I was on a professional social media site the other day and noticed a post in my feed that read “feelings are not facts.” It was posted by a person named Susan David Ph.D., who is self-described as “one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist.” Here’s the original image (it links to her original post):
The image speaks in multiple ways, both textually and symbolically. The textual meaning is clear and the arrow imagery underlines the point: facts point in a single and straight line, and feelings point in multiple directions. Facts are stable and unitary. Feelings are complex: their movement is in different directions simultaneously. The arrow on the “s” is winding and points in the opposite direction of the “i”. In this construction, facts are simple, uniform, and point to a single thing. Feelings wind and wend and point in three separate and even opposing directions. And finally, in the graphic above, “facts” are represented as a literal sign, bounded by its white border. Alternatively, feelings are graphically messy and can’t be contained in the same amount of space.
My first reaction to reading this was shock. It felt wild to me that someone with a doctorate in psychology would contrast feelings with facts. To give a bit more context to the post, she writes in her description of the graphic: “Your feelings are valid, important, and worthy of honoring with compassion, but they are not facts or directives that get to boss you around.” This, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, did not clarify things for me.
“Is this a common sentiment,” I asked myself? A couple of simple online searches quickly answered my question: extremely common. The following quotation is emblematic. It is from another psychologist with a doctorate, Barton Goldsmith. He writes,
Upon occasion, every now and then, some people get a feeling that isn’t real. They may think that it’s real, it may feel very real, and they may truly believe it’s real, but it’s just a feeling. It is wise to remember that, as important as emotions are, feelings aren’t facts.
There’s more language here that helps to discern what’s at stake in this discussion. Let’s look at the propositions and colloraries we have so far:
- Proposition—Feelings aren’t facts
- Proposition—Feelings are messy and multiple
- Proposition—Facts are bounded and unitary
- Proposition—Feelings are valid, important, and worthy of honouring
- Proposition—Feelings (because they are not facts) don’t or ought not to “boss you around”
- Corollary—Facts, (because they are not feelings) do or ought to “boss you around”
- Proposition—Feelings aren’t real
- Proposition—Feelings feel real… but they aren’t (sometimes)
- Proposition—Feelings are real (sometimes)
- Proposition—Feelings are important
- Proposition—Nevertheless, they aren’t facts
- Corollary—Facts are real
There’s a lot to work with here. Let’s start with some definitions, first “feeling.” We’re already in the soup, because “feeling” has both a technical definition and an everyday definition that are in competition. I wrote about this in the Spring of this year in the post entitled, Feelings vs Emotions, Part I: Loud Bodies. Feeling, from the neuroscientific community, is binary—we feel good or we feel bad. Emotion, on the other hand, is defined by Antonio D’Amasio as “concerts of actions” or “action programs.” He provided me with a needle-drop moment, when he pointed out that “emotion” contains the word “motion.” Finally, emotion precedes feeling. In D’Amasio’s presentation, emotion is an action program that produces movement in an organism, and feeling is the bodily reflection on that action program.
The distinction between feeling and emotion is critically important, but I admit that in our day-to-day—myself included—we tend to use “feeling” as a catchall for feeling, emotion, and all bodily sensations, e.g. “I feel sick,” I feel sad,” I feel bad.” David and Goldsmith are using “feeling” in their statements to refer to emotional states. It does definitely behoove those of us who work in the psy-disciplines to be precise with our language, but in this case let’s call this a bit of good faith sloppiness.
Let’s now define fact. I’m going to start with every novice essay writer’s first move—consult the dictionaries.
Cambridge dictionary: something that is known to have happened or to exist, especially something for which proof exists, or about which there is information.
Dictionary.com: that which actually exists or is the case; reality or truth.
In short… more soup. There are words contained in these two short definitions on which people have spent entire careers. Hell… there are words contained in these definitions on which there exists thousands of years of writing: existence, reality, and truth. We’re certainly not going to address it all comprehensively, but let’s start by testing the principle question under review here—whether feelings are facts.
Let’s first start with a feeling state. David, writes the following in the header of her post: “You may have any number of feelings or thoughts—you may think that you’re unworthy or worry that “you’re a bad presenter.”” She unfortunately requires us to make another diversion into the distinction between thinking and feeling and emotional states. It felt appropriate to cut her some slack on conflating feeling with emotion, but it is a bridge too far to throw thinking in as well. So, let’s take the cognitive parts out, and that will leave us with the feeling states of unworthiness and worry. For the sake of simplicity, let’s use worry. And let’s use David’s example of worrying about being a bad presenter. But one more interjection, since no one worries about being a bad presenter in the abstract. But someone might certainly be worried because they agreed to give a presentation at work, and they don’t feel like they will do a good job making a presentation in a particular context. Let’s concretize it in the following way:
I have a presentation to give next week at our quarterly meeting, and I’m worried I’m going to do a poor job.
