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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What’s this ‘self’ we’re trying to help?

Read this thought-provoking piece on self-help in New York Magazine, which asks how self-help can work if we don’t yet fully understand what a ‘self’ is: what the mind is exactly, the nature of personality and character, who we are, what we are, how we operate in the world.

There’s much about the human brain (and by extension, mind) that we don’t know. We can’t fully explain why some people who struggle with an addiction to drugs for example fight it off successfully and remain sober for the rest of their lives, while other people – in spite of loving support and rehab and other life changes – relapse repeatedly. We can’t explain why, when faced with a 1,000-calorie dessert or a pack of cigarettes or a toxic but compelling person, we’re able to turn away sometimes, while other times we give in with seeming helplessness. What is this impulse towards self-destruction that persists even when we know that something is bad for us? What is it that drives our behavior at a “tipping point” when we can easily tilt towards one decision or another, harmful vs. beneficial?

Self-help guru cartoon

One thing I think is true is that the brain craves familiarity. It gets comfortable with certain modes of thought and habits, and it’s resistant to change. There can even be a kind of comfort in destructive behavior, thoughts and emotions, as long as they’re what we know; they’re our reality, and in some ways they feel right even when they’re horrible.

Much of the brain’s activity takes place beyond our awareness. For years and years our thoughts flow along familiar patterns; concepts and categories are fixed in place and cemented from the earliest moments of our life. When we fall back on what we already know and what we usually do, the brain doesn’t have to exert much effort.

So what pushes us to change? Knowing that we should change is not enough. We can spend hours reading books or combing through the Internet, where we will find a lot of information and ideas to contemplate. Some of that knowledge may be necessary for us to improve our lives. But it isn’t sufficient; furthermore, reading endlessly can serve as a procrastination tactic (keep reading the next website, and the one after that, and avoid actually doing anything). So what starts diverting our thoughts from their habitual channels? Even if you tell me that it’s necessary to impose new habits over the old ones – and that eventually those new, hopefully healthier habits will start to seem natural – where does that initial act of will come from that allows you to start checking your automatic thoughts and responses? Why does this will persist in some, in the face of repeated failure even, and why does it die away in others?

(Image links back to its source: Entrepremother blog.)

Does an attitude of self-affirmation help you notice your mistakes?

You're awesome image found on The Identity Specialist blog

At a first glance, the findings from the following neuroscience study seem counterintuitive. Does giving yourself a pat on the back help you notice your mistakes? Wouldn’t it make you more complacent? But it turns out that self-affirmation, as it’s defined in this study and others, amounts to more than telling yourself that you’re awesome. It’s about reminding yourself of who you are, what you most believe in and identify with.

Let’s have a look at the study.

38 undergraduates were asked to rank six different kinds of values (religious, social, etc.) by order of personal importance. The undergraduates who were randomly assigned to the ‘self-affirmation group’ were then asked to write why their most highly ranked value is important to them; those in the ‘non-affirmation group’ were asked to write why their most highly ranked value isn’t important to them. This request sets up the non-affirmation group to undermine themselves to some extent and betray what they feel is important to them.

After the writing exercise, subjects from both groups were run through a task that commonly measures executive functioning: the “go/no go” task.

… they were told to press a button whenever the letter M (the “go” stimulus) appeared on a screen; when the letter W (the “no-go” stimulus) appeared, they were supposed to refrain from pressing the button. To increase the sense of threat in the task, participants were given negative feedback (“Wrong!”) when they made a mistake.


During this task researchers recorded their brain activity with EEG. In the self-affirmation group (which performed better on the task than the non-affirmation group), subjects’ brain activity showed a stronger response to errors. Self-affirmation seemed to be associated with increased processing of errors.

People often get defensive about messing up; they hate having their mistakes pointed out to them and often prefer to live in blindness to their own errors. I think the tendency to get defensive is stronger in people who have a more incomplete or damaged sense of self; in that case they’d find the error especially threatening and would process it less deeply in order to protect themselves. Maybe in people who feel more steady, strong, and committed to who they are and what they believe in, an error isn’t such a threat to their sense of self and can be processed more deeply?

It’s also possible that the non-affirmation group was a bit discombobulated after having to write about why their most important belief really isn’t that important; it’s a strange request to make of someone, and the subjects might have thought that something was weird in the experiment and didn’t attend as much as they should have to the go/no-go task, or tried to figure out if there was something more complex going on than pressing buttons for the letter M vs. W. (Years ago in college when running a cognitive psych experiment I had a couple of subjects who seemed unusually tense and alert during the task, which involved naming pictures they saw on a computer screen. Afterwards they told me they kept waiting for a catch – that the task was too simple and that there must be some kind of trick. What the trick was, they weren’t sure, but they had tried to figure it out. Their reaction times were slower than average as a result, and some of the names they came up with for the pictures were odd.)

Synaptic Sunday #3

This Sunday, some links on addiction and control:

1) The Fallacy of the Hijacked Brain

An op-ed from the NY Times:

A little logic is helpful here, since the “choice or disease” question rests on a false dilemma. This fallacy posits that only two options exist. Since there are only two options, they must be mutually exclusive. If we think, however, of addiction as involving both choice and disease, our outlook is likely to become more nuanced. For instance, the progression of many medical diseases is affected by the choices that individuals make.

2) Disease and Choice

One blogger’s response to the above op-ed.

The hijacked brain metaphor may be flawed, but it’s attempting to communicate that the addiction uses the addict’s own self-preservation instincts, desires and will to maintain addiction.

3) Addicts’ Brains May Be Wired At Birth For Less Self-Control

A study in Science finds that cocaine addicts have abnormalities in areas of the brain involved in self-control. And these abnormalities appear to predate any drug abuse.

Cocaine addicted people were studied alongside siblings who didn’t have a drug abuse history. What’s interesting is that the siblings also showed poorer self-control during the study’s task, and had atypical brain scan findings as well. So what led to one sibling abusing drugs, while the other didn’t? How do personal choices and environment come into play? Having a brain that might be more susceptible to poor impulse control or addictive behaviors doesn’t doom you to drug addiction. And, as in other studies, were there individuals whose results differed from the group as a whole? (e.g. a cocaine-addicted person who didn’t have the pre-existing abnormalities in the brain).