Don't Tell People How (Not) To Feel

[Content note: mentions of abuse, transphobia, & racism]

The more I do this–this writing/activism/therapy thing that I do–the more I’m coming to believe that there is almost never anything to be gained by telling people how to feel, or how not to feel.

In fact, I worry that doing so is at best neutral, probably manipulative, possibly cruel, and at worst abusive.

The most obvious examples provoke little disagreement from the social circles I move in–for instance, telling a person with depression to “cheer up,” telling a person with anxiety to “calm down,” telling a person who is angry to “stop being so angry,” telling a person who has suffered trauma to “just get over it.” These are all examples of telling people how to feel, or how not to feel, that most of us would recognize as wrong.

But the message that folks seem to get when we talk about this isn’t “telling people how (not) to feel is wrong,” but rather, “don’t tell people with mental illness/trauma history to get better because they can’t just do that on the spot.”

But what if they could? What if the cause of the emotions was something other than mental illness or trauma? Then would it be acceptable to tell them how to feel?

I think some people would say yes, at least in certain situations.

Emotions and morality are all bound up in our minds. We associate certain emotions with certain moral acts and other emotions with certain immoral acts (which with which may depend on one’s social group). Although there may be a correlation, of course, it’s probably not nearly as strong as people assume. Moreover, it’s much easier, in my experience, to change your behavior than to change your emotions. Even if you are neurotypical, but especially if you are not.

So we start to point to certain emotions, which we consider “markers” of certain immoral acts, as the problem. It’s wrong to feel angry or resentful when a potential romantic partner turns you down. It’s wrong not to be angry about injustice. It’s wrong to feel happy during a time when other people are sad. It’s wrong to fail to feel sad when Objectively Sad Things (like the loss of a loved one) happen.

I would argue that none of those are actually wrong, though. It’s wrong to guilt-trip, manipulate, or punish someone who doesn’t want to date you. It’s wrong to do absolutely nothing to make the world a better place despite having the ability to do so. But you can feel resentful at someone who rejected you without ever mistreating them, and you can actively make the world a better place without ever feeling angry about injustice.

It’s ironic that we use emotions as a proxy for actions when they are so much more difficult to change. You can change them, of course, but only with time and effort, and almost never right in the moment. Happiness is pretty easy to kill, as I was reminded very directly after Obergefell v Hodges came down, but it’s rarely replaced with the feelings that were intended to replace it. When people kept suggesting that anyone who feels happy after that decision is a terrible person who doesn’t care about other issues and naively believes that The Fight Is Over, I wasn’t suddenly full of fiery anger on behalf of all the LGBTQ folks who continue to face marginalization (including, by the way, myself). I just felt sad and defeated, and very condescended to.

Nevertheless, despite my happiness at the Supreme Court’s decision, I’m not done fighting. My actions speak louder than my happiness that particular day.

More importantly, though, I worry about the ramifications of assuming that we can and should tell people how to feel. If you tell someone to calm down or cheer up or get angry and they immediately comply, I’m not sure that that’s a healthy process. I’m not sure that it’s ultimately a good thing if people are able to change their emotions (or convincingly pretend to) as soon as someone demands it. To me, that sounds more like an abusive situation than anything else.

I’m also concerned because, once you learn (as many of us do at some point or another) that others are better than us at knowing what our emotions ought to be, that process of adjusting your emotions (or emotional expressions) to their expectations becomes par for the course. Certainly someone can claim that their particular reason for telling you how to feel is Very Important and For A Good Cause, but everyone claims that, including abusive people. Many people in my life could say that it’d be For My Own Good if I could just stop feeling sad on command. Many people have a vested interest in keeping us from being angry, or expressing our anger. Once you get in the habit of “correcting” your emotions at others’ request, it’s going to be, well, a habit.

Moreover, when people believe that it’s their emotions, and not their actions, that are problematic, they often try to push away and suppress those emotions because they are Wrong. They may even succeed for a while, but ultimately, this sort of project inevitably fails. (I’ve been there.) Suppressing Wrong emotions prevents self-awareness, which is exactly what you need to make sure that you don’t hurt people because of your emotions. Telling people their emotions are Wrong is not only ineffective, but counterproductive.

You might think that if you tell someone that their emotions are Wrong, they will immediately say, “Wow, you’re right, I will call a therapist and set up an appointment right away.” Wouldn’t that be nice. But that’s not how it works. Even if there’s a strong indication that someone probably needs to go to therapy, if you stigmatize them that way, they’ll probably believe that 1) the therapist would stigmatize them that way too, and 2) they’re a terrible person who doesn’t deserve help.

