Saturday, September 5, 2015

Down With Feelings

Let’s take a day off from the great Trump debate. You know, a day without Trump is a day without… fill in the blank.

[Trigger warning: today’s candidate for the Antitrump must be Jonah Goldberg, in National Review. I will not, out of respect, link his screed.]

To get back into our wheelhouse, a new book has just appeared with the title: F*ck Feelings. It was written by a psychiatrist and his comedy-writer daughter, so it promises to be witty, but not very theoretically substantive. Perhaps that will make it a popular book; you never know.

Be that as it may, Kyle Smith offers some of the book’s pithier remarks om The New York Post. I have been expressing many of these thoughts on the blog and in various other places, so I am naturally inclined to like the book.

Smith describes the book:

Say you’ve been to therapy, or bought a self-help book, or thought about doing either of those things. You may be wondering, “Why can’t I be happy?” “Why do I have such bad luck?” or “Why is my boss so unfair?”

One shrink has a novel solution: “F–k happy. F–k self-improvement, self-esteem,  fairness, helpfulness and everything in between.”

Because if you can set aside all of these obsessions, you might be able to simply accept that there are lots of things you can’t change — and get over it.

One sympathizes with Bennett’s exasperation. One has felt it oneself many times, well before Donald Trump entered the political scene. And yet, proposing that we can solve it all by saying: F*ck it-- does not feel especially profound or substantive.

Bennett is trying to say that therapy and its ubiquitous culture have been selling us a lot of snake oil. They have been peddling pretend solutions to problems that they have invented. One cannot help but agree.

Bennett and his daughter advise us to stop asking Why? I concur. In fact, I wrote some brief remarks about it on my Linked In page. As I mentioned there and in other places, I believe that we should stop asking why and start asking how. When we ask why, we invariably come up with a narrative that purports to explain why we have the problems we have. Knowing this narrative has no effect on the problems, so one can only feel puzzled about why people place such credence in it.

In place of introspecting-- to find the meaning of our problems-- we do better to try figuring out how to get out of the ditch. Knowing why we are in the ditch will not serve in any way to get us out of it. Especially if you think that you fell into the ditch because your bad parents made you do it.

Anyway, Smith summarizes:

Whenever you have an insoluble “Why?” in your life, the Bennetts offer, the solution is to stop asking the question. “The answer you’ll get from your Maker, when you finally meet Him or Her and get to ask why,” they write, “is the same one you got from your mother when she didn’t know the answer and didn’t want to waste time — ‘because I said so. Now go make yourself useful.’ ”

And don’t expect anyone (except your mother) to pay attention when you’re describing your pains and sorrows.

As real world advice, this is very good. You should not burden your friends with your complaints. And yet, the therapy business is filled with empathetic practitioners who will pay very close attention when you are whining about your pains and sorrows. In so doing, they will be inducing you to imagine that in a healthy relationship with a real human being—that is, not a therapist—you should be constantly bemoaning your problems. Of course, therapy will also teach you that if your interlocutor does not want to witness your exercise in self-degradation he lacks empathy and needs some serious therapy himself.

Needless to say the Bennetts are down on self-esteem. In fact, many sensible commentators on today’s therapy culture are down on self-esteem. (Have you noticed the difference, in today’s argot, between being down on self-esteem and being down with self-esteem.)

The Bennetts believe that it is wrong to imagine that self-esteem is like a vitamin that will give you control over your life. They are entirely correct. In so saying they are exposing an occupational hazard.

All psychiatrists are physicians… by definition. All psychologists are scientists… sort of.

That being given, they see mental health issues within a medical narrative, one where mental health problems are analogous to physical illnesses. Thus, if you are in emotional distress, they prescribe a pill, either a medication or a vitamin… and assume that once your mind becomes better regulated, you will be able to function perfectly in the world. Just as a body, returned to health by the proper medication, will naturally function perfectly in the world. If they don’t have a pill, they prescribe an insight. If they have no insights on hand they offer up some words to boost your self-esteem. 

Smith reports:

Forget that: “Enjoy bursts of confidence when you can and take credit for your hard work, but beware making confidence a goal, because that implies control, responsibility and blame when you can’t make it happen . . . Instead, assume you’re stuck with s- -t.” So do your best to survive, try not to add to your troubles, and behave as if you like yourself.

One appreciates the “life sucks” attitude, though it does sound a bit adolescent. One is happy, however, to point out that the recommendation, which I have trafficked often enough myself, to “behave as if you like yourself” is very good advice indeed.

