Dr Perpetua Neo

The truth about feelings: Your "negative emotions" are useful

Before I became a psychologist, I heard people gripe “Oh, psychologists. That’s where you just talk about feelings, feelings, feelings.” They’d recount stories with venomous tones. Somehow, we’d stumbled onto the subject of psychologists. But their comments always made me think twice about the career. That’s not because I’m always talking about my feelings. I knew a lot of people who loved to talk about feelings. And I used to believe that feelings get in the way. Especially all those messy ‘negative emotions’. When it came to psychology, I loved the problem-solving part. The knowing myself part. Not the ‘oh, feelings, feelings, feelings’ part. But deep down, I also liked (and still like) feelings. The warmth of a loved one. Joy when my cat purred. The cathartic reset after anger. Pride at my achievements. The creative flow during sadness. The light-headed rush of flirting. Peace like a blanket as I drifted off to sleep.

What I learned about feelings

My feelings are the thermometer for my reality. They’re not facts. But they matter. Because they colour our present state. Try recounting your saddest memory when you’re joyful. Or happy times when you’ve fought. Not easy. And your present state affects how you live.

I learned about feelings as, your heart feeling one thing and your head saying another. So they go to war. Many times, we smother our emotions with logic. “Just bear with it”, we tell ourselves. We suppress. We find ways to escape ourselves and our desires. That’s why we have outbursts. That we regret. And Logic wears its armour and sharpens its swords again.

Because a feeling is stronger than a thought

The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body . . . The electrical field is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the brain waves. The magnetic component of the heart’s field, which is around 100 times stronger than that produced by the brain . . . can be measured several feet away from the body. —Rollin McCraty, PhD

That’s right, even if you think that your cerebral cortex trumps it all.

The thin red line between grasping and suppressing

Feelings are energy. Not to be grasped at, because we can’t freeze-frame impermanence. Try chasing happiness, you’ll miss it and feel worse. The more happy pills you take to reproduce that high, the bigger your crash. Not to be suppressed, because the pressure cooker explodes. The geyser’s steam cloud reaches spectacular heights, and you’ll have 3rd-degree burns.

Feelings are a beautiful part of our experience. With ourselves, other humans, and other lifeforms. What makes life difficult is labelling feelings as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. ‘Positive’ or ‘negative’. We polarise. But dichotomies work best for zebra and cow hides, not us. Your ‘negative emotions’- sadness, anger, frustration, etcetera- aren’t your enemies. They’re information. They also tell you, you’re human. And it’s not your fault for always feeling the way you do.

I remember a client review. He told me, “You didn’t just talk about feelings, feelings, feelings. That was a big change for me”. I blinked, remembering the old stories before people knew I was becoming a psychologist. “Could you tell me more about that?”, I asked. He said, “You helped me understand why I should recognise my feelings. Not just vomit them out. You connected it to my experiences. It made sense. It wasn’t about just that as my focus”. I smiled. I’d achieved the balance I wanted.

Feelings are energy. Not to be ignored, or obsessed about. They’re there to be honoured.

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