You’ve heard the sentiment before: “Follow your heart,” “Go with your gut,” “Feelings never lie,” “Just go by what you feel.” It’s part of the American vernacular and expressed in countless movies, talk shows, and books. But is “just going by what you feel” really a healthy policy?
“Going by what you feel” or “following your heart” means making decisions and taking actions based on emotions rather than thinking (with logic and reason viewed as the enemies of healthy decision making). But, our emotions actually come from how we evaluate situations, people, objects, ourselves, etc. These evaluations are automatic, lightening-fast, and subconscious (i.e., out of conscience awareness). The problem is, our evaluations are not always accurate, and inaccurate appraisals result in faulty emotions. If we then act on our emotions without first checking our appraisals, we may make decisions that have damaging effects on our lives.
Let’s look at a couple examples:
Jim is a pre-med college student majoring in biology. He has an important exam coming up that he needs to study for. His friends, however, have invited him out to a concert. Jim really wants to go. It sure sounds much more fun than staying home alone and studying biology. Jim doesn’t think it through and goes with his feelings. As a result, he fails the exam and does not pass the class.
Mary is a criminal court judge presiding over a murder trial. The defendant is accused of murdering a young girl. Mary has a young daughter. Also, the defendant looks mean and reminds her of a nasty neighbor she used to have. She feels extreme anger and hatred just looking at him and wants justice. There’s just one problem: there’s no evidence that supports the defendant’s guilt, and he has a solid alibi. Nonetheless, Mary goes by her feelings, which influences some of her judgments during the trial in favor of the prosecution.
These are just two brief examples of how “going by your emotions” can be damaging to ourselves and others. But, in fact, we face these choices everyday. How many people feel like paying their bills, preparing their taxes, taking out the garbage, or doing the dishes? How many gamblers feel that their next bet will be the big win? How many drug addictsfeel that doing drugs will make them feel better and solve their problems?
So, should we ignore our emotions? No. Emotions are invaluable to our survival and enjoyment of life. We would not have the fuel to go after our values and goals without emotions. They are our reward for achieving our values. Without them, we would have no motivation to do anything. However, on their own, they are not a means to making healthy, self-supportive decisions. Because emotions come from our appraisals, it’s vital we ensure our appraisals are accurate before acting on the emotion(s) that result from them. (Emotions, however, can be used in a valuable way in the decision-making process, because they are an essential guide to identifying our values.)
Thus, once Jim thinks through his situation, he will realize the negative repercussions of going to the concert and can then make a more informed decision. And once Mary identifies the evidence in the case (or lack of it), she can make more reasoned judgments.
Bottom line, instead of living by the bromide “just go by your feelings,” follow a new policy: Just go by the facts of the situation and use reason. The appropriate feelings will eventually follow.
(Originally appeared on Examiner.com)