It would have been better advice if the authors had added that you ought also to behave as though you respect yourself.

I hasten to add that it is not that easy to know what you would do if you liked yourself and what you would do if you respected yourself. We cannot solve all your problems by offering a pithy piece of advice.

The book suggests that we should stop wishing for unattainable goals. It might have added—I do not know—that organizing your life around your wishes and desires is not a good thing. Having some goals and plans is genuinely a good thing.

Smith writes:

The book supplies lists of “things you wish for and can’t have” contrasted with “things you can aim for and actually achieve.” For instance, you wish you could have a “an improved heart free of hate, envy, fear and general ugliness.” Fat chance, buddy. What can you actually achieve? “Act decently in spite of the way you really feel” and “bear the pain of living with ugly feelings.”


What the authors count as wishes are really qualities that apply to saints. They are suggesting that therapy has been selling spiritual experiences under the guise of offering medical and paramedical treatments. Many therapists, some of whom I have written about extensively, have encouraged their patients to try to achieve something like sainthood.

As for what you can actually achieve, if you set goals that are practical and not spiritual—I assume that this is what the authors are trying to say—you will be on a far more constructive path.

But then, I wholeheartedly endorse another piece of advice that the authors have thrown into this mix. So much so that I have offered it myself on many occasions. That is:

… act decently in spite of the way you really feel…

Naturally, this assumes that you know what a decent person would do and are willing to contrary to feelings. This is basic ethical teaching and I applaud it.  As I have often pointed out, it is positively Confucian.

Observe the rites, the Sage said, regardless of what is in your heart. After a time, your heart will catch up and your observance will become sincere.


Ares Olympus said...

I don't think there's much I could argue with here, just trying to think of examples.

And this is sound advice, although as you say, you have to have an idea how decent people act, super-ego stuff I guess.
"… act decently in spite of the way you really feel…"

But I still like the "Why?" in addition to "How?" So I'm not asking "Why do I feel like acting indecently?" but "Why does acting decently always matter?"

And the answer for me is that you should always act decently for yourself, not for others. If you act decently for others, then you open the pandora's box that asks whether they deserve to be treated well, and what people "deserve" is 100% subjective, it means you can not trust yourself to be an impartial judge, at least in moments you are contemplating acting indecently.

But more than just "acting decently in spite of the way you really feel", if you can set objective standards for your behavior, ones that don't depend on whom you are hurting at the moment, then you will know exactly when you have transgressed your own conscience, and you can make an apology to the person you hurt, whether or not they "deserve it" based on their state of transgression.

So I think that's how maturity might work. First we internalize authority from others through our superego, and then we reclaim our own authority through our conscience, and when we have a clear conscience, the superego's excesses can be put in perspective, rather than terrorizing you.

Finally, I imagine once you're able to treat other people decently whether they deserve it or not, or apologize when you don't, then you're also on a path to treat yourself decently, and you can face down your own self-destructive impulses when you think you deserve failure.

And I always go back to Schumacher's 4 fields of knowledge. And by having four ways of seeing things, you're less likely to get tripped up over one of them.
Schumacher identifies four fields of knowledge for the individual:

I → inner
I → other persons (inner)
other persons → I
I → the world

These four fields arise from combining two pairs: Myself and the World; and Outer Appearance and Inner Experience. He notes that humans only have direct access to fields one and four.

Field one is being aware of your feelings and thoughts and most closely correlates to self awareness. He argues this is fundamentally the study of attention. He differentiates between when your attention is captured by the item it focuses upon, which is when a human being functions much like a machine; and when a person consciously directs their attention according to their choosing.

Field two is being aware of what other people are thinking and feeling.

Field three is understanding yourself as an objective phenomenon. Knowledge in field three requires you to be aware what other people think of you.

Field four is the behaviourist study of the outside world. Science is highly active in this area of knowledge and many people believe it is the only field in which true knowledge can be gained. For Schumacher, applying the scientific approach is highly appropriate in this field.

chumacher summarises his views about the four fields of knowledge as follows:

Self-knowledge can only be effectively pursued by balanced study of field one (self awareness) and field three (objective self-knowledge).

Anonymous said...

To gain a scientific understanding of why and how feelings are inherent in our biological, social, and reasoning nature one would do better to read: The Ethics: The Road to Inner Freedom by Baruch Spinoza; and also to read Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't make heads nor tails of Kafka's "The Trial" for some time.
Then my saintly shrink told me it was about Neurosis, and the thousand things we do to torment & thwart ourselves. Eureka!