So… I feel worried. Let’s start by testing the Cambridge definition to see if the statement “I feel worried” counts as a fact. Can we say that my feeling of worry is “known to have happened or exists”? I think it does. Here’s the scenario:
Yesterday I felt really worried. Man… I was pacing around thinking about this presentation I have to give soon. I can feel my heart beating, and my palms are sweaty.
I have used a scenario in the past, as the Cambridge definition is written in the past perfect tense. Can we say here that something is known to have happened or exist? Definitely. We know that at a particular time—yesterday—something is known to have happened: i.e. I was in a defined state of worry. I was pacing. My palms were sweaty. A state of psychic worry and bodily tension existed. There is proof: my own account, which is corroborated by my partner’s report. There is lots of information about it, both from my perspective and from those around me at that moment. By the Cambridge Dictionary definition, my worry is a fact.
Let’s do the same exercise with the Dictionary.com definition: can we say that my worry “actually exists or is the case; reality or truth”? Again, I think we can. It is “the case” that I was in a state of worry yesterday. That is confirmed by my report and is verified and confirmed by my partner, who was concerned by my agitated state. We’re going to spend some time defining and thinking about “reality” and “truth” in a moment, but for the time being can we say that my feeling of worry was real? I can’t see why not. The state was real to the extent that it produced what we might colloquially call “real-world” effects: e.g. pacing, elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and it even caused my partner to be worried about me. My experience of worry is identifiable in time and in a particular place. It produced in me verifiable effects, and those effects produced downstream social effects between my partner and me. Finally, can we say that state is true? I don’t see why not. We might ask the question, what is the truth about how you felt yesterday? My good faith response—i.e. I have no incentive to do anything other than report what happened to the best of my abilities—that is, I felt a sense of unease and worry. “Is that really true,” someone might ask? “Absolutely,” I answer. “I felt lousy all afternoon.”
What do we make of this? By both definitions, it seems straightforward to say that what I experienced yesterday is a fact—it “happened,” it “exists” (or existed), it was “real,” there is “proof” it existed, there is “information about it,” it was “the case,” and it is “true.” By all definitions offered—and of course these are not the only or comprehensive definitions—it would seem odd to claim that the way I felt yesterday, my feeling of worry, was not a fact.
Here, a feeling is, in actuality, a fact. Let me make a stronger claim: all feelings are facts. They are facts in the same way that the table I am sitting at currently is made of wood and that I am a psychotherapist. All are part of the same category of thing we call facts.
Again, even if we allow for a conflation of feelings and emotions and other bodily states, we find that circumstances that strain the definitions still exist as facts. Let’s take a person who has an amputated limb but who still experiences sensation in that limb. The vast majority of amputees experience their limb after surgical removal. Some experience pain. This phenomenon was given the name, “phantom limb syndrome.” The name is evocative: the limb that is no longer there has a ghostly presence. It’s there… but it’s not there.
Even when someone has a sensation, a feeling, about a bodily appendage that no longer exists, even then we can say that the feeling is a fact. Ask a person who writhes in pain all night and suffers with the pain in a limb that is no longer part of their body whether that feeling has happened, exists, whether they can prove it, whether they have information about it, is real, and is true. Even a feeling about an aspect of our own body that is no longer present is in every sense of the definitions above a fact.
Feelings are facts! To argue otherwise is foolish or cruel.
Both David and Goldsmith get the language precisely backward. They claim feelings are not facts but that they are valid. The facticity of feelings, if my argument above is persuasive, cannot be challenged. Feelings are facts. But these authors both claim that feelings are valid, and this ought to be the place where they make their claim. But they can’t, because it is considered inappropriate to deny the validity of a person’s feelings. That would be, in fact, considered either foolish or cruel.
Let me go back to my novice essay writing well and add the first line of the Wikipedia entry on “validity”:
Validity is the main extent to which a concept, conclusion or measurement is well-founded and likely corresponds accurately to the real world. (my emphasis)
This is what David and Goldsmith want to claim when they write “feelings are not facts”: i.e. that a person’s feeling is not well-founded or that it does not correspond accurately to the real world. Their claims should read, “feelings are not valid”… but good luck with trying to be one of the world’s leading management thinkers and a best-selling author who claims such things.
Both authors want to make the point—and a fair point at that—that sometimes (Proposition 8) one’s feelings might not be well-founded and/or they don’t correspond accurately to the real world. Let’s go back to my experience of worry about giving a presentation. I think the question David and Goldsmith want to ask is the following: is your feeling warranted? Is your feeling of worry well calibrated to your circumstances?
We’re going to find out that “well-foundedness,” “correspondence,” “accuracy,” and “the real world” are all much less straightforward than they appear to be on their face, but for the time being, let’s use them to test our scenario in the same way we did earlier. This time, we’ll test my experience of worry against the definition of validity instead of facticity.
