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.
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:
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:
In the same situation, rational thinking would be something like this:
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:
A similar approach can be taken to changing irrational behavior grounded in irrational desires or motivations:
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:
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:
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:
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.