I recently read an interesting article in Newsweek about a study by Stanford University psychologists. The researchers took two groups of people, put them in separate rooms, and had them fill out questionnaires as part of a supposed experiment. In fact, however, the questionnaires had nothing to do with the actual study.
The real experiment began when, after a little while, the researchers came in and asked one group if they’d volunteer to help out with the study by doing a dull, repetitive task. Although they weren’t required to do the task as part of the experiment, some of the participants agreed. The researchers then asked another person, a researcher pretending to be a participant, if he’d volunteer as well. As planned, he refused.
Later, the researchers had both groups fill out surveys that essentially rated how morally they felt they’d behaved during the experiment. The people in the room with the man who refused to do the boring task rated their own morality higher than the people in the other room rated theirs. In other words, those who witnessed the “rebel” saw themselves as more noble and generous because they agreed to do the task where the rebel had not. What’s more, “they came to view the ‘rebel’ not as honorable or assertive but as lacking in moral fiber, a sinner.”
To me, this experiment illustrates how, when we feel anger, fear, or some other emotion we see as unpleasant, we tend to assume that “morality” requires us to feel the way we do. And if someone else is the object of our irritation, anxiety, or something else, we tend to see them as immoral. In other words, each of us has a tendency to believe that “whatever I feel is morally right and justified.” In the experiment, because the participants resented the man for refusing to do the task they did, they concluded they were morally superior to him.
This tendency to make a “moral code” out of our emotions particularly comes into play when we’re feeling afraid. I’ve often encountered this with people who know what they must do to advance their careers, but feel anxious about doing it.
For example, some people get nervous about advertising or “talking up” their products and services to others. These people frequently tell me things like “it would help me to tell more people about my product, but that feels like it would be wrong—like I’d be bothering people, or acting arrogant.” In other words, in their minds, “if selling things or promoting myself makes me feel anxious, it must be morally wrong.”
We also run across this common human behavior when we tell others we’re considering a career transition. Often, when we tell our loved ones and friends we’re thinking about a change, they get worried about whether we’ll succeed—and maybe a little frustrated at their inability to escape their own career rut.
When they criticize our decision, however, they sometimes go further than just telling us how worried or envious they are. Making a change, they say, wouldn’t just be misguided—it would be selfish or immoral. Thus, they translate their negative feelings into an ethical problem with us. In other words, they believe that “if I feel upset about your decision, that must be because it’s immoral.”
Why We Confuse Our Emotions With Morality
Why do we have this tendency to assume that “morality” justifies, or requires us to have, the emotions we experience? I suspect it stems from the conventional wisdom in our culture that you aren’t supposed to express an emotion without a good reason. If you can’t rationally justify how you’re feeling, many of us believe, you need to make sure you don’t show it.
This social rule, which I talk about in my book, is reflected in many of the ways we relate to our emotions. For instance, if you tell someone you’re feeling happy, the first thing they’ll likely do is ask you why, and if you can’t provide an explanation they’ll give you a funny look as if you’re behaving strangely or unacceptably. When we argue, we often accuse each other of “having no right to be angry.” Some schools of psychotherapy have their goal as liberating us from our “inappropriate” or “irrational” emotions. And so on.
Because the conventional wisdom has it that we must justify every emotion we experience, it’s comforting to tell ourselves our feelings are “moral” or “logical.” And if we have negative feelings toward someone else, it’s comforting to assume that’s because they acted immorally. After all, if it’s “right” for us to feel the way we do, we don’t need to worry about violating the social taboo against “inappropriate” emotions. As Tom Douglas writes in Scapegoats: Transferring Blame, “in order to feel comfortable with ourselves we apparently need both to be able to justify our feelings . . . and to be able to displace those we do not find acceptable onto others.”
We also tend to use morality as a tool to convince others they should listen to us or care about how we feel. Many of us harbor a nagging anxiety that, if we simply told people how we feel, they’d tell us our emotions don’t matter to them, and we’d get hurt and distressed. Thus, instead of simply saying how we feel, we tend to focus on convincing others we “have a right” to feel how we do, believing this approach is more likely to persuade them to take our feelings seriously. And if they tell us they don’t care anyway, at least it’s reassuring to know our emotions have morality on their side.
