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.

Skepticism and insecurity

The title of the blog is Atheist, Polyamorous Skeptics.  That is, we are atheists and we are polyamorous, but those are qualifying terms of our (at least my) primary identification; skeptic.

I identified as an atheist before either of the others, temporally.  It was somewhere in the late 1990’s that I started thinking of myself that way, and the winter of 2002, upon meeting Margaret Downey and joining the Freethought Society, that I came out of the closet, as it was.  I never believed in any gods (I toyed with pantheism for a little while, but pantheism is ontologically indistinct from atheism), but I didn’t always see the point in talking about this much or thinking of it in larger cultural and historical terms.

Over the next few years, I was introduced to people such as Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller, James Randi, and others who usually identify as skeptics.  I had already taken critical thinking, logic, and philosophy courses (By 2003, I had a MA in philosophy), but the term skepticism was pretty much academic to me until a couple of years later, even though I was actively writing about and advocating for atheism as a cultural force during both college and graduate school.

I had discovered polyamory as an idea, and practiced it to some degree, in the late 1990’s as well.  But it was not until around 2006 or so that I started to re-think about the idea beyond the fact that I liked the idea of being able to pursue other girls while I was with my girlfriend at the time.  And I believe that the way I started taking polyamory more serious was related to my growing interest in skepticism as a means to living, rather than merely an intellectual exercise.

I had not come to articulate it thus yet, but I was beginning to apply skepticism to all of my life; my beliefs, suspicions, and to other people’s idea which I heard.  It did not always make me popular at parties, and it certainly did not make my native insecurity any better (as I wrote about last night, I still have anxieties about talking to people from this point of view).  But while it didn’t make me popular, it made me feel better about myself and gave me epistemic foundations for my worldview, even while that worldview was shifting.

Most importantly, it gave me a process by which I could counter-act my natural human tendency to allow my biases and fears to skew my worldview, and thus I grew the strengthened ability to challenge myself and learn about other people and ideas better.

Skepticism became, for me, a way of living, thinking, and perceiving.  But I had to train myself to be this way, which my philosophical training helped with.  And it often fails me anyway because skepticism is not easy and it is not natural to our brains.  I’m still prone to things such as selection bias, rejection of ideas which don’t mesh with my worldview, etc.  It takes a constant vigilance to notice and attempt to counter-act such tendencies, and it creates a cognitive uncertainty around my thoughts, quite often.

So, not only do I have to deal with a quite visceral and powerful insecurity at an emotional level, the nature of intellectual processes require me to be unsure about myself and my ideas.  A double dose of uncertainty, which I would rather do without, envelopes me.   And thus I understand people being turned off by skepticism; it feels better to be sure.  Questioning our values and beliefs is difficult, and people really don’t like their values and beliefs to be questioned, even liberal and “open-minded” people.

And yes, I am intellectually very certain about many things, but nuances and stupid semantic distinctions mean I cannot merely insist upon my superiority (although that is something I am prone to, as well).  I resist the urge to be arrogant, insistent, and authoritative because these desires are a defense mechanism against feeling insecure, and not necessarily the result of feeling overwhelmingly right or warranted in my opinion.  That is, there is an air of confidence which is only air.*

This is not to say I’m not occasionally arrogant, insistent, or think I’m intellectually superior.  I have weak moments, after all, and ironically my weakest moments often look, to others, as my strongest moments.  This is why I have trouble trusting people who appear boastful or arrogant; I suspect that underneath this appearance lies insecurity, like it does in me.  And sometimes I genuinely feel confident; the distinction is that when I’m actually confident, I’m calmer, less insistent, and I will probably be governing a wry smile.

And then, of course, I think that maybe some people don’t ever have that feeling of insecurity and that not only do they not feel insecure underneath their apparent certainty, but may have no reason to feel such insecurity because they are smarter and better than I am.

And then I really feel insecure, all because I think it’s important to be skeptical.

But that’s a lie; I just feel insecure fundamentally, and it just happens that skepticism is benefited by a reservation of opinion, which emotional insecurity provides.

But rationalizing is fun.


*There is a wonderful episode of Star Trek TNG, entitled “Attached“, which deals with this very phenomenon.  Trekacademy.com summarizes the scene thus:

Capt. Picard & Dr. Crusher are being held captive by an alien race that implants telepathic devices on both of them, enabling each to hear the other’s thoughts.

While trying to escape, Capt. Picard & Crusher come upon an area which has two possible paths to take. Crusher is unsure which path to follow. Capt. Picard points in one direction and assertively indicates that it is the correct path.

As they start down the path, Crusher hears Capt. Picard’s thoughts and realizes that Capt. Picard had no better idea than her as to which path they should be taking and that he was only guessing earlier when he chose which path to take.

