.”

Another example is how people use desire as an excuse for rape or sexual assault. As if there’s only one way to act on feelings of sexual desire. Like you’re on autopilot between the first stirring of desire and the violation of another person.

Managing your emotions and exercising self-control are a critical part of being a mature person. Ideally, you begin to learn useful lessons as a kid for how to understand feelings and figure out ways to deal with them that don’t involve harming other people or yourself.

Many people unfortunately don’t learn these lessons growing up, or they learn them inconsistently and poorly. Regardless, as an adult, it’s important to work towards greater maturity. You need to distinguish between emotions and actions and build up habits of thought and behavior that will help you avoid destructive choices.

I’m not saying this is easy to do. Sometimes, the distance between an emotion and an action can seem incredibly small, even nonexistent. People are especially vulnerable in certain areas, like sex or relationships more generally, food and drink, acquisitiveness, various fears. You’re influenced by insecurities, beliefs about what you’re entitled to, ingrained behaviors that kick in thoughtlessly, and other deep-seated issues that need to be examined and addressed. You also can’t be complacent about the self-control you’ve achieved so far.

In day-to-day life, the hardest struggles often involve the power of feelings and the temptation to take the path of least resistance to them, to surrender to them fully. But that isn’t the path of maturity and wisdom.

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