Last week, I had an interesting conversation with an extremely analytical friend of mine that turned my sights upon an issue I believe many people don’t even know they are facing. The discussion was about emotions, and their usefulness in decision-making. I’ve found that many people believe that there is a clear difference between thinking and feeling. To most of us, these two common human processes are experienced very differently, and we often opt to make our decisions based on one preference or the other.
In fact, the tendency to “trust our gut” or “rely on our head” when making a decision is so common among people that an entire domain of the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI) is based solely on this premise. Those who wear their heart on their sleeve and prefer to trust their emotions are given an “F” for “feeling”, and the disciplined logicians who regard their emotions as unsuitable for consideration are given a “T” for “thinking”.
Which one are you? (Pssst – if you’re curious to learn what your MBTI type is, click here and take the test!) I score as ENFJ, which means a whole lot more than the scope of this post, but essentially Myers-Briggs believes I rely more on my feelings.
But what if this distinction, this perceived difference between feeling and thinking was actually a clever illusion? How much more could we learn about ourselves and our behavior, our choices, and the quality of our lives, if we discovered that the two were actually closely intertwined?
For the excessive thinkers out there who need concrete evidence to justify their emotions, think about it! How much more quickly and efficiently could you decide to leave unsatisfying jobs, end dull relationships, complete personal passion projects, and navigate your role as a family member if you discovered that your emotions were actually created by your thinking?
And what if you could tap into this tacit level of thinking and truly understand why you felt the way you did in a given situation? How much more free would you feel to confidently make decisions? And how much time would you save if you didn’t have to endlessly search for factual or environmental evidence to justify your feelings?
Well, despite how comforting it might be to believe you’re one type of person or the other – a thinker or a feeler – I am here to present this radically different perspective: these two seemingly different states of being are actually part of closely connected brain systems.
The question is truly not whether you think through your decisions or trust the guidance of your emotions. The question is, to what extent are you aware of the connection between the two?
This is not merely my contention. Modern science is demonstrating more and more each day that thinking and feeling are inextricably linked, and work together to guide our behavior. There is no one or the other. Thinking about a situation generates feelings about that situation. Similarly, if you suddenly feel a particular kind of way about someone, you are implicitly thinking things to yourself about them to generate that feeling.
Back to my friend. This guy is a true, to-the-bone INTJ personality from Myers-Briggs, and he has struggled mightily is entire life to put any faith or value into his gut feelings when it comes to decision making. For him, emotions are too unreliable, unquantifiable, and not testable enough to be reliable behavioral guides.
In fact, to use a direct quote from my friend, he explains his daily experience as follows:
“One of the problems, I think, is that “emotion” is such a nebulous and slippery term. When we speak of thinking, it’s clear and articulable. I can outline for you my decision making process, the weightings I give to various factors involved, the crude probability estimates of different outcomes, the pros and cons, all spelled out very clearly and concisely, whereas a “feeling” seems like something that bubbles up from nowhere, defying explanation and as likely to lead you off a cliff as it is to lead anywhere good.”
Sound like you? A lot of people can relate, especially those who would typically earn a strong T on their Myers-Briggs. If you’ve ever said “I feel like I want to break up with my boyfriend, but I just can’t think of a good reason to do it!”, or “I wish I could quit my job and do something wildly different, but theres no good logical reason to leave”, you’re likely one of these kinds of people.
Well, to you my friends, I have good news! You can, with confidence and assurance, use your emotions to learn more about yourself, get closer to the decisions that make the most sense for your goals, and ultimately make them with certainty.
I am not suggesting that we dispense with thinking entirely, nor that we ought to trust our emotions at face value with no critical thinking. Far from it! I am suggesting that to rely solely on one system to the exclusion of the other is a dangerous handicap. It would be like driving your car by staring solely at the GPS and never at the road in front of you. The two need to work in tandem and rely on the interplay between each other to get you where you want to go.
In fact, if you’re a person with an especially strong thinking preference who instinctively distrusts your emotional experience of your world and crowds feelings out the decision making process, you run the risk of staying in unfavorable and unenjoyable situations and relationships for much longer than necessary. Furthermore, findings from neuroscience suggest that chronic stress – the kind that might result from a total disregard for your feelings, can actually lead to depressive-like symptoms and many related health concerns.
But enough about all of that for now, I’ll be writing quite a bit more on this subject in the coming weeks to help everyone better understand the connection between thinking and feeling, and will provide practical tools for connecting the two in your own life. For the time being, try tossing these ideas around for a while. How do you feel about them? What do you think about them? Let me know in the comments below!