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 desire is used 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 act of harming another person.

And here’s another point to consider: An action doesn’t need to be external. It can be an internal response. For instance, someone might react to anger by suppressing it or pretending they don’t feel angry. This is ultimately a damaging choice, because if you suppress anger too often and for too long, it can lead to chronic high levels of stress, burnout, depression, addictive behaviors, and maybe over-the-top outbursts at some later point.

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 hurting yourself through self-destructive choices. 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 by distinguishing between emotions and actions and building 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; it can even feel nonexistent. People have areas where they’re especially vulnerable, like sex or relationships more generally, food and drink, acquisitiveness, various kinds of fears. There are insecurities roiling beneath the surface, 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 or maturity you’ve achieved so far. In day-to-day life, the hardest struggles often involve the power of various feelings and the temptation to take the least path of resistance to them, to surrender to them fully. But that isn’t the path of maturity and wisdom.

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On Becoming a Person, Chapter 3 – Thriving in a Healthy Helping Relationship

In the third chapter of his book, On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers talks about some of the qualities of a healthy helping relationship. Although his focus is on therapists and patients, he also notes how these qualities could apply to other relationships, such as parent-child or teacher-student. Here are some:

1) A sincere desire to understand the other person. This doesn’t mean saying “I understand what’s wrong with you and now I’ll fix you” or “I understand what’s wrong with you because I had a similar experience and this is how I felt about it” or “I understand all right, but your concerns aren’t serious.” It’s important to try to see an issue as the other person sees it, not how you see it. Even if you don’t always succeed in understanding, people at least pick up on the sincere effort.

2) Genuineness. This isn’t license to be rude and insulting (for instance, there are ways of expressing anger that don’t involve humiliating another person; and I’m making this point from the start because I know people who are brutally hurtful, then claim it’s ok because they’re just being themselves).

With genuineness, you aren’t constantly giving off conflicting messages – ‘nicey nice’ words with anger in your eyes, a compliment spoken in indifference, contempt or resentment – as these generate mistrust. You’re aware of your thoughts and feelings, and aren’t always compelled to put on a show in front of everyone. To be more genuine requires self-acceptance; you’re willing to take the risk of being more exposed. You do not need to appear ‘perfect’ and express the ‘perfect’ sentiment at all times. Self-acceptance also means that you have less fear of others and what kinds of reactions they might provoke in you; you’re more accepting of their presence as well, and less defensive about what they say or do.

3) Allowing yourself to feel warmth and caring. You can care about the other person, while knowing full well that there’s always the possibility that they’ll flake out on you, try to take advantage of your good will, make terrible mistakes, stab you in the back, or disappoint you. The alternative is to remain cold or completely impersonal, which usually closes off communication in these kinds of relationships (though it does give you the sense that you’re protecting yourself).

4) Reminding yourself that you’re distinct from the other person. Do you fear losing yourself in their emotions? On the flip side, are you trying to control them, needing them to slavishly follow what you say or be dependent on you? You really have to respect that the other person is distinct and separate from you, and you from them.

5) Unconditional acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you’re automatically condoning everything the other person does. It means that you keep regarding them as they are, instead of completely spurning them or twisting their words and behaviors to be more palatable to you. Or can you really only see the other person when they show you the kinds of things that are easiest and least disturbing for you to see?

6) The ability to create an unthreatening environment. Are you subjecting the other person to the threat of constant evaluation and judgment? Do they always feel as if they’re trying to prove themselves and are falling short? Or are you helping them establish their own standards of behavior, their own sense of what’s acceptable or not, and helping them take responsibility for themselves without the constant need of a punishment or harsh judgment hanging over their heads?

7) Perceiving the other person as constantly developing. Instead of seeing them purely bound to their past and what they’ve always been to you (often in unforgiving terms: an ignorant student, an immature child, a neurotic mess, etc.) you see them in the process of becoming, of daily changes and development.

Most of the time what blocks us from developing these qualities to any extent is fear – of being hurt and exposed, of being wrong. Another pitfall is all-or-nothing thinking: “I fail to be genuine all of the time, so I won’t bother.” Then there’s mental laziness, which can lead us to taking shortcuts in understanding and helping another person. The take home point is that to be in a position to consistently help others, you need to work on your own psychological maturity – so as not to use other people and their problems for your own purposes, and obscure them in a dense cloud of your own thoughts and feelings.