On feelings: expression vs. endorsement

Courtesy of two great conversations I had recently, I’m pondering the difference between having a feeling, expressing the feeling, and endorsing the feeling. And, specifically, how to operate all three when you’re having a feeling that you think (or suspect) is unjustified.


Having a feeling is, well, having a feeling. Whether you feel it as a surge of emotions, a pattern of thought or sensations in your body, the feeling is there. Feeling angry. Feeling scared. Feeling resentful. Feeling elated. Having the feeling is the strictly internal experience.

Expressing the feeling is making the feeling known to people outside yourself. That can be verbal and direct, (“I feel really angry,”) it can be nonverbal (punching a wall), or it can be verbal and indirect, (“That person sucks and I hate them!”) In both the nonverbal and verbal-indirect expressions, you don’t ever identify the feeling as anger, but it’s fairly evident to observers that anger is what you’re feeling. (Sometimes, it may be obvious that you’re feeling something but unclear what. Or you may express a feeling in a way that’s easily misinterpreted, such as someone who expresses anxiety by acting cold and standoffish, leading people to assume they’re feeling something like contempt instead.)

Endorsing the feeling is saying, implying, or believing that the feeling you have is justified and appropriate. Or, if you don’t like applying concepts like “just” and “appropriate” to feelings (I’m not sure I do either), it’s affirming that if you were the ideal version of yourself, you’d still have that feeling in response to the same circumstances. It may (but doesn’t necessarily) involve believing that you should continue to have that feeling, or that other people should share that feeling. It’s believing that the person you’re angry with really has done something wrong; believing that the person you’re giddily in love with really is the finest human specimen to walk the earth; believing that the people at the party you’re anxious about really are all judging and criticizing you behind their smiles.

Having vs. expressing

There’s a common trope around emotional management that goes something like, “Feelings aren’t bad or good, they just are; it’s what you do with them that’s bad or good.” In general I agree with that statement, but it really only deals with the gap between having a feeling and expressing the feeling (where “expressing” can be anything from, “I feel resentful toward you” to leaving flaming bags of dog-poop on their doorstep.) Bringing in the endorsement piece adds another dimension. So you’ve decided that a flaming poop-bomb isn’t the most beneficial way to express resentment in your situation; that still doesn’t address whether you feel that your resentment is, on the whole, justified.

Having vs. endorsing

The gap between, “I feel this” and “it is good or right for me to feel this” is an uncomfortable one, and a lot of people try to erase it. You can do this one of two ways: you can assert that any feeling you have is justified, that of course any right-thinking person in your situation would feel the same way. This gets in the way of critical thinking ability at a fundamental level. The most easily identified people who do this don’t use any kind of rationalist or justifying language, just state their feelings as if it’s self-evident that their feelings are justified: everybody they’re angry with is an asshole, everything they’re anxious about is a dire threat, everybody they love is awesome and wonderful. Those of us who are steeped in rationalist and critical thought principles, though, still do it: we just rationalize our feelings, and sometimes we do it so skillfully that even we don’t notice it’s happening. (I feel fairly confident that every human on earth does this to some extent, even those of us who tend to err more in the opposite direction.)

The other direction is to suppress and deny any feelings you have that aren’t in line with your ideal self or sense of justice. This is the direction I went (hi, religious upbringing!) and it’s pretty crippling. “I know that anger at this person would be unreasonable, therefore I’m not angry. The grinding in my teeth and obsessive-hashing-over of imaginary arguments with them must be something else.” It’s a quick road to completely blinding yourself to some of your emotions. Over time, it leaves you unable to interact sincerely and authentically with people, because everything you feel has to go through the justification-filter, and you will strenuously deny having any feelings that you don’t endorse.

Contrary to both these approaches is being able to acknowledge a feeling without endorsing it. “I’m really pissed at Ryan. I know what happened was both our faults and I might have done the same thing in his place, but I’m still angry.” Once you get past the cognitive dissonance, this is really liberating. The emotionally-reactive self and the critically-evaluative self are not good harness-mates: they have different jobs to do and yoking them together impairs both of them. Freed from the need to rationalize or suppress, it’s possible to process through emotions effectively while retaining your sense of justice and critical thought. (At least, this has been my limited experience so far. It’s still very much a work in progress.)

Expressing vs. endorsing

Once we’ve settled with ourselves that we can acknowledge a feeling without endorsing it, there comes the question of whether, and how, we express it to others. On the one hand, there’s the view that your feelings in the moment are what they are, and honesty demands openly acknowledging them even if you’re not necessarily proud of them. On the other, there’s the view that expressing a feeling is tantamount to endorsing it, so you don’t express anything that you don’t also endorse. This latter view makes sense if your natural tendency is to suppress or deny feelings you don’t endorse: if you struggle even to acknowledge it to yourself, of course you’re not going to admit it to others.

I think in general there’s a lot to be gained from openly expressing feelings, even if they demonstrate that you don’t meet your own standards. They’re a real part of you, and people close to you deserve to know the real you, not just the filtered, approval-stamped version of yourself. (I’m still working on this, and it’s hard.) Expressing these feelings aloud can also help you work through them and bring them into balance.

I also think there are pitfalls in doing this, especially when you don’t make it clear (to yourself or to others) that these are not feelings you endorse. Group consensus is a thing, and when you express a feeling you automatically make it easier for people to justify having that feeling themselves. If we’re not careful to demarcate the line between having/expressing a feeling, and endorsing it, we’re in danger of creating a social feedback loop where one person admits to feeling something (say, an unwarranted level of resentment toward someone), and others feel more justified in their feeling and voice that, leading the original person to begin letting go of the cognitive dissonance in favor of justifying their own feeling. And suddenly the resented person is the scum of the earth within that social group.

Expressing the feeling as well as to what extent you endorse it is a way around this. Saying something like, “I know X meant well and isn’t entirely to blame here, but I’m still furious and right now I’m not able to move past that” is a fuller and more accurate expression of your overall state of mind than just, “X hurt me and I’m pissed.” It also encourages your social circle to continue viewing the situation in a complicated light, rather than sliding towards, “I’m angry and therefore this person sucks.” To my view, it’s maximizing honesty and self-awareness, and people who express themselves this way tend to earn my respect.

4 thoughts on “On feelings: expression vs. endorsement

  1. This resonates strongly with me today. I am FEELING things intensely that I do NOT endorse, am unwilling to repress (toxicity), and fear expressing! I will just sit with these feelings for a while longer in the hopes that they manifest themselves more clearly so that I might soon enough know what to do with them.

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