“Which is more important… feelings or thoughts?” That was the first question asked by my professor on the first day of the first class in my masters in counseling program. The silence of the class was telling. Which is more important? How does one choose? They’re both present. All the time. Can they be separated; is one really subordinate; possibly even dispensable? They both vie for attention; they both want recognition. And both want to lead. If the answer to the question, “Which is more important?” is “The one that gets to lead,” then the answer becomes clear. “It depends.”
Romance is arguably more about feelings than thoughts; engineering had better be more about thoughts than feelings. But then there are everyday choices and everyday relationships where both feelings and thoughts are at our feet like twin toddlers, both demanding to be picked up and have their way. In such everyday moments that are not matters of structural integrity nor mate selection, which gets to rule—thoughts or feelings? I’m tempted to again say, “It depends,” but I think you’d stop reading.
It would be nice if science helped, but it doesn’t, because science is objective and “important” is subjective. Science can tell us which comes first, but “first” is different from “most important.” First just tells us which toddler is quicker. Just as we would not disregard one twin because the other was quicker, neither do we go with one part of the brain’s activity to the exclusion of the other because it fired first. To exclusively choose one over the other would require removal of either the prefrontal cortex (thinking center) or of the amygdala (feeling center). This would make things easier by eliminating the competition, but it would make us less complete as humans. Still, it’s helpful that we know which will get our attention before the other, every time. Feelings. Feelings come first, with one clarification—the “feeling” that comes first is somatic—or bodily.
The cerebellum is the first to react to anything, and does so with a somatic response. Our physical bodies respond first to stimuli; then the limbic system—of which the amygdala is a part—kicks in with an emotion. Then the cortex kicks in, thinking about what to make of the stimulus. Knowing that the brain fires in this order is helpful in sorting out our reactions. The Enneagram (of which there are nine personality, or temperament, types) differentiates those personalities that are led by head, heart, or gut. The ancient temperament analysis correctly distinguishes the brain’s processing – somatic, emotional, and cognitive. But knowing our temperament type, and that our brains fire in that order, does not mean that we are led only by our head, heart or gut. It merely tells us which influence will be the strongest, and thus need to be regulated by the other two.
Balancing feelings and thoughts is easier for some temperaments than others. Personality assessments all sort people according to their primary tendency to process things cognitively or emotionally—head or heart. It’s not that feelers don’t think or that thinkers don’t feel; it’s a matter of which part of one’s brain tends to grab the steering wheel and which is relegated to the backseat. Regardless of tendency, it is wise on a long journey to switch drivers according to conditions and weariness. Life is a long journey. Thinkers and feelers must trade off and work together as circumstances dictate. Too much time in the driver’s seat can exhaust a person’s capacity; too much dependence on one part of the brain can exhaust its aptitude. Wise traveling companions know who is better suited for which driving conditions, and switch off accordingly. Feelers thus learn to let thinking drive decisions at times, and thinkers thus learn that feelings should at times overrule what is “logical” (due respect to Mr. Spock). Family pets serve as an example. Unless one is getting an animal for security, hunting, handicap support, or rodent control, the decision to get a family pet is likely emotionally driven. Despite this, parents put thinking in the driver’s seat for a while. They reason with children about the responsibilities of pet ownership, securing agreement to feed, walk, water, and clean up after the animal. Feeling and thinking both get a turn at the wheel. Both are important. Both should be drivers in those areas for which they’re best suited. If this brain balance applies to pet selection and maintenance, how much more to mate selection and human relationships.
Truth is, a healthy human life can’t be lived on emotions alone, nor can it be lived on intellect alone. The engineer must let thinking rule over feelings, to be sure. But even engineers often take into consideration things like aesthetics and intuitiveness – things barely cognitive, but real and relevant. Romantic relationships in our modern, less pragmatic culture are typically feelings driven. We tend to laugh at, or feel sorry for, those in past ages who married for political alliance, or by parental arrangement, or because one had cattle and the other had land. Few of us would be excited about a marriage that is logical, but devoid of love. At the other extreme, becoming romantically involved with an addict who is abusive and serially unemployed is to dismiss reason from the mix and operate solely on emotion. When everyone around us is telling us that a particular relationship is a bad idea, it may reveal that the amygdala has staged a coup and locked the cortex in the closet. The romantic whirlwind may be exhilarating, but the end result is not likely to be a satisfying relationship for both partners.
