Don’t trust your feelings

by | Feb 19, 2024 | Leadership

I’m not a fan of cold callers at the front door. Aside from not liking being put on the spot, I can’t be sure that the caller is who they say they are. We’ve all heard the stories about doorstep scammers.

Our feelings are a bit like cold callers. They might seem trustworthy, but they’re not necessarily who they purport to be.

Let me explain what I mean.

In any one moment, there is a maelstrom of activity going on inside our bodies to keep us alive and functioning – chemical signals, electrical signals, soundwaves and more.

Every time our brain moves our body, even in our imagination, our brain needs to predict what energy our body is going to need and make adjustments accordingly to, for example, our heart rate, blood pressure, glucose and so on.

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman-Barrett calls this process body-budgeting, a bit like a financial budget we’d create for our incomings and outgoings.

It would be overwhelming for us to be aware of every gurgle and sensation in our body so evolution has turned down the noise for us and created a shortcut. That shortcut is how we feel in any one moment, a sort of headline report of our physical, emotional and mental state.

Fake news

The problem is that this report can be a pretty poor representation of what’s actually going on, a bit like fake news. 

For example, one of my clients is prone to anger, but he’s only recently realised being angry usually means he’s hungry and needs to eat. There’s even a word for it – hangry

The latest neuroscience tells us that, particularly when we don’t know why we’re feeling out of sorts, we’re more likely to attribute our feelings to what’s happening around us rather than our physiological state.

There’s an oft-quoted piece of research supporting this. Scientists in Israel found that judges were significantly more likely to deny parole to a prisoner if the hearing was just before lunchtime. It seems that judges were interpreting bodily sensations that were actually just pangs of hunger as evidence that the prisoners were unworthy of parole. Immediately after lunch, the judges began granting paroles with their usual frequency. 

And watch out for going for an interview on a rainy day because the interviewers are more likely to rate you negatively.

Cut the drama

The upshot is that our feelings are untrustworthy. As neuroscientist Feldman-Barrett says, “Feeling bad doesn’t mean anything is wrong – it just means you’re taxing your body budget”.

I like her advice to treat feeling out of sorts a bit like a virus that will pass if we look after ourselves properly. The trouble is that we often attribute meaning where there is none causing ourselves and others needless angst.

Frustrated or irritated by your spouse or colleague? You may be incorrectly interpreting your feeling of irritability – perhaps because you’re underslept or you’ve been stuck in front of your screen all day – as their behaviour being irritating.

Catastrophising? Thinking your world is falling apart? This may just be a symptom of working too hard, not switching off and sleeping badly.

Worried you’re not performing? Feeling anxious is about our body gearing up for a perceived threat even when there’s no real danger. Slowing and deepening your breathing and focussing on something positive will help you feel and think better.

And remember, your feelings are up there with doorstep scammers. As neuroscientist Ariel Garten is quoted as saying, “Our feelings about how we’re feeling are notoriously unreliable.”

Subscribe to Alison's mailing list

* indicates required

Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

Sign up to her mailing list to receive blogs like these direct to your inbox.

Share This