Unfortunately, our tendency to believe morality requires us to feel the way we do can limit our fulfillment in life. For example, if we feel nervous about transitioning to a career we’re passionate about, and we convince ourselves we’re morally required to feel anxious about it, we’re likely to stay in our current careers instead of working to transcend our fear. Similarly, if we feel anxious about talking with someone we’re attracted to, and we conclude this is because “it would be wrong to bother them,” we’re unlikely to try to meet them.
This pattern of thinking also makes relating with others difficult. When we have a dispute with a loved one, for instance, we’re often more focused on justifying how we feel, and shaming the other person, than listening to and understanding them. We recite our memorized, legalistic lists of “all the things I’ve done right and all the things you’ve done wrong,” as if some third-party judge is listening and will eventually declare the person with the most impressive lists “the winner.”
The result is that neither person ends up feeling heard or cared for. In this situation, as therapist Kay Marie Porterfield puts it in Coping With Codependency, “the very people we want to listen to us are so busy defending themselves against our finger-pointing that they cannot hear what we want to say to them.”
Moving Toward Self-Awareness And Change
How can we let go of this tendency to make a moral code out of our feelings, and assume everything we feel must be “right” or justified? One approach we can use is to “own” our feelings—to simply and clearly admit to ourselves how we feel, and tell others how we’re feeling, rather than trying to convince ourselves and others that our emotions are justified or rational.
Doing this helps us remain conscious that our emotions—not ideals, moral principles or logic—largely drive our decisions and behaviors. It also has us feel more free to let go, or act in spite of, emotions like fear and anger, that may be holding us back from achieving our goals.
For example, suppose you’re interested in making a career transition, but you’re holding back because you’ve convinced yourself it would be “immoral.” Perhaps this is because, for instance, you think making a change would have your loved ones and friends feel uncomfortable. If you can relate to this example or a similar situation in your life, see if you can let your thoughts about the moral implications of your decision fade into the background for a moment.
Now, check in with yourself and get a clear idea of how you feel about making a change. What emotions are coming up when you think about it? Is there, for example, anxiety about the possibility that you won’t succeed, sadness around leaving the job you’ve done for a while, or something else?
When you have a solid understanding of how you’re feeling, return to your thoughts about the “morality” of making a transition, and seriously ask yourself: what’s really having me hold back here? Is it my desire to stand up for my ethical principles, or is it just my emotions, a bunch of sensations arising in my body? Am I really being honest with myself by making this into a moral issue? Or am I just making myself feel better about being afraid by rationalizing my fear?
If you realize you’re shying away from pursuing your goals out of fear, rather than a desire to “do the right thing,” you’ll likely start to feel a greater sense of freedom to go for what you want. Recognizing that it wouldn’t be a “sin” to make some changes in your life helps you come to terms with, and perhaps even act in spite of, your fear.
We can also take this approach of “owning our emotions” into our interactions with others. Suppose, for instance, that you’re having an argument with someone. As I mentioned earlier, it seems that our normal approach, when we feel angry at each other, is to accuse each other of ethical failings and defend our righteousness rather than openly discuss how we feel and what we want. The next time we’re in an argument, rather than doing this, we can try simply telling the other person how we feel—whether it’s angry, disappointed, sad, or something else—and requesting that they do the same.
I’ve found that, when I have a conflict with someone, using this method can have both me and the other person actually feel heard and fulfilled, rather than attacked and alienated. When I show the friend or loved one I’m talking with that I’m going to compassionately listen to them, even if I disagree; and that I’m going to state how I feel without couching it in terms of my “moral superiority”; I find that the intensity of the conflict quickly subsides.
When we don’t hide behind morality talk in expressing our feelings, communication becomes so much easier. As psychologist Kathleen R. Gilbert writes in The Emotional Nature Of Qualitative Research, “the key, as we interact with others, is to own rather than justify our feelings.”
I’m not saying there’s no such thing as morality, or that we should just do whatever we want whenever we want it. I’m saying that, when we get the nagging sense that it would be “immoral” for us to pursue our goals and dreams in life, it may be helpful to give serious thought to what’s really driving our reluctance. Is it really our conscience, or is it just intense emotion we’d rather not let ourselves experience? Taking an honest look at this question can help us achieve more fulfillment in life and knowledge of ourselves.