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Key Idea #1: Thoughts, Feelings, and Desires are Interdependent

As noted already, it is important to recognize that the mind is composed of three functions: thinking, feeling, and desiring (or wanting). Wherever one of these functions is present, the other two are present as well. And these three functions are continually influencing and being influenced by one another. Our thinking influences our feelings and desires. Our feelings influence our thinking and desires. Our desires influence our thinking and feeling. We cannot immediately change our desires or feelings. It is only thinking that we have direct access to. It makes no sense for someone to order you to feel what you do not feel or to desire what you do not desire. We do not change feelings by substituting other feelings, or desires by substituting other desires. But someone can suggest that we consider a new way to think. We can role-play new thoughts, but not new emotions or desires. It is possible to reason within a point of view with which we do not agree. By rethinking our thinking, we may change our thinking. And when our thinking changes, our feelings and desires will shift in accordance with our thinking.

Strategic Idea

With a basic understanding of the interrelation among thoughts, feelings, and desires, we should be able to routinely notice and evaluate our feelings. If, for example, I experience a degree of anger that I sense may be unreasonable, I should be able to determine whether the anger is or is not rational. I should be able to evaluate the rationality of my anger by evaluating the thinking that gave rise to it. Has someone truly wronged me, or am I misreading the situation? Was this wrong intentional or unintentional? Are there ways to view the situation other than the way I am viewing it? Am I giving a fair hearing to these other ways? By pursuing these questions, I can come closer to a rational view of the situation.

Even if my way of viewing the situation is justified, and I do have good reason to feel some anger, it does not follow that I have acted reasonably, given the full facts of the situation. I may have good reason to feel angry, but not to act irrationally as a result of that anger.

This strategy might be roughly outlined as follows:

  1. Identify a feeling you have experienced that you suspect might be irrational (a feeling such as irritability, resentment, arrogance, or depression).

  2. What thinking would account for the feeling? There may be more than one possibility here. If so, figure out which possibility is most likely.

  3. Determine the extent to which the thinking is reasonable. Pay close attention to the reasons you give to justify the thinking. Is it possible that these are not your actual reasons? Can you think of any other motives you might have? Consider alternative interpretations of the situation.

  4. If you conclude that the feeling is irrational, express precisely why you think so.

  5. Construct thinking that would represent a rational response in the situation. Actively attack the irrational thinking with the thinking that is rational. Actively rehearse the thinking that represents a rational response.

For example, suppose I read an article about a fatal disease and come to the conclusion, from reading the symptoms, that I probably have the disease. I then become depressed. Late at night I think about how I will soon be dead, and I feel more and more depressed as a result. Clearly, the irrational feeling is the depression I am feeling. It is irrational because, until a doctor examines me and confirms a diagnosis, I have no good reason for believing that I actually have the disease in question. My irrational thinking is something like this:

I have all the symptoms described in the article. So I must have this awful disease. I am going to die soon. My life is now meaningless. Why is this happening to me? Why me?

In the same situation, rational thinking would be something like this:

Yes, it is possible that I have this disease, given that I seem to have what appear to be symptoms of it, but very often the same symptoms are compatible with many different bodily states. Given this, it is not likely that I have this rare disease, and, in any case, it will do me no good to jump to conclusions. Still, as a matter of prudence and for peace of mind, I should go to the doctor as soon as possible to get a professional diagnosis. Until I get this diagnosis, I should focus my thinking on other, more useful things to think about than an unsubstantiated possibility.

Whenever I find myself feeling depressed about what the article said, I rerun the rational thinking through my mind and give myself a good talking-to as well:

Hey, don't go off the deep end. Remember, you will see the doctor on Monday. Don't put yourself through unnecessary pain. Remember, there are probably a lot of possibilities to account for your symptoms. Come back down to earth. Remember the Mother Goose rhyme, "For every problem under the sun, there is a solution or there is none. If there be one seek till you find it. If there be none, never mind it." Don't wallow in misery when it doesn't do any good and only diminishes the quality of your life today.

And now, how about scheduling some tennis for this afternoon, and a good movie for tonight?

Test the Idea
Focusing on the Relationship Between Thoughts, Feelings, and Desires I

Focusing on a negative feeling you sometimes or often experience, go through the five-point strategy outlined in the section you just read, writing out your answers in detail.