Maturity is about learning to acknowledge the emotions, while making a wise choice. This is the difference between a child and an adult… at least a mature adult. Infants are all amygdala. They feel. They feel deeply. They laugh freely when amused or feeling joyful; they cry freely when hungry or uncomfortable or sad or if demanding what they want. There is no check and balance to whether expressing the feeling is appropriate under the circumstances, or likely to produce a desired result. Feelings come first, so feelings get to lead, and whatever impulse a feeling dictates is that which gets expressed. Of course, we don’t remain infants. The apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me.“ (1 Corinthians 13:11) To be childlike is to live impulsively—by the gut alone, or making important decisions based on emotion alone. We worry for people who live this way, or pity them, or get angry with them if we have to clean up their mess (be their parent). Reliable adults don’t make important decisions based on feelings without intellectual restraint. Life after preschool is all about acknowledging our feelings, deciphering what needs they are pointing out, and subjecting to intellectual scrutiny how to meet legitimate needs wisely. This is maturity; responsibility. This is how life works. No one gets to live by feelings alone; that can literally be life-threatening. On the other hand, no one wants to be married to someone for logical reasons alone; a house soundly constructed does not make a home—homes need love, and love involves emotion. Balance is learned through the maturing process.
How do we sort this out in important human relationships, friendships, dating, marriage and parenting? Answers emerge from many realms, often converging. We’ve noted how understanding our temperament can reveal our tendencies, and clue us in to what needs to be reigned in. In the psychological world Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) offers tools for balance. And from the spiritual world Scripture provides sound principles to guide our thoughts and the Holy Spirit speaks a silent but clear voice to guide our feelings.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is targeted at the very dilemma we are addressing—dialectical, or opposed, interests—such as thoughts and feelings; self-interest and the interests of others; saying or doing what we want versus saying or doing what is wise in the long run. In fact, a “wise mind” is the goal of DBT… a mind able to wrestle with strong urges from opposite directions and make a decision that is effective in interpersonal relationships. To get there, DBT strengthens four skills: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness.
• Mindfulness is about having our mind in the “here and now.” It includes focusing our senses on what we are hearing, seeing, touching, thinking, and feeling. It includes voicing in our heads or out-loud what is going on within us and around us. Mindfulness keeps our minds, emotions, and somatic feelings from carrying us away. We train ourselves to notice what is happening in and around us, without yet making decisions nor acting on impulses. This postpones our response until we can make effective decisions based on more information.
• Distress Tolerance is about learning to tolerate frustration. It’s being able to recognize, allow, tolerate, and endure stress, distress, frustrations, disappointments, pain, crises, loss, and drama. It is holding it together rather than coming unglued; it is getting through a bad day rather than quitting our job; it is managing ourselves in unpleasant circumstances, rather than those circumstances managing us.
• Emotion Regulation is learning that the limbic system has both a brake and an accelerator. We are in control of how much fuel we give our feelings; we get to regulate how fast we let them take us. Just because the amygdala says “Floor it,” doesn’t mean we have to. We can even respond by pressing the brake. In fact, there is a DBT Skill called, “Opposite Action;” it is choosing to do exactly opposite what our emotions tell us to do. Yes, the emotional toddler screams loudly and is most likely to shove its way into the driver’s seat, but there is a parent in the brain and you’re it! Emotion regulation is about parenting the emotions; driving with wise control of the accelerator and the brake.
• Interpersonal Effectiveness is about being effective in relationships. This is the skill of balancing self-protection with the protection of others with whom we are in relationship. It replaces reactions based on assumptions with effective communication based on mutual listening and confirmation of understanding. It is the skill of choosing behaviors that effectively balance our own interests and the interests of others.
