By Alan Koenigsberg, M.D.
Sometimes, our most difficult challenges take place when we are conflicted between what we feel and what we think.
Feelings can be extremely intense, and lead us into trouble. We might make unwise relationship decisions, financial investments, impulse purchases, unhealthy food choices — and the list goes on.
Why? Why don’t we always make rational decisions, given how smart we are?
One reason could be that our feelings have evolved so that they can protect us quickly from dangerous situations. We rely on those emotions to sense danger, and avoid it. Feelings can be incredibly intense, and persuade us to do just about anything.
Another reason might be that we have a minimal awareness of our thoughts and feelings on some level.
We can speak fluently, but probably don’t remember being taught to speak.
We are toilet-trained, but most likely don’t remember that happening to us.
There are many processes that take place out of our awareness, and for many people, the feelings, thoughts and emotions that we acknowledge are the tip of the iceberg of our full range of thoughts and feelings.
In many instances, that automatic reaction can be helpful and healthy. However, depending on how we were raised, our innate temperaments and life experiences, we may have substantial motivations that lie out of our grasp.
So we may buy an expensive car because we like the color.
We may marry someone because they elicited pleasurable feelings within us.
We may eat too many potato chips because they taste so good!
We may drink too much alcohol because it makes us feel good.
Resolving internal conflicts between feelings and thoughts is a never-ending struggle for us. Most of the time, it’s probably not that damaging if we follow our feelings. There are two concepts here, however, that I believe are worth describing.
The first is that just because something feels good, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Clearly, most people can drink alcohol and do just fine. But some people, in spite of the adverse effects of their drinking alcohol, will continue past the point of being harmed and do so regularly.
The second is that if we are confronted with a serious decision, and are conflicted about what we feel and what we think — that is, our heart and our head, I suggest going with our head. You will look back and approve of the head decision 95% of the time.
So, as we begin this new year, we can set aside a few minutes here and there, reflect on decisions that we have made based on our feelings and quietly review the consequences of those decisions.
If you notice that some decisions made emotionally have not turned out as well as you would have liked, it may be time to think a bit more.
We are the sum of our decisions, our choices and their consequences. I believe that if we think carefully, respect our emotions and follow our rational thinking, we will have healthier, happier outcomes.
Alan Koenigsberg, M.D., is a practicing psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at UTSW Medical School in Dallas.