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Feeling Good, Feeling Well

A map of feelings

Feelings are neither sensations nor emotions...

In fact, as has been pointed out in another article, there may be a great deal of confusion about exactly just what it is they are. This article attempts to look more closely at the range of feelings that are available to us, and how they can best be put to use.

The map provided above describes feelings in terms of the color wheel, that visible spectrum of light which extends from the violet just above invisible ultraviolet to the red just beneath invisible infrared. This spectrum of color is usually mapped in a circle, with the primary colors (blue, yellow and red) located at regular intervals, and all the other colors falling somewhere in between.

Color is an especially apt metaphor for the discussion of feelings. Artists often develop special palettes to evoke particular moods in their paintings, such as the astringent greys and whites of Wyeth and O’Keeffe, or the work of Picasso during his earlier blue and pink periods. Indeed, American vernacular has long associated blue with sadness (including the musical genre known as “the blues”), yellow with fear (the “yellow streak” of cowardice), and red with anger (“seeing red” when enraged).

Another time I had written about feelings as being very much like the gauges on the dashboard of a car, indicating what is taking place under the hood and helping us to understand what next to do. Just as the falling needle on the tachometer may tell us that the engine is turning slower and that we may need to gear down soon, our changing feelings indicate how we are handling various changes in our situation within the environment, and what we may need to do about it in order not to hurt ourselves.

Our sadness, for example, speaks of the losses that we have experienced in the past, and of the ways in which we have been changed by having to let go of something special to us. Our fear, on the other hand, warns us that we are becoming confounded by a sense of inadequacy as we face a future that seems to have become overwhelmingly dangerous. And our anger indicates our sense of right and wrong in the present, for what angers us at this moment, here and now, is something that we take personal issue with as morally wrong.

So our feelings do not indicate objective changes in the environment itself, but rather in our personal subjective responses to the changes, according to our values. As a result, our feelings are not about them, they are about us. A quick sports car will behave differently than a station wagon with its cargo as they climb the same steep hill side by side, and their instrument panels will demonstrate that difference. Same hill, but different cars; same situation, but different values, needs, and identities.

Paying attention to our feelings helps us to gauge ourselves more clearly, so that we might take care of ourselves more effectively. Not paying attention to what our feelings tell us usually results in some idiot light going off, in the form of an emotional reaction— and at that point it is generally too late to avoid a certain amount of damage

In the map given, a relative intensity is indicated for each primary feeling on a scale of one to nine. The lower half of the scale describes feelings that are appropriate to circumstances, while the upper half of the scale describes feelings that have overwhelmed the psyche and are therefore destructive. At midpoint is a state that requires action, so that the accumulated load may be usefully discharged in a (potentially) appropriate articulation or action. Responses before this are ineffectively premature, and beyond this they become uncontrollable reactions.

For example, as my young daughter leaves the house for a walk, she and I might exchange a few words that acknowledge how much I care about her. However, if I notice after a while that she has not yet returned I may grow concerned, and my feelings about her absence may become uneasy. Later, when she still has not returned and my concern has deepened into outright worry for her welfare, I know that I must act: I must go out looking for her. If I do not act, an anxiety will inevitably begin descending upon me, infecting everything that I do with a compulsive, paralytic fear.

The same pattern can be seen in sadness as well, which can be thought of as the deepening of a calm regard towards a regret about the past that can move on towards frank sorrow. Grief at the death of a close friend must become proactive at this time, discharging these sad feelings by doing something such as attending (or creating) a fitting memorial. Reaching out towards others to communicate how we feel is often the best defense there can be against becoming overwhelmed by depression.

Anger, too, has its flashpoint of useful behavior upon a sufficient accumulation of annoyances. We are called upon by our anger to demonstrate the courage of our convictions, to speak up for what we know is right. Otherwise, we may become enraged and act impulsively with a global need to punish, and to extract revenge for things that bear little relevance to the issue at hand.

There are, of course, many other feelings than these primary ones that I have outlined. There are blends and combinations, with various triggers and targets. And, just as these darker shades may provoke us, there are more positive pastels that can inspire us. The map given is really a gross oversimplification of what actually takes place within the psyche, but it can provide a certain orientation in a landscape that is otherwise ambiguous and so often confusing.

The most important thing to remember is to not be dismayed by what we feel, nor to legislate against it, but to explore, and to know, and to own what and how we feel. The person that does not bring these personal feelings into the choices life presents us will act mechanically, without a sense of personal values, and— in time— without a healthy sense of a purpose or direction in life.

Without color, sadly, we must inevitably settle for a black and white world in which so much meaning and value will become absolutely lost.

This article previously appeared in The Listener: volume five, issue four (Winter 2000-2001).

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