Moving on to the spiritual world, it is arguably unequaled in its power to bring change. Larry Crabb, who authored Connecting and many other titles, recognized after years of counseling that people who got better under his therapeutic care were disproportionately those people who were also cooperating with the Holy Spirit and yielding to Scriptures in God’s ongoing transformative work. That says something. Not that people can’t get better without Christ, but that cooperating with His Word and Spirit is consistent with mental health. (Yes, this spiritual work may be different from, and even in contrast to, what some teachers, leaders, and religious institutions impose upon people. But Jesus himself does good work.)
I love the fact that self-control is mentioned over and over again in the New Testament as a manifestation of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23), a mandate to believers (Titus 2:6,12), and a mark of the follower of Christ (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8, 2 Peter 1:6). Self-control is exactly what’s needed as we parent the two toddlers at our knees. What a relief that we don’t have to muster self-control out of thin air; it is given to us as a gift from the limitless empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We can let Him do in us what we don’t have the strength or patience to do ourselves. Face hardship? He’s enabled it. Withstand persecution? He’s enabled it. Endure the cross? He’s enabled it. Keep our cool at work, or in traffic, or in those most difficult of relationships? Yes, He can enable that, too. Not by magic; we are still human. Hunger, anger, loneliness and weariness call for relief in the the Christian just as they do for anyone else, and self-control will be difficult without such relief. But the Power that created us and all things invites us to let Him help us regulate dialectical dilemmas. Why wouldn’t we?
Scripture tells us secrets one can only expect to find in a manual written by the Designer of our souls. It’s instructions rightly understood are dependable guides. I’d never work on a modern car or appliance without a manual; too many things are solved in non-intuitive ways. “Turn the ignition key to accessory while simultaneously pressing the power button on the radio and the sliding door will reset.” Right. I’d have disassembled the door five times and never have come up with that solution. The reliable guidance in Scripture as Life Manual is often non-intuitive; we’re not likely to come up with such wisdom on our own. And we’re not likely to hear it from someone who is not reading the Word and listening to the Spirit. Its mandates sound odd; yet, oddly, they work. Things like, “it is to a man’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11); “Humble yourself before the Lord and he will lift you up” (James 4:10); “Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not prideful, it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Many books have been written on the process of sanctification that is our maturing in Christ as enabled by the Holy Spirit and guided by the wisdom of Scripture. Suffice to say that in the matter of sorting out thoughts and feelings, discerning the important needs our emotions are screaming about, and deciding how to act wisely in nuanced self-protection that is also protective of others, the scriptures give us reliable principles to guide our thinking and the Spirit speaks to our heart a calming voice to guide our feelings.
So, what is the answer to the question, “Which is more important… feelings or thoughts?” It depends. If the question is, “Which comes first?” then the answer is feelings. Somatic feelings, then emotional. If the question is, “Which gets to drive?” the answer is, both are important. Both are needed. Both should be allowed rule in different circumstances. Both get to drive. It depends on the context and terrain and which is best suited. Some decisions are simply right or wrong, smart of dumb. Emotions must then be told to get in the back seat; we’re going to do what is wise, regardless of how the emotional toddler feels about it. At other times, love means telling logic to get in the backseat. My wife and I decided to get married within days of crunching the numbers and figuring out we couldn’t afford it on our incomes. Emotions ruled, not logic. It was love! We also had to let the thinking toddler drive after that decision. Bills don’t get paid on love.
We’re human. Thoughts and feelings will be with us always. Together. Both toddlers will scream at the same time for attention and want to drive. But you’re the parent in the car. You get to decide. The loudest toddler doesn’t get to decide. Circumstances don’t get to decide. Your gut, heart, or head doesn’t get to decide. You are in control. With your understanding of your temperament, the help of DBT skills, the principles of God’s Word, and the voice and power of the Holy you can have what you need to accelerate, steer, and brake wisely.