Unfortunately, I notice this a lot in people who are trying to figure out how to deal with romantic rejection, especially men. They hear that people (especially men) who get upset when they’re rejected do terrible things, and they hear that feeling upset is as much a problem as the actual doing of the terrible things. And I get that the message gets diluted a lot when we’re trying to deal with horrific shit like Elliot Rodger, but thankfully, the vast majority of people are not Elliot Rodger. Feeling upset or even angry when you get rejected is normal. You can work on it with a therapist (or with some helpful online advice) if you want, but what matters is how you act. That’s what makes you who you are.

What about emotions that are Truly Awful? What if someone is disgusted by trans* people? What if someone is terrified when they see a Black man approaching on the street?

To be honest, I don’t really know what to do with these emotions (and I’m perfectly willing to admit that I don’t know). Here people can make a convincing argument that these emotions actually do lead to actual harm done to marginalized people, which is true. Here, again, the problem is the actual harm done to these people and not what goes on in someone’s head, but what goes on in someone’s head is undeniably related to the actual harm done to these people!

Then again, these emotions don’t come from nowhere. They, like many emotions, come from thoughts or ideas. Those thoughts or ideas are, “People ought to be either Men or Women” (where “Men” or “Women” means “as traditionally defined by cissexist assumptions), “Black men are dangerous,” and so on. There’s no use in telling people not to be disgusted by trans* people and not to be afraid of Black men unless we address the ideas that are prompting those feelings. As someone who has experienced lots of such shifts in feelings over time as my understanding of power, privilege, and oppression has evolved, I can attest to this.

