They are as certain as death and taxes. They dominate our life. They often fluctuate minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year. They are a fabric of our very inner most being. Billions and billions of dollars are spent every year in marketing to lure us in through them. Words describing them show up everywhere in our languages. Even in our sleep, we experience them. They often consume us. They are responsible for some of the most magnificent creations and the most atrocious deeds. They remain with us from the very beginning of life and only leave us when we are gone from this earth. They are our emotions or feelings.
As human beings who are consumed by how we feel, it seems imperative that we come to understand not just how important they are, but how they can be utilized in the wisest of ways. As I previously wrote about, feelings are first and foremost designed as both informants and comforts in our daily lives.
When we speak about feelings designed as short-term informants, such as anxiety, fear, guilt, and the like, we find that when utilized well, they are supposed to guide us to a desired action that aligns with God’s design. And yet, when experienced chronically and incessantly, and not utilized appropriately, they typically lead to poorer physical, psychological, social, and even spiritual outcomes. For example, chronic, pervasive anxiety can increase blood pressure, heighten paranoia, reduce relationship quality, and even leave us agnostic.
On the flip side, other feelings (which are more like states of being than feelings), such as love, trust, admiration, and the like are designed to be experienced in the long-term. They provide comfort, joy, and peace in our lives. When this occurs, human beings typically flourish in a holistic way, and are more resilient in whatever obstacles come our way.
The challenge of this, though, is that not only are most of us provided with little lifelong support and education to navigate this confusing landscape, but there are also an infinite number of ways that each of us might “feel” about the same situation. When this occurs, it can lead to distress, conflict, and even detachment from those that we love.
Take, for instance, the time-honored example of keeping a house clean, especially for families who have a bunch of kids (like ourselves). Not only can the act of cleaning result in stress and strain. But also the differing feelings (or perspectives) about what is clean and reasonable, and what is not, can be stressful too, especially if one person is more easily frustrated about clutter and uncleanliness than another. To further this challenge, by the time people are married or living together, various forces (e.g., temperament, formative experiences) have likely forged a strong opinion about what feels right, and what doesn’t.
So, in using the cleaning example, it’s important to consider steps needed to reduce any unnecessary stress from the toil already required. First, it is critical to recognize that feelings are real to the person feeling them, but do not necessarily reflect reality or truth in the broader sense. Although in rare, more extreme circumstances, where a particular feeling reflects a pathological condition or situation, much of what occurs in households is part of the normal variation of life.
In the example used, except in situations of OCD or household neglect, there is a reasonable difference by which cleanliness may be felt as (and actually is) important. In this typical variation, there is not necessarily a right way or means by which cleanliness should occur. Thus, it is both critical to validate the feelings of the people involved while also acknowledging that one “right way” doesn’t necessarily exist.
Second, when feelings conflict about various matters, it’s important for all involved to take the time to understand why each person feels strongly in a certain way. Otherwise, stress and strain can easily be heightened in the short and long-term unnecessarily.
In regard to the current example, it might be that keeping things clean reduces uneasiness associated with clutter, or the appearance of cleanliness is both reassuring and appealing. For others, who are less concerned with cleanliness, it may be that time spent doing other things (e.g., relaxing, exercising) is perceived as more needed or desired than effort towards a consistent focus on keeping “things in order.” Even though understanding these differences likely doesn’t eliminate the “philosophical differences”, it does provide a more empathic way of understanding each other, and appreciating what can be learned from different perspectives.
Speaking of effort required, this relates to the third critical step in addressing issues where feelings may differ. The issue most important here relates to the effort to both compromise and collaborate around creative ways to positively address both people’s negative feelings, and needs that correspond to this.
As an example in our home, where my wife and I differ on our feelings about the issue of cleanliness (hence the example provided), we recognized that one compromise was for me to institute a routine whereby I “rally the troops” for a 20-minute group cleaning in exchange for my wife, Amy, reducing her degree of focus on getting the kids to do work around the home. Although not perfect, what this has done is both reduce the stress that all of us feel from constant redirections around cleaning while also increasing the efficiency and collective nature of the process itself. This in turn allows both myself and the kids to have more “protected” time when it isn’t felt that cleaning demands can spontaneously occur. And for all, it provides more free time in the evenings to unwind from a stressful day.
Ultimately, this group effort from every individual in our family creates a sense of responsibility, accountability, and security. Offering the gift of ourselves through service to one another, and doing so in a way that is not forced, but given freely (as much as chores can be) for the greater good of the family, has been a good compromise in helping us as spouses appreciate and respond to each others’ different feelings.
Finally, in regard to dealing with differing feelings, it is imperative that we are reminded that solutions don’t just fall in the external category, but also the internal one. External solutions involve anything an individual or other people do (or don’t do) to reduce a negative feeling, such as picking up clothes or vacuuming more often. Internal solutions involve “reframing” our attitudes and perspectives towards a particular circumstance. This specifically relates to our attribution of a) the importance of our feelings compared to a broader reality and b) perceived motives of the other person.
In the example provided, it might be easy to think that a person is obsessive over cleaning or that the house has to be clean “or I can’t relax.” But the reality is that even after decades of developing perspectives and habits, we have the ability to shift these in a way that might be healthier and more effective.
In the end, our instinctive feelings and reactions might be difficult to change, but our response to them doesn’t have to be. How we use them, how we learn from them, and the perspective we take towards them is always changeable― always malleable―if we are willing to prioritize a sense of genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard for ourselves and those around us, no matter how we might feel about them at the time. Like anything good in life, it takes regular effort, communication, and a spirit of collaboration. But with the alternative being either perpetual disagreements or unhealthy submissions, it’s worth coming together in this way.