Two conversations and two questions: in the first exchange, a woman assured me that she was right in her stance about wearing/not wearing a mask because she could “feel it in her body.” In the second, a man said that when someone criticized him, she was being abusive—he knew this to be true because of his inner response.
And the questions, proffered by a third person: Aren’t feelings facts? Isn’t my gut feeling the best absolute barometer for truth?
I wish it were that simple.
Feelings are facts, in that they represent something real: the sensations of my body. They tell me that my stomach hurts, my head aches, or that my chest feels tight. These are facts, and part of the work of an adult is to acknowledge these sensations and decide what to do about them.
In another sense, feelings are not facts. They do not state clearly the truth of an external situation; they simply indicate my body’s interpretation of that external situation.
The new research on trauma, which provides real hope for healing PTSD, is all about bodily sensation—experiencing what is happening in our body rather than ignoring it or drugging it away. But the essence of good trauma therapy is intended to liberate one from the difficult experience, rather than allow it to frame every subsequent interaction.
If I grew up with screaming and hitting—and I don’t consciously examine my physical responses—then whenever someone raises her voice, my body is going to feel abused. If I grew up with silent scorn, I’ll interpret certain facial expressions as disdain whether intended or not. It doesn’t matter what I know rationally. The body decides long before I start thinking.
Relying solely on bodily sensation to navigate life choices is no more adequate than relying solely on logic. Healthy responses come from using both our sensations and our working minds.
We’re in a tricky time. The pandemic may be easing but the seeds of mistrust sown in this last year won’t disappear with vaccinations. When I read the paper or FaceBook or listen to the news, it’s obvious that most of us are desperately trying to bludgeon each other into agreement with our viewpoint.
The upside of this mess is that this is an ideal time to develop my character, starting with a close look at my physical response to ideas that I dislike!
That closer look shows that like virtually everyone else, I’m more comfortable with my settled opinion than with hearing something challenging. I may avoid people with whom I seriously disagree—partly because I don’t like being harangued, but also because I don’t want to be unsettled. It hurts to change my mind. At some level, I am afraid of others’ opinions. They cause discomfort in my body.
But my feelings are only facts insofar as they tell me how my body is interpreting a challenge to my worldview. Cultivating curiosity while simply accepting the inevitable fear might help all of us weather this time.
That’s a fact.
If you’re interested in a brilliant cartoon illustration of this concept, see https://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe. Some bad language, but totally great understanding of how this works in us.