Lately, I've added the entire Universe. -- Rich Lara (oh, thanks to Max Brod, we have Kafka's oeuvre. Before he died, Kafka told him to burn it. It would be too depressing for people. Fortunately, Max didn't do that.)

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"As for what you can actually achieve, if you set goals that are practical and not spiritual—I assume that this is what the authors are trying to say—you will be on a far more constructive path."

Ah, yes, but if you set goals that are practical AND they serve your spiritual purpose, it can all be electrifying. That's what St. Ignatius Loyola unleashed on the world with Ignatian Spirituality in "The Spiritual Exercises," and in organizational form with the founding of the Jesuit religious order. It's been a successful framework ever since. It's a shame that the Jebbies have gotten into Liberation Theology and Modernism, though one can hope this is a passing fad. But the classically-trained Jesuit was a powerful human force in the world, grounded in a spiritual discipline: discernment. So I wonder what can happen when we have a both-and: when one's spirituality is transmuted into practical action. The people who say it's an either-or, that spirituality and practicality are different things. I say that's hogwash, and maybe the people luxuriating in their spirituality should get off their butts and support transforming the human condition, as their Christian faith commands. Sitting under a tree waiting for enlightenment seems pretty decadent and self-serving.

This all can be examined in a thoughtful manner. What is a spirit? In the Jesuit tradition, it is a motivation, disposition, beliefs and attitudes in which we perceive things, and out of which we act. Things like generosity, anger/bitterness, etc. In Ignatius' framework, spiritual feelings are like a human feeling, and they are a basic response to a perceived value and/or belief. These feelings fall into consolation (expressed in faith, hope and love) or desolation (that which produces nothing). All this "Why?" stuff that you mention in your post falls into the latter, and produces nothing. Jesuits constantly ask: "What do we get? What is the yield?" in terms of what happens from spiritual feelings. We don't just want to name them consolation or desolation, we want to DISCERN them. And it's not just the "bad" feelings of desolation... there may be two goods to choose from. The spiritual stratum is just as real as emotions and feelings. That's what Ignatius' "being a contemplative in action" is all about. That's the fullness of the Christian life. But being a contemplative is not enough.

Like Reinhold Niebuhr said, "Doing nothing is doing something." There is tremendous safety in doing nothing. If they're not consoled in doing nothing, that's desolation.

Let's define our terms. Emotions are distinguished as basic responses to the environment, primarily directed outward. Feelings are basic responses to a PERCEIVED environment or internal state (consciousness). Feelings are a form of awareness. They are built on top of emotions, and the four basic emotions are: glad, mad, sad and afraid. So when people are "confused," it's best to check in and put their experience into glad, mad, sad and afraid.

Ignatian Spirituality says that at some point, a person has to choose whether they will cooperate or not cooperate with what God is doing in their life. This is the profound mystery of Christianity. Now that we've convinced ourselves that we are so wise and powerful in our rational, scientific, post-Enlightenment age, we can dispense with such mysterious spiritual trivialities and religious nonsense. Or can we? The largest section in any bookstore is self-help. Why do you think that is?

-- Cont'd below --

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

-- Cont'd from above --

So I'm not sure what to think of "F*ck Feelings." I haven't read the book. But it seems the authors are offering an answer to a form of spiritual desolation, which yields nothing. People don't listen to their feelings, whether basic human feelings or spiritual feelings, as a feedback loop for discernment. Instead, they believe they ARE their feelings. Their feelings define their existence, as though their feelings are the most important organ in their body or the source of all that is holy, truthful and real. Their choices are determined by what their human feelings dictate, producing more desolation. They see their feelings as their identity, their experience. This is foolish. How did you feel about lunch last Wednesday? You probably can't remember. So feelings are fleeting. What if they got serious about what their feelings (human or spiritual) were telling them about the present state of their life -- in terms of discerning what brought them consolation and desolation -- and got into practical activity that engaged them in service and contribution, and caused them to support the greatness of someone else? Maybe we wouldn't have so many lugubrious, unhappy people in the world. But I'm one of those religious/spiritual loons, I suppose. I just don't see a lot of people helping themselves, or anyone else for that matter. This is a lonely world when the only thing that brings (momentary) joy is what one finds on their glowing box.

