Educate your feelings

In our time, there seems to be a widespread tendency to blame: others, circumstances, or simply things in general. In many cases, that's just a technique to deflect attention from what actually should be one's own responsibility. And while this is easily recognized when what is under scrutiny is people's actions, the same applies to feelings. Let's look at an example.

Nobody likes being bored, isn't that so? Boredom is unpleasant, it makes us uncomfortably feel the weight of time, lets us experience ourselves as inactive, incapable even of doing anything useful with ourselves.

But many assume that feeling bored is merely the proper reaction to an environment that fails to entertain us — or fails to fascinate us, engage us, occupy our thoughts, in a word: fails to grab our attention. So it is really the world around us that is to blame for the nasty feelings we must endure. Or so it seems. For let us ask: why should it be that feelings of boredom are the proper reaction to things that go on around us? Does it seem the best way to behave, in circumstances that you take to be boring, to just remain inactive and, well, feel, that is, concentrate on what your senses tell you (i.e. nothing of interest, since by definition we are talking about a situation that you find boring)? Wouldn't it be equally possible to try and make some use of the situation? Whether you are in a waiting room or listening to a lecture you were forced to attend, whether you have to remain in company that you wouldn't have chosen if it was up to you or whether you are alone when you'd rather have someone around you: why not take the initiative and get something useful done? At the very least, there's always the option to do some thinking: reflect. Review the last few hours, this whole day, the past weeks; think about your goals in life and where you are with respect to them; even think about what's brought you into that situation you are in now. Perhaps you can identify some mistake you've made that brought you into it? Should you have taken more care of yourself so you wouldn't end up in a doctor's waiting room? Should you have dropped studying a subject that gets you into lectures you really don't want to listen to? Should you do more for the relationships to other people in your life — so you won't need to spend time with people you don't like, and you'd have the chance to be with those you care for?

Am I recommending, then, to take that feeling of being bored as a signal, an indicator to get active (or contemplative)? Not quite. That feeling is improper: it's bad for you; feeling that way is already to have taken a wrong turn somewhere. What I suggest goes deeper: you shouldn't have to feel bored at all. In all those situations, instead of having an impulse to become bored ("Oh, now I'll have to wait for the train for another ten minutes, and there is nothing of the slightest interest here!"), you'd better have an impulse to do something, or start reflecting ("Well, that gives me another ten minutes; fine, so I can continue reading that novel I've just started."). Instead of letting your surroundings determine what you might do, or even worse, of leaving it to the situation what you'd feel, start making that decision yourself — and train your feelings to tune in with more sensible options (and habits).

More generally, why should any feelings be merely a function of the goings-on in our world? True, once you have developed certain habits, you can't immediately control how you feel. There is an automatic pilot in place that drives much of them, and it's not easy to even notice, much less change them once that pilot has decided on a course. In the long run, however, you can educate your feelings; you can to a certain degree re-program the autopilot to steer more sensible courses in a given type of situation. Granted, that takes a lot of work, and even when successful there is no guarantee that your feelings will always be what you'd like them to be: in the complicated emotional interactions that we have every day with the people around us, so many things can still trigger unexpected behavior. And it is very hard to know yourself so well that you'd be able to foresee all that. The variety of situations we might encounter is infinite. All that, of course, is no excuse for not working on yourself and correct your affective responses, the ways you feel in given circumstances. Your feelings are your responsibility, much the same as your actions and beliefs are. There is no need, at any time, to feel bad (or bored). The fault, as always, is not in our surroundings, but in ourselves. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.