We’re no longer interested in whether my feeling of worry is factual—we’ve demonstrated that it is. The question is now whether my feeling is valid or warranted. The validity of my worry is going to be measured against the degree to which it corresponds to the so-called real world. It now matters what my experience of giving presentations has been. For instance, if I have a history of my skin getting blotchy, getting flustered and tripping over my words, or feeling my throat constrict when I get up in front of an audience to present, then I can say that my worry corresponds to the facts on the ground—the real world in the past—and that my feeling of worry is warranted. But it might also be the case that I have a strong track record of giving presentations, and my worry is not well calibrated to my past performance.
If we could edit David’s graphic, it might read as follows: Feelings are definitely facts. They are sometimes valid and sometimes not valid. That would be a more valid title—it better corresponds to the real world—but… less catchy.
Who has claim to the real world?
I mentioned above that the various components that helped to define “validity” might themselves be a problem. I think it is in a short exploration of this problem we find that whether we are talking about facts or truth or the real world or validity that we end up in the same conundrum: who gets to gets to speak with authority regarding the following:
- What is known to have happened?
- What exists?
- What counts as proof?
- What counts as information?
- What is the case?
- What is real?
- What is true?
- What is well-founded?
- And most pointedly: what corresponds accurately to the real world?
We’re back in the soup (and it’s not consommé), because what is at stake here is nothing less than the following: how we understand the world around us and how we allow others—people and disciplines and institutions—to define when things are true and real and valid. David and Goldsmith both have doctorates and both see clients in one form or another (it doesn’t matter here whether it’s psychotherapy or coaching or management training). They are both making the claim, implicitly and explicitly, that they and their colleagues in the psy-disciplines—psychology, psychiatry, counselling psychology, etc.—have access to the truth of the matter, to the facts on the ground, to the real world. The corollary is that you, the patient or client, do not.
The reason that David and Goldsmith can make the claim that facts are not feelings flows from the confidence they have in their access to the real world. If I were to see Dr. David professionally about my worried pacing and sweaty palms, she might well tell me that my feelings are not real. Their existence is not warranted. Yes… I should honour those feelings (though it is confusing upon reflection why I should honour something in myself that isn’t factual and doesn’t represent the truth of the matter), but ultimately I should recognize that my worry is unskillful and unhelpful because it doesn’t correspond to the world as it actually is… according to her. And this is precisely from where the problem emanates: why is Susan David or Barton Goldsmith or your own counsellor the arbiter of the real? Have you met people in the psy-disciplines? Do you really want those folks—me included—to tell you whether your feelings correspond accurately to the truth of the real world?
The title of this section asks, who has claim to the real world? This thing that I am calling “claim to the real world” is the reduced form of all the questions above that were derived from earlier definitions, e.g. what counts as proof, what is real, what is well founded, etc. It might sound dramatic to say so, but this is precisely what is at stake when we are told that feelings are not facts. We are being told something about how the communities in which we live sign off on certain facts and push back against others. Let me give an example—a very dramatic example—from the history of psychology itself, the so-called Satanic Panic.
In the 1980s and 90s, the belief existed in parts of the psychotherapeutic community that there was a worldwide pandemic of ritualised satanic abuse. They believed this abuse to include rituals of the sexual abuse of adults and children, murder, and cannibalism. These accusations, of which there were more than 12 000 (in the U.S. alone), were almost exclusively the results of psychotherapists “helping” clients to recover deeply buried traumatic memories. Of those 12 000 plus accusations of the most horrific claims imaginable, there were precisely zero cases that were substantiated after investigation.
The Satanic Panic is a particularly grim and dramatic example of what can happen when so-called mental health professionals gain authority over the questions above: i.e. what is real, what is true, what counts as proof, and what is known to have happened. The accusations made in this era deeply injured many people. it destroyed families, as were the reputations of the many of thousands accused, even though no one ultimately was convicted. And it is also worth pointing out that this chapter in the history of psychology meant the actual acts of sexual and physical abuse that were indeed rampant during that time but banal relative to the wild accusations were ignored.
My example is dramatic. I acknowledge that. Dramatic examples help to drive the point home. I started off this essay with a social media post, and here we are at accusations of child sacrifice. But this is ultimately what is at stake when we start at a supposition and work backwards. It is worth noting that no one makes the accusation that the mental health professionals who “helped” these many clients over decades to “uncover” their ritualized sexual abuse were themselves malicious actors. These therapists believed they had uncovered a secret corrosive part of society, and it was their ethical duty to bring the perpetrators to justice. In that way, they were acting “ethically” in helping to bring forward the twisted criminality they “encountered.” But what they found wasn’t encountered but rather constructed… by the therapists themselves. The tragedy of this chapter of psychotherapy is that therapists were obviously finding more and more examples of abuse of all kinds in their practices, but they couldn’t get their collective head around the fact that this abuse was being perpetrated in a completely uncoordinated way by the parents and the clergymen and teachers in their communities.
It matters who gets to answer the questions, what is real, what is the truth, and what counts as evidence. It matters who gets to claim access to “the real world.” The results are not academic.