A similar approach can be taken to changing irrational behavior grounded in irrational desires or motivations:

  1. Identify the questionable behavior (behavior that is getting you in trouble, causing problems for you, or causing problems for someone else).

  2. Identify the precise thinking leading to that behavior. What is the thinking that is generating the motivation to act in this manner?

  3. Analyze the extent to which the thinking is justified, without leaving out any significant relevant information.

  4. If the thinking is irrational, develop thinking that would be reasonable in this situation.

  5. Actively attack the unreasonable thinking with reasonable thinking.

We might use many examples here to illustrate our point. But let's choose one that deals with a large segment of irrational human behavior. Here we are thinking of the many times when people abandon a commitment to change a bad habit because they are unwilling to work through the pain or discomfort that accompanies changing habits. Here's how the irrational behavior arises:

  1. We notice that we have developed some bad habit that we would like to end. We realize, quite reasonably, that we shall have to make a change in our behavior. This could involve giving up any of the following habits: smoking, drinking too much alcohol, eating foods that are not good for us, not exercising enough, spending too much time watching television, spending too much money, not studying until just before an examination, and so on.

  2. We make a resolution to change our bad habit.

  3. For a short time, we do change our behavior, but during that time we experience pain or discomfort. These negative emotions discourage us. So we give up.

The irrational feelings are not the sensations of pain or discomfort. These reactions are to be expected. The irrational feeling is discouragement that emerges from the discomfort and causes us to give up our resolution to change. This feeling is a result of irrational thinking (probably subconscious), which can be put into words roughly as:

I should be able to change my behavior without experiencing any pain or discomfort, even if I have had this habit for years. This pain is too much. I can't stand it. Furthermore, I really don't see how my changed behavior is helping much. I just don't see much progress given all of the sacrificing I am doing. Forget it. It's not worth it.

This thinking makes no sense. Why should we expect to experience no pain or discomfort when changing a habit? Indeed, the reverse is true. Discomfort or pain of some kind is an essential by-product of going through a process of withdrawal from almost any habit. The appropriate rational thinking is something like this:

Whenever I am trying to change a habit, I must expect to feel discomfort, and even pain. Habits are hard for anyone to break. And the only way I can expect to replace the habit with rational behavior is to endure the necessary suffering that comes with change. If I am not willing to endure the discomfort that goes hand-in-hand with breaking a bad habit, I'm not really committed to change. Rather than expecting no pain, I must welcome it as a sign of real change. Instead of thinking "Why should I have to endure this?" I rehearse this thinking: "Enduring this is the price I must pay for success." I must apply the motto: No pain, no gain.

Test the Idea
Focusing on the Relationship Between Thoughts, Feelings, and Desires 2

Focusing on some questionable behavior you sometimes engage in, go through the five-point strategy as outlined in the section you just read and write out your answers in detail. As soon as you have a chance, experiment with making some change in your behavior that you have wanted to make. See if you can succeed now with new thinking at your disposal. Don't forget the essential ingredient of predicting, and accepting, discomfort or pain as a likely hurdle in the process of change.

A Caveat: Powerful Emotions That Seem Disconnected from Thought

Sometimes we find ourselves struggling with emotions or passions that seem disconnected from thought. At least, we may not know what thinking to trace the emotion to. Whatever the exact thought is, it seems unconscious, primitive, and powerful. For example, suppose a man or woman feels powerful urges to have sex with persons other than their spouse and suppose further that these urges become very intense when alone with a particular person. The urge may be experienced as irresistible at the moment. How do we reconstruct the primitive thinking at the root of such urges? Very possibly the thinking may be different for women and men. The common denominator might be suggested by the primitive desire to prove our sexual attractiveness and therefore reinforce feelings of being "masculine" or "feminine." As Freud demonstrated, the thinking of the unconscious mind may be very hard to plumb. It may take years to uncover and bring to consciousness deeply primitive unconscious thoughts. And even then it may be hard to be sure we are correct in our analysis. In cases like these, we should experiment with a variety of strategies. If the urge results in consequences harmful to another person, then we should harness the thinking of our conscience, making the harm as explicit as we can to ourselves, and keeping that ethical logic before our minds, like a mantra, especially for those times when we actively experience the urge. If obeying the urge does not result in any obvious harmful consequences other than to violate a social convention, then the solution may be to act on the urge, but only in private. In many societies of the past, many dissenters violated social norms and conventions in private.

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