Emotions can help us make choices by giving us a vital compass that tells us where to go and who to get involved with. If we follow the directions of our inner compass, then we can make choices that feel authentic, enthusiastic, and sustainable. Imagine the difference between a life full of “I’m doing this because I want to” vs. “I’m doing this because I should.”
But being guided by your feelings isn’t as easy as it sounds. First of all, we can’t
choose our feelings. Sorry, folks, it’s terrifying but true: We have to play the hand we’re dealt. Try as you might, you can’t choose to like women instead of men. You can’t choose to be excited by science instead of art. You can’t choose to love a person or a thing just because that might make everything easier.
More perilous still is the fact that many of our feelings or impulses, when it comes
right down to it, can seem fickle or selfish or downright violent. That’s why I like to think of our deepest, most energetic feelings as our Inner Child. But you could just as easily think of it as our Inner Animal or Inner Mammal—which reminds us that caring for our young and getting along with the pack are also part of our fundamental nature.
I help people with life choices by encouraging them to get in touch with the consistent ways the young Mike or Cathy inside them feels about things, while distinguishing those from the many feelings that turn out to be short-lived reactions to what is going on around them. It’s also important for people to distinguish between true inner feelings and the strategies we employ to cope with them.
Many feelings like sadness or guilt can be so uncomfortable that we try to avoid them completely and get angry at anyone who triggers them. Or we tell ourselves stories to make them go away. You know rationalizations like “I didn’t really steal his movie idea, I had thought of a story like that five years ago” or hopeful myths like “I might not lose Mom to cancer. Doctors are inventing new cures everyday.” Getting in touch with sadness and guilt as well as anger, fear, love, lust, and ambition can be overwhelming and make you question who you are and how you’ll ever control yourself, but the idea isn’t just to let the horses out of the barn; it’s to learn how to ride them.
Another difficult thing to tease apart is when we genuinely feel two things at once. This can happen because our minds don’t speak with one voice. Sometimes both feelings are equally substantial, but other times we may focus on the easier feeling but neglect the more significant one. When faced with rejection by a friend, many men may focus on their anger and many women on their grief, but often the neglected feeling can turn out to be the deeper one—and the source of fresh inspiration and the first step toward a solution.