Why Feelings are Not Facts

Fact bias

As a psychologist, and fully-paid up human being, I believe that emotions are a good thing. However, most of us have had moments where it’s transpired that our emotions were not telling us the truth. For example, you may firmly believe something bad will happen today because you woke up feeling anxious. Perhaps you’ve been convinced by your feeling of discomfort that someone was angry with you, only to be proven wrong. Or, “I can’t explain it, but I know something bad is going to happen”. That old chestnut!

Don’t assume your feelings are in some way sacrosanct.

Dr Aaron Beck, the pioneer of CBT, termed this tendency ‘emotional reasoning’, and defined it as, “when someone comes to the conclusion that their emotional reaction defines their reality”.

Emotional reasoning assumes that what you feel must be true.

It’s a common habit and most people engage in emotional reasoning to some degree, often relying on their feelings rather than rational thinking to build arguments and make decisions. This creates a world in which the ‘truth’ is distorted and supported by feelings rather than evidence.

Emotional reasoning assumes that what you feel must be true

Examples from my practice include:
“I feel inferior, even though I can see I’ve done okay and achieved at least as much as those around me.”
“I feel so lonely, and it makes me believe that no one cares about me, so I must be unlovable.”
“I feel guilty so I must have done something wrong, despite what others tell me”.
“I feel so anxious that something must be unsafe”.

Emotional reasoning can drive counter-productive behaviours, for example, someone might not apply for a job for which they are qualified because they feel inferior. An anxious person might avoid situations because they feel unsafe, even though there is little evidence supporting their fears. Emotional reasoning can also play a large part in depression; the intense hopelessness associated with depression can cause people to see things as much worse than they really are.

Feelings are powerful. They give us information, and they can move us to action, but no matter how powerful they are, they’re not facts. You can feel like you’re not worth anything, but as powerful as that feeling is, it doesn’t make it true.

Instead, be your best CBT-self, and learn to distinguish an emotion from a fact. Try and factually describe events, rather than your emotional response to them. Stand back from your feelings and assess the thoughts driving them. Are these thoughts realistic? Do the facts completely support your emotional hunch? Is there evidence contradicting these thoughts? What would you say to a friend having these thoughts? And what would someone who cared about you say to you?

If your thoughts are mistaken or one-sided, so too are the feelings that follow from them.

Look for truth and be open to how it’s possible that your feelings may not be accurate.

Truth and lies

Reflection on this realisation creates essential distance and well-earned relief. It doesn’t make the feelings disappear but it creates a buffer between yourself and your belief in them being accurate.

In order to understand strong feelings of, for example, worthlessness, failure or unlovability, consider if your emotional reactions may relate to the child part of yourself, and to a time when feelings, not reason, controlled your thought processes. The cognitively undeveloped youngster inside you, that reasoned primarily on the basis of strong feelings, may be where negative beliefs about yourself first developed, and now persist, despite evidence to the contrary.

I suggest showing empathy with that child, validate its fears, and then attempt to convince him/her that their biases (though totally understandable) no longer fit with reality. If this seems challenging, do seek the support and guidance of an experienced therapist, as feelings, whilst being an essential part of life’s enrichment, can indeed be fake news.

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