Updated: Dec 20, 2019
I admit, I once had an aversion to the word, “rational.” It would invoke that vomit reflex, and I would think I just puked in my mouth a little bit. “Rational” felt so average, so detached from adventure, so boring. I considered it just a word used by stuffy old people to tame the fire of passionate, risk-taking creatives or to convince the dreamers to pack up and go home. I was not opposed to being rational. I was opposed to having rationality pushed on me when I wanted to fly.
In other words, I would prioritize my feelings and emotions well above my rational mind. I mostly operated through naivete ruled by emotional gusts and wondered why my life was like a hurricane, rather than smooth sailing. After years of throwing my head back and screaming, “Why me?” I am willing to admit defeat.
Letting my emotions lead my life has been my biggest mistake, and just typing that hurt a lot. My dad and I would get into heated disagreements about this. His daughter was a lover of life, a romantic, trusting, yet adventurous soul. She was also driven and rebellious.
My dad tried hard to convince me to stop following my heart, and lead with my head. This obviously made me rebel and cling harder to my sensitive, excitable emotional self as the one in charge of my destiny. I was stubborn too, and had to learn many times over that decisions based on my feelings were always a bad idea.
It’s Only Human Nature
The good news is that it is only human nature to be dominated by emotions, which means we are not alone when making decisions that are disconnected from reality because our feelings said so. Our emotions cause us to see what we want to see, which then distorts reality. Unfortunately, we are mostly unaware that this is happening. We just react to a feeling and think we have no choice! This is the basis of all repeated bad decisions and negative patterns we can’t shake.
In Robert Greene’s The Laws of Human Nature, “The Law of Irrationality” states that human beings are fundamentally irrational. Only rationality can counteract the emotion-invoked repercussions on our lives and open our minds up to what is really happening, rather than what we are feeling.
Rational thinking does not come naturally to us, and irrational thinking is basically beyond our control. You can thank the limbic system in our brain; the old mammalian part that leads to primitive emotions and reactions. This means we have to master our emotional side to gain the power of rationality.
Greene uses the Greek goddess, Athena, as the symbol of rationality, which he defines as “the greatest gift of the gods to mortals, for it alone could make a human act with divine wisdom.”
This rational mind is something we’ve all experienced. It happens when we are calm and focused, working on a project or an assignment, or a task with a deadline. You’re in a flow state, energized and concentrating on the work. There’s no room for emotions to interfere and knock you off track, so you stay practical and rational, doing whatever it takes to get the job done.
Emotions Distort Our Reality: Why even have emotions?
When we are riding an emotional wave or freight train, we are distracted by anger, elation, anxiety, or self-doubt, which keep us from focusing on reaching life goals. Our emotions influence all our thoughts and ideas, empowering this deeply ingrained irrationality to get us into all kinds of messes.
Even more tragic is that we can’t see that our emotions make us do legitimately dumb stuff! We are entirely unaware and at the mercy of our feelings, justifying insane choices by how we felt in a moment. The feelings we use to justify our choices are also influenced by some subconscious belief that has nothing to do with the way we are reacting to that feeling. This is how emotions gravely distort reality.
Consider this scenario; you get angry that a friend cancelled plans with you last minute. You lash out telling her what a crappy friend she is and lay on a juicy guilt trip to make her feel as horrible as you do. You firmly believe that you are angry at her, but if you thought about the emotions invoked by her canceling on you last minute, instead of reacting, you would discover some deeply hidden insecurities around abandonment or self-worth. You lash out at her, but it is actually your own low self-esteem and fear of losing your friend that is making you anxious, causing you to react with anger in defense.
What is the point of emotions and feelings, if they lead us astray and need to be reigned in for life to go right? Our feelings and emotions tell us when to pay attention. Emotions originated as a means of survival in the wild, signaling animals to take notice of something around them. Similarly, our emotions are extremely useful in telling us there is something we need to know, fix, change, or understand. They let us know when to be vigilant, but we have to do the hard work of interpreting these emotions, without reacting to them.
In the previous example, our strong emotions over our friend cancelling plans last minute is a signal that we have a wound to uncover. Once uncovered, the emotion is an invitation to work on your fear of abandonment and self-worth. Yelling at your friend will never solve a thing, but deepening your awareness of the root cause of your emotions will help you level up in life, eventually eliminating the need to learn from mistake after mistake. And you’ll keep more friends in your life!
