Sunday, March 9, 2014

The important distinction between feelings and facts

Recently I was speaking to someone about his fear of flying. To help him to begin to spot distressing symptoms, I reminded him of Dr. Low’s sage advice regarding troubling sensations:

“[Y]our feelings are not facts. They merely pretend to reveal facts. Your feelings deceive you. They tell you of danger when there is no hazard, of wakefulness when sleep was adequate, of exhaustion when the body is merely weary and the mind discouraged. In speaking of your symptoms, your feelings lie to you. If you trust them, you are certain to be betrayed into panics and vicious cycles.” (1)

In my friend’s case, there is no value to worrying about a plane crash when he senses turbulence. What he feels has no bearing on what is actually happening.

Our culture tells us to trust our feelings, trust our gut, and to act on our feelings. But those in Recovery know better. Feelings and sensations cannot be controlled, but thoughts and impulses can be, Dr. Low tells us. If we allow ourselves to be swept up by emotions, we will be at the mercy of rising and falling tides of anxiety and anger.

Better to look for the facts of a situation and respond accordingly. We might feel our hands need to be washed, rewashed, and washed again, but the fact is our hands our clean. We might feel that we need to check, double check, triple check that the stove is off, but the fact is the burners are not ignited. We may worry that bumps while flying signify imminent doom, but the fact remains that we are not aviation experts and that such situations are normal. 

And in light of the disappearance of the recent Malaysia Airlines flight, we might feel that means air travel is dangerous, but the fact is that traveling by plane is exponentially more safer than by car.

“Feelings are not facts” is one of my favorite Recovery tools, and I’ve written about it previously. Like all good tools, it bears repeating. The next time you find yourself in a distressing situation, ask yourself if  you are responding to feelings or facts, and remind yourself that there is an indeed an important difference.

1. Low AA. Mental Health Through Will-Training. 3rd ed. Glencoe, Illinois: Willett, 1997;118.