The Importance of Understanding How We Feel

Food For Thought - Angus Sully - Self Understanding

There are different expressions of emotion categorised as pain or pleasure. Our feelings provide guides for the survival of our bodies. Most animals are thought to feel pain and pleasure. We also know from behavioural experiments that pain and pleasure is triggered associatively, like the baby that hears a loud crash when seeing a toy. Repeated experience of this causes the baby to cry when it sees the toy again, despite the absence of the sound that time. Given that emotions play such a significant role in our choices and our perspective on things, how should we untangle bias and potentially harmful conditioning?

We know that much of our pleasures and pains are conditioned while we are young. We may have long forgotten their causes but the associative feeling remains. Is this really good for us, or is it harmful? If children questioned their mother’s warning not to go near the cliff’s edge it would lead to disaster. Our evolutionary heritage demands that what is said is truth. Thats why sarcasm develops after the age of 7. So we learn that cockroaches are terrifying because we are shown that to be the case and the theory will remain untested in later years.

When we fail to reflect objectively on our feelings we risk actions that do more harm than good. We act out in characteristic ways shaped by our unique past. If we were made to feel less about ourselves growing up, we act to seek approval and validation from others. If we were poverty stricken, we may become obsessed with wealth and power through fear of returning there. We are pushed to these choices through emotional bias, not truth. These facts put us in a very difficult position when dealing with ourselves. When asked why we do the things we do, often our answers are shadowed by hidden motives.

Addiction is of this kind. Excessive consumption satisfies a need but postpones a solution. A lack of early love or abuse as a child is prevalent amongst heroin addicts. Low self confidence drives alcohol abuse. When left unchecked, it’s likely we harm others and ourselves. Any repeated behaviour that causes harm require our fullest attention to uncover the forces that drive them. The aggressive man often assigns the causes of his anger to those outside himself. The victims recognise the disproportionate reaction, but label and talk about him as unjust and volatile. The reality should be pity. Pity to all those that falter from the good.

With greater understanding of ourselves we achieve a greater understanding of others. Unless a sage, we are all broken and in need of repair. We must get to the truth of our feelings – How am I feeling? Is it good, bad or indifferent? Then we ask why is it that way? What are the possible causes? We must first begin with those problems that occur repeatedly in life, take a broad view and work tirelessly at their resolution. Harmless outlets that mitigate their expression must be sought. Seek support and counsel. Give time for reflection and enrich your life by choosing an environment in which you can flourish and discard the emotional preconceptions that drive your worst actions.

James Birchall

James is an optimist who has a keen interest in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of itself. Science remains close to his heart since finishing his MSc in Biochemistry at Liverpool. He believes learning is life-long and forms an important part of living a good life.


  1. I’ve always believed in the words “You won’t know/understand unless you’ve tried it”. A lot of people don’t realise that this saying goes both ways. One being that if you don’t try it then you won’t get the experience and the other being if you never try it, ignorance is bliss. It varies according to situations but sometimes I still struggle on deciding which would benefit me more or which one has a better outcome.

    I think this article is a good read, cause sometimes I question the way I feel about things, people and situations. Thanks for sharing Jay 🙂

    • I agree. Its hard to tell in advance whether our emotional cues are true or not. Best we can do is logically reason out the situation and decide from there. This may mean overcoming an emotional bias but as long as we go through the process, we open up ourselves to a wider range of experience that otherwise we cut off if we always followed our first reaction. Thanks for the comment Olivia.

  2. I believe that most of the world’s problems stem from personal lack of understanding. People tend to to act in ways which are self-harming, although the real victim is from the lack of a clear perspective, usually themselves. We can’t help feeling the way we feel sometimes, but it is important to understand how and why we feel a certain way. Life has too many curveballs thrown at us all the time. it’s how we deal with our situation, and to try our best to minimalise harm. It is true “with greater understanding of ourselves we achieve a greater understanding of others”. Empathy is key to personal understanding and understanding of others. Good article Jay.

    • Agreed. We can’t help feeling as we do but understanding their causes is a step in the right direction. We then become aware that we’re acting out, we give ourselves perspective. Thanks for your comment Nic.

  3. Hi Jay,

    Very well discussed ideas. I especially like the part where you talk about addiction and how closely it is related to our emotions. I think it’s something people generally know but very seldom act upon. Thank you for sharing!

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