A word of caution: not reacting to your emotions does NOT mean giving toxic people or negative situations a pass in your life. For example, if you have a flaky friend who doesn’t respect you and consistently takes you for granted, then you have a responsibility to yourself to avoid that person. Not reacting emotionally does not equal being ok with bullshit. The entire point is, it’s not about them! It’s about what the feelings are telling you about you.
The Spiritual Value of Emotions
In my circle of friends, I have many, who like me, highly value their emotions. They listen to their gut and follow their instincts to make decisions. There is value in this method, if you are totally void of emotions when your gut prompts you. The gut is an instinctual knowing, untainted by emotion. But, we can attach feelings to it. If you do, it becomes unreliable. You can count on trouble at best, or at worst, a complete disaster that will change life as you know it.
Many spiritual teachings encourage taking a leap of faith. People quit their jobs abruptly to follow a dream. They are told to trust the Universe and take a chance. There is total freedom and abandon of what’s keeping us stuck, so it feels amazing!
This leap of faith is not meant to be pure abandon. It is wise to follow your elated heart, but you apply logic and rationality to weigh the pros and cons, curate a strategic plan, and a back-up plan or two. Otherwise, you will crash and burn on that big bad leap of yours.
The prolific spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, guides those on a path toward their higher self to cultivate an awareness of the whole range of emotions; sadness, joy, anger, fear. He teaches to acknowledge the feelings as part of human nature. They arise in response to something and then they go.
Every situation will invoke an emotion and the pull to be reactive is certain. In these moments, quiet yourself and just watch the emotions come and go. Practice this enough, and you learn not to act out your emotions. You don’t deny them or push them away, rather you acknowledge that you are sad or angry or scared and appreciate your humanness.
Ram Dass explains in “Using Emotions on the Spiritual Path”, “That’s part of the way in which you use [emotions] spiritually. Spiritually, you don’t act out your emotions…You allow them to be burnt in the light of awareness. Because that’s part of your human condition…So, emotions work best when you also have another plane that is not emotional, going simultaneously with it actually. Because getting lost in your emotional reactivity just digs a deeper karmic hole. But allowing your humanity, that’s really part of it.”
In this sense, being in touch with your feelings has nothing to do with expressing your emotions or reacting to them. Honoring your emotional side is about enhancing emotional intelligence, giving us the chops to put our feelings into words. We have to move through the feelings, accept what we feel, and interpret the message it is giving us. This is how to truly be in touch with your feelings.
Using Our Emotions to Become Better Versions of Ourselves
Greene proposes three steps to becoming rational in The Laws of Human Nature. Awareness is the key to success in all these steps. First, we become aware of subconscious feelings that deeply impact our thinking process through biases we’ve picked up throughout life. These biases distort reality and mislead us into making mistakes. Second, we begin to understand the nature of inflaming factors. These can be triggers from childhood, stress, or inflaming individuals that lead to a reactive state. Third, we must actively strengthen the parts of our rational brain by consistently practicing this awareness over our emotions.
What are some easily discernible differences between a rational person and an irrational person? Because we are constantly feeling emotions that influence our thoughts, we tend to lean toward thoughts that don’t bruise the ego. Our feelings are always wrapped up in what we think, and rational people are aware of this and can push back against the ego’s need to be pleased. Irrational people are entirely unaware of this dynamic.
Irrational people rush into things without fully considering the consequences. They live in a state of drama, repeating mistakes, engaging in conflicts, and dreaming big, but never following through. Rational people take their time to finish projects, cooperate with others, and think long-term benefits rather than short-term interests.
Rational people put their grievances aside for the children after a divorce, while irrational people become consumed in a power struggle over the children. Rational people will hire someone based on merit and wait on recommendations from previous employers. The irrational person hires someone to fill an opening quickly and chooses the more charming candidate.
Most distinctly, rational people can admit they are irrational beings who work hard to be rational. They are determined to gain a clear understanding of why they feel the way they do. Irrational people react emotionally when confronted about making rash, emotionally-based decisions. Their mistakes make them more defensive and there is little to no introspection on what lies beneath their thoughts and actions.
Being rational requires curiosity. It is an expedition into the unknown parts of your mind. Rationality is earned by those who stop to ask why. And then dig deeper. The light on the other side of the tunnel is worth the effort.
Mastering your emotional side brings clarity and control of your life. You are pulled in every direction based on the emotions mustered by every this or that; a demanding boss, a fussy child, a growing to-do list, an outspoken bigot. When you let go of all the drama, you gain space to be creative and productive. Rational doesn’t sound so bad now.
Plus, rebelling against human nature is way more badass than rebelling against my dad.
Originally published in The Startup, Medium's largest active publication, followed by +543K people. Join here.