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Do feelings just happen or do they come because we go looking for them? Seth Godin is a famous marketing guru who occasionally hits something that goes beyond his usual domain of finding success in business. He kicks up dust by claiming that we choose to go places or do things that stir certain feelings because that’s what we want to feel. We put ourselves in circumstances that provoke those feelings.
Occasionally we encounter emotions at random. More often, we have no choice, because there’s something that needs to be done, or an event that impinges itself on us. But most often, we seek emotions out, find refuge in them, just as we walk into the living room or the den. …
…Do you have a friend you can have an intimate, tearful conversation with anytime you pick up the phone? Is there a topic that if you bring it up with your boss, it will quickly lead to contention? Is there a place or a memory that never fails to bring melancholy along with it? It’s not something you have to do, it’s something you choose to do, because going there takes your emotions to a place you’ve gotten used to, a place where you feel comfortable, even if it makes you unhappy.
I don’t usually think of it that way, but I do go to many places because of the feelings they evoke. And I get away from others for the same reason. Going somewhere to feel better is the self-evident side of what Godin describes.
To look at everyday life, can anyone get relief from the tension of a job without going to the break-room or stepping outside? I look for a park or garden to get a sense of peacefulness. A vacation means getting away from the routine places. Or if I stay put, I’ll change the nature of where I am by turning off and shutting out everything that wears me down.
Refreshing my senses by changing place, literally or in metaphor, can restore energy – no question about that. But do I also go elsewhere for the opposite reason, to put myself in the midst of anger, loneliness or feelings of guilt? Do I really put myself in circumstances that are sure to get me down? I’d have to say that I’ve done that a lot.
There are countless times I’ve suddenly turned away from something I wanted to do and gone to another place. What I found there was often anxiety and guilt for having put off a task – like writing – I wanted to complete. It was as if I couldn’t accept the sense of fulfillment I’d have when it was done. I wrote a post a while back about the strange comfort I used to feel by retreating into the habits and places of depression. I felt bad while there, but it was easier to rest in the routines of misery than push myself to risk the changes necessary to recover.
When I felt so lacking within, every place seemed to fill that emptiness with the content of fear and self-contempt. The places I went and the people I looked for were just the ones to confirm my smallness, my feeling of being an outsider in life.
While I was trying to recover from depression, it was often the little moments of turning away from the work of change toward distraction or an urge to go do something else that kept me from moving ahead. It wasn’t just putting off a hard experience. I was walking into another one that could be worse than difficult – sure to trigger more of the shame, anxiety, anger or disappointment that threw me off balance and toppled me into a dark hole.
I don’t mean to suggest for a minute that depression itself is a choice, though this whole subject gets dangerously close to that infuriating claim. When I’ve been in the depths of depression, I’m not capable of choices or decisions about anything. It’s a complicated condition that starts up long before I have any idea what’s about to come down. The depression I know doesn’t need a cause, a place or a particular activity to start erasing my world.
Seth Godin isn’t trying to discuss a condition like major depression. He’s talking about the tendency to walk away from a guiding purpose to escape what it demands. In that sense, going places to seek out a distracting feeling does match what I’ve often done, though not in the depths of depression. It happens in those periods when I’m trying to stay with my own guiding purpose of getting better and breaking depression’s hold once and for all. It’s been hard not to go somewhere else.
Does this idea make sense in your experience?
The problem with Seth’s take (and many others like it) is the presumption of deliberateness.
Habits are powerful and much of this is done somewhat outside of awareness.
I think it can be very worth paying attention to when we want to take time out. It may be the signal that we are expecting too much of ourselves. It may be that we need to consider is there is an easier way to get where we want to go. (The Seth, and similar, line can be awfully moralistic I think.)
I do think our emotions can happen without our choice or collaboration.
Hi, Evan –
Thanks for reminding me of a point I should have brought up in this post. Yes, the “choices” are often habitual rather than deliberate at the moment they happen. Not to dwell on Godin – since he tosses off his daily advice in a few words without getting deeply into things – but his purpose in writing that piece seems to be more to create awareness of those unconscious habits rather than just to lecture on what we should do. to point out that we can do something about them if they consistently takes us away from what we’re trying to do. As you say, it’s helpful to look at these shifts of attention, when they happen, to identify the situations and feelings that lead to them, etc. “Choice” isn’t a good word to use, I think, because it is so wrong-headed and irritating the way it’s often used.