I recognize this is a big topic, and the framework isn't for everyone. That said, what would it be like if people listened to their human/spiritual feelings in a way that informed their next action, which -- in the aggregate -- informed their purpose and highest/best contribution in the world? I suspect the world would be a much better/happier, and we would place greater value on the yield. To do so, we'd have to be responsible about what's going on "in here" rather than blaming all our problems on what other people are doing "out there." After all, we don't argue with gravity, and we don't demand government program to change the laws of thermodynamics or chemistry. Why do we demand that the world conform to our wishes and whims? Oops... I just asked a "Why?" question. Back to the drawing board...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @September 5, 2015 at 7:19 AM:

"I don't think there's much I could argue with here..."

Divine intervention!

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

And Stuart, I got triggered, so I did read the Goldberg NRO piece, on your recommendation. I will, out of respect, comment to you on his "screed." Because it is a screed.

He doesn't get it.

If you or others would like to understand the Trump phenomenon, read the (thoughtful) comments that post to articles such as this. The ones at the bottom, under "Comments." As many as you can. I found many of those on today's NRO sober and reflective, making them useful and instructive. These are not UFO enthusiasts, JFK conspiracy buffs or Illuminati bounty hunters. There is something going on that is much bigger. Many entrenched, elite interests are trying to resist, halt or contain Trump instead of looking for what his approach to date offers. They are very, very afraid. Fear is a response to something. What do they perceive is at stake? I suspect it is the source of their own power, as they are throwing everything they have at Trump. If Trump is a crazy, silly person, then fine. How do you deal with a crazy person? You don't engage... you ignore them, separate yourself from them, stay away from them. That is the exact opposite of what is happening. He's surrounded by the press. The ruling class, millionaire media personalities and political pundits continue to unload everything they have at this guy. It's an excellent study in unrestrained, coordinated apoplexy. Fascinating stuff!

Discernment is your friend.

AesopFan said...

"In place of introspecting-- to find the meaning of our problems-- we do better to try figuring out how to get out of the ditch. Knowing why we are in the ditch will not serve in any way to get us out of it. Especially if you think that you fell into the ditch because your bad parents made you do it."

The useful thing about knowing "why" you fell in the ditch is to keep you from falling into the next one for the same reason (your own choices) OR to keep you from pushing other people into a ditch (your parents' choices).

Once you have that figured out, file it away; the HOW to get out always takes precedence.

Ares Olympus said...

It's after midnight, so our Trump-free day is over?

I heard Trump is now leading Hillary in a national poll, and so I checked it out, curious who's claiming support:
In 2016, America will elect a President. If the election for President of the United States were today, and the only two names on the ballot were Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who would you vote for?

65+: Trump: 55%, Hillary 37% (+18%)
White: Trump: 51%, Hillary 34% (+17%)
Men: Trump 50%, Hillary 35% (+15%)
Midwest: Trump: 49%, Hillary 31% (+18%)
All: Trump 45%, Hillary 40% (+5%)

Black: Hillary 59% Trump %25, (+34%)
18-34: Hillary 50% Trump %31, (+19%)
Hispanic: Hillary 50% Trump %31, (+19%)
Women: Hillary 44% Trump %39, (+5%)
Northeast: Hillary 44% Trump %40, (+4%)

Probably Trump's 55% support for 65+ is most impressive, and even against Grandpa Biden, he's at 51% to 44%.

I always liked to imagine with age comes wisdom, and its hard to imagine the 65+ vote are just playing with the pollsters.

So maybe we just have to accept the time has come for America to elect an amateur president who likes to talk and talk and talk, who is never short of an opinion, and whose ego requires tweet wars to sooth his soul.

We did survive Reagan's Morning in America, so why not "Make America Great again"? Reagan was elected before his 70th birthday, while Trump will be just past 70 on his inauguration. If Reagan could sleep through 8 years, maybe Grandpa Trump could do the same?

And Reagan reenergized Conservative Politics after the Nixon shame. Now Trump can reenergize Conservative politics back out of the soup of the social conservatives, and Bush's war president neocon BS, and give it an East Coast liberal flavor?

No, I admit, its all bizarre to me. I don't want president as Trump, not in any context. It's like voting for the class clown for class president because you want to piss off the teachers. I'm just not that sort of rebel.

I guess if the Young people wake up and decide to vote, AND they want Trump, I'll let him win, but if he wins on the old white vote because the youth failed to show up, I'll really hate America for a while.

Anonymous said...

I know you're not a fan of Trump however consider the options.