Feeling All The Feels

Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

“You’re overreacting – calm down!”

Has there ever been a phrase more likely to do the opposite of what it’s intended to do? Something has happened that’s got you upset, and some well-meaning soul has decided that the best thing to say in this situation is that, essentially, you shouldn’t be feeling what you’re feeling. Now, if we were entirely rational people, we might say, “Oh, of course you’re right, my emotional experience should be in line with what you think it should be – I’ll just shift my reaction so that it is more moderate and therefor more comfortable for you.”

But we’re not entirely rational. We have feelings, and sometimes they’re pretty strong, and we’re not always in control of them. In fact, at least in our initial reaction, we’re not in control at all. We feel what we feel. And as hard as that may be for those around us – and even for ourselves – accepting that truth goes a long way towards enhancing our mental and emotional wellbeing.

Reaction vs. Response

Let’s back up and take a look at some definitions. When we experience an event, we often have an emotional reaction. We literally feel something in our body such as increased muscle tension, a sudden flush, or a knot in the pit of our stomach. And we associate these physical experiences with an emotion. And according to most psychological research, that emotion is always some version of one of the five universal human emotions: Anger, joy, fear, sadness, or disgust. Feeling frustrated or annoyed? That’s anger. Nervous or anxious? Those are forms of fear.  And so on. (For a great overview of all the emotions and their related forms, with a really cool graphic interface, check out The Atlas of Emotions.)

We feel what we feel. And as hard as that may be for those around us – and even for ourselves – accepting that truth goes a long way towards enhancing our mental and emotional wellbeing.

And here’s the thing about those emotional reactions: we can’t control them. They happen automatically, without thought or volition. The intensity of how each of us reacts to any given situation is a unique mix of our own personality and psychological make-up, which is why something that makes one person sad may not have much of an effect on another person. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less valid. So being told you’re overreacting, or that you shouldn’t feel a certain way, is sort of like saying you’re wrong for preferring chocolate ice cream over vanilla. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s how you’re built.

It may seem surprising to suggest that we have no control over our emotions, but here’s where we need to make an important distinction: we can’t control our emotional reactions, but we can (usually) control how we respond to those emotions.

That’s a distinction we’re not often taught to make. We usually believe they go hand in hand: Being angry means you yell, being sad means you cry. And since you can (usually) choose not to yell or cry, that must mean that we can choose whether to feel angry or sad.

I say “usually” because there are times when the reaction is so strong that the response is nearly impossible to moderate, such as when we are suddenly informed of a tragedy and we burst into tears. However, we can learn to shape our responses to even the most intense emotional reactions, because our responses are based on our thoughts and beliefs, and we can change those.

But when we or someone else won’t make the distinction between our reaction and our response, it can feel like we are being told that how we feel is wrong, when what’s probably really going on is that how we are responding may be problematic.

For example, when a friend does something you strongly disagree with, you might feel a rush of anger. Nothing wrong with that, since it’s not under your control. However, if you choose to respond with violence (verbal or physical), that could be an issue, and that’s something you could learn to control. 

We can learn to shape our responses to even the most intense emotional reactions, because our responses are based on our thoughts and beliefs, and we can change those.

Or, if you are seeing a response in someone else that you find challenging, it’s perfectly fine to tell them you don’t like their behavior, but it doesn’t make much sense to tell them that what they’re feeling is wrong. Behavior can be changed. And over time, even emotional reactions can change, if we come to see situations with a new perspective. But in the moment, we feel what we feel. We can only affect the response to that feeling.

So the next time you or someone else tells you you’re overreacting, remember: there’s no universal right way to feel about something. You’re allowed to feel exactly how you feel. At the same time, if you find that your response  to how you feel is harmful to you or those around you, you may want to examine the thoughts and beliefs that lead to that response, and make some changes.