In sum, I don’t have all the answers on this, but I’m starting to believe that it doesn’t really do any good to police people’s feelings, even when they seem like the wrong feelings.

~~~

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Don't Tell People How (Not) To Feel

5 thoughts on “Don't Tell People How (Not) To Feel

  1. 2

    Then again, these emotions don’t come from nowhere. They, like many emotions, come from thoughts or ideas. Those thoughts or ideas are, “People ought to be either Men or Women” (where “Men” or “Women” means “as traditionally defined by cissexist assumptions), “Black men are dangerous,” and so on. There’s no use in telling people not to be disgusted by trans* people and not to be afraid of Black men unless we address the ideas that are prompting those feelings. As someone who has experienced lots of such shifts in feelings over time as my understanding of power, privilege, and oppression has evolved, I can attest to this.

    I can’t remember where it was (Vox perhaps?) but I remember an article on racial bias w/r/t Ferguson etc., that mentioned the practice of getting into a habit of countering your negative emotional response with a positive thought to create a positive association. I think the example it gave was when you see a Black man think “Safe” or “Secure” or something that opposes your initial reaction. I’m guessing the idea is that we can re-wire our brains with a little conscious effort. It may never stop those deeply ingrained notions from popping up at times but it at least helps keep you alert for them and gives a handy way to remind yourself of why the underlying assumption at the heart of the prejudice is not rational (or fair.) I don’t know if there is data to support it but my guess is that just being mindful of certain issues racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia etc. and thinking them through rationally (why they aren’t logical and how they do harm) could change your emotional responses somewhat over time. I know that in my early 20’s I would have been totally grossed out by seeing two men kissing. By mid 30’s I was emotionally devastated by the tragic plot of Brokeback Mountain (with very little discomfort by the intimate scenes) and now in my early 40’s when I see two guys kiss on tv/film I generally think either “that’s romantic, good for them” or “good for HBO/whoever for having the guts to show that.” I doubt it’s a desensitization due to exposure since gay kissing scenes really still aren’t all that common in the stuff I watch. It could be maturity, but I think just the fact that I’ve spent time doing things that have humanized gay issues to my straight brain and tried to be vigilant for stereotypes when they do pop up has played a significant role as well.

    As to the main OP point: yes. Telling somebody how they should feel is like telling them what music/tv/food etc. they should like. It’s not helpful and pretty rude.

  2. Pen
    3

    If people’s feeling stayed neatly compartmentalized inside their heads it would be one thing (perhaps a problem for them, but not for the world at large). The trouble is that feelings underlie actions to a far greater extent than rational thought processes do. People’s thoughts and ideas, which we might feel free to argue with, are pretty much the trimming used to rationalize an emotive response. Emotions, especially those of the sufficiently powerful, are literally responsible for wars, discrimination and a whole lot of violent crime as well as a few much better things. And as soon as you know what someone else is feeling, you can pretty much guarantee their emotions are having an effect on the world,for better or for worse.

    That doesn’t mean that telling them to just stop feeling whatever they’re feeling is likely to be effective, but some feelings are not socially acceptable, especially in certain contexts. (read it all – it is truly astonishing!)

  3. 4

    I have always proceeded with notion that emotions just are, like gravity or the sun. We don’t argue with gravity, we just deal with it. If I’m angry, I don’t worry about the fact that I got angry, I try to notice that I’m angry and try to make sure I don’t act poorly out of anger. If I’m afraid, or panicing (I can be prone to some nearly debilitating anxiety) I try to notice that I’m feeling that way, so I can hopefully not make bad decisions out of emotion. I try to treat other people the same way. If I offend someone, there is nothing to be gained by addressing weather or not the should be offended, they are offended and that is the reality I have to work with. If their upset, I try to interact with them as a person who is upset, whether or not they “should” be upset is really not revelevant. I don’t know, dealing with emotions, my own and others became easier when I accepted them as involuntary. So I guess, in a round about way, yeah I think your correct.

  4. 5

    It seems that you are making here two claims:

    1. It is wrong to tell people how they should feel (“should” taken in the moral sense).
    2. There is nothing morally wrong with how people feel (but there can be exceptions – some feelings are “Truly Awful”).

    1 depends on 2 in the sense that if 2 is true, then indeed it’s wrong (false!) to tell someone how they should feel – by 2, there are simply no “shoulds” there. Is there a stronger dependence? Admittedly, 1 might be correct even if 2 is false: after all, it could be the case that telling people how to feel is generally counterproductive whether or not feelings can be morally judged. Still, without 2, 1 stands on a shaky ground; at least it seems very context-dependent. Therapy? In such a context I would agree that it’s counterproductive. A direct, face to face conversation with a friend? Often counterproductive (unless you happen to need a friend who plays the role of your judge). A discussion on an internet site? A blog post espousing the view that people should (moral sense) work on their emotions? In a sense, such a blog post also “tells people how they should feel”, even though it’s not directed to any concrete person in particular. Is it wrong to write such a blog post if 2 is false – that is, if the espoused views are correct and people really should feel that way? That would be … a very problematic position, to put it mildly.

    So, how about 2? My reason for attributing 2 to you is the following passage from your OP:

    I would argue that none of those [e.g. feeling angry when a potential romantic partner turns you down] are actually wrong, though. It’s wrong to guilt-trip, manipulate, or punish someone who doesn’t want to date you. It’s wrong to do absolutely nothing to make the world a better place despite having the ability to do so. But you can feel resentful at someone who rejected you without ever mistreating them, and you can actively make the world a better place without ever feeling angry about injustice.

    You seem to be taking the view that only our actions can be morally assessed. Please, do feel resentful as much as you want – there is nothing morally objectionable here, as long as your feelings don’t turn into actions. That’s how I read you. Correctly?

    To start with: I’m neither a moral philosopher nor a psychologist and I don’t have any quick opinion to offer. In such cases, when the issue is interesting enough (and this one is!) I try to find additional information. Here is what I’ve found so far.

    (a) It seems that there is a powerful current in contemporary moral philosophy which is directly at odds with what you say. To quote one source:

    emotions become intelligent parts of the moral personality, which can be cultivated through a process of moral education. Such a process will aim at producing adults who not only control their anger and fear, but experience anger and fear appropriately, towards the appropriate objects at the appropriate time in the appropriate degree. Merely self-controlled persons look to these theorists like those whose moral development is incomplete or imperfect. If we find them hating foreigners, but controlling their behaviour towards them, we will judge that there is some further moral work they should be doing before they can claim to be fully virtuous.

    On this view, it is not only actions, but also people, or personalities, or characters, that can be morally judged. To your

    Feeling upset or even angry when you get rejected is normal. You can work on it with a therapist (or with some helpful online advice) if you want, but what matters is how you act. That’s what makes you who you are.

    they would reply: no, it’s not just your actions, but also (mainly?) your character or your personality that makes you who you are. Being prone to emotions of a particular sort – like being angry after you get rejected – indicates that you need to perform a further moral work before you can claim to be virtuous.

    (b) I found here (Section 4: “Virtue ethics and skepticism about character”) some information about empirically based criticisms of the notion of a “virtuous character”. (These criticisms are consonant with your “Although there may be a correlation, of course, it’s probably not nearly as strong as people assume.”). Some interesting experiments were conducted, which – as it is claimed – show that “the difference between good conduct and bad appears to reside in the situation more than the person” – these experiments illustrate how a trivial and ethically neutral factor can significantly modify e.g. our readiness to help other people. If this is really so, the emphasis on “virtuous characters” (with their ‘morally right feelings’) seems misplaced: it’s the situation – luck perhaps – that matters.

    As I said, I’m a layman in the field and both sources in (a) and (b) contain a lot which was completely new to me (I feel it’s still too early to form my own opinion!) I insert it here just in the hope that some other readers might find it interesting as well.

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