When Crusher tells Capt. Picard about her telepathic observation of him and asks if he does that often when giving orders, Capt. Picard answers, that there are times when it is necessary for the Captain to give the appearance of confidence.

And when I see people confidently proclaiming a decision, I think of this and wonder how universal it is that leaders just appear confident.

Quiet and Afraid

Depending on my mood, I can be rather outgoing and gregarious, or I can be quite and shy.  Especially around people I do not know well, I tend towards shyness.  But I don’t want to be shy.  I want to be warm, engaging, and have interesting and revealing discussions with people. But I rarely do.

I think about why this is the case quite often.  And, depending on my emotional state, my feelings vary.  That is, my rationalizations for my fear of speaking up shift with my mood.  So, today I want to compose two related, but emotionally distinct, reactions to being shy while not wanting to be shy.  I don’t know if any of this will resonate with anyone else, but perhaps it will.  These are the kinds of thoughts I have while battling within myself whether to contribute to conversations, especially if they relate to religion, relationships, etc, in mixed company.

Narrative 1: You will hate me.

I overheard something you just said, and I think that the worldview you seem to come from is misguided, and if I told you what I thought you would find me distasteful and you would rather not talk with me (most likely).  If I talked with you about the topic you are currently engaged in conversation about, the dialog would become awkward and you would wish I would have not said anything.  Thus, I should remain quiet because otherwise you would hate me, and I would just be wasting my time  bringing up my views on your topic of conversation.

This is often followed with a false feeling of superiority; I feel somehow better, more evolved, and I pity those around me.  This feeling is often then followed by the sensation that such thoughts and feelings are a defense mechanism, because I’m afraid that my own worldview is misguided and inferior.  This sometimes leads to the second, but intimately related, narrative.

Narrative 2: I hate me

Man, I really should stay quiet.  These people might be wrong, but my thoughts are just fueled by anger (fear) and I would be better not making an ass out of myself.  It really does not matter how much I have thought this through or how certain I feel right now, because all of that confidence is an illusion.  My ideas are not interesting, my point of view not insightful, and my false pity for them is not warranted.  I wonder if they have these kinds of thoughts too.  I wonder ow strong they doubt themselves….

And this trails off into unrelated or merely tangential thoughts about all sorts of things.

But then, usually later (like right now) I think about the fact that I perceive a sort of mainstream set of cultural expectations and views which I often think I can see through, and then these sets of insecurities play out at a meta-level.  I think things like:

1) Is there actually a set of cultural narratives which I understand and see through (even if only partially)?

2) Can most people really not see it, or do they see it and either don’t care or understand it better than I do?

3) If those narratives do exist, and I can see them better than some people, is it something which I can explain to those people or do they have to either discover themselves or be perpetually blind to it?

The basic fear that informs my silence, at least as it is rationalized, is whether I am actually seeing something which is real, or whether I’m perceiving a delusion.  Do I understand something about human behavior which is real and invisible to most people, or am I creating that narrative to explain the fundamental fear which is the real reason I remain so quiet?

The thought that seems most awful, thus I suspect it is at least partially true, is that the narrative I perceive is real, but I’m just afraid.  It’s not that I’m really concerned with annoying people or being seen as idiotic (although those feelings seem real enough), it’s that I’m just afraid.  Not afraid of anything in particular, mind you.  Just afraid.

And then I have to explain why I’m afraid, which doesn’t help it go away.

It is a perpetual and strangely comfortable sensation, fear. I am almost afraid to not be impeded by it.  I’m not sure what I would be like if that fear disappeared.

To those that read is blog, I may not seem afraid to speak my mind. But that is only when the first narrative, above, dominates.  All too often the second narrative dominates, and I am left quiet and unsure of myself.

That’s enough honesty for right now.  So now I commit my fears to the internet, were they shall never be forgotten.  Great…now I cannot pretend they don’t exist….

Recommended reading: On being insecure

I follow a few blogs about polyamory.  I specifically like polytical.org, a group of poly people in the UK who often have many good things to say.

Today a post went up that deals with what Lola O, the author, thinks of as some contradictions in the polyamory community.  But, primarily the post is about the tension between the goal (or what might often be an expectation) of becoming a non-jealous super-partner in order to be poly and the reality of human emotion, struggles with said emotions, and the stubbornness of those twice-mentioned emotions in not simply disappearing at will.

In any case, the post there is long enough without my predilection to ramble on (and on, and on) adding to your reading.  So without further ado I will supply you woth the link:

On Being Insecure



Comfort with insecurity

I’m going to step out from writing about polyamory or religion for a moment.  I want to talk about insecurity.


The world needs more sex-positivism

Yes, I am well aware that this personal issue which many people struggle with is applicable to both religion, relationships, and sexuality.  And I am further aware that atheists and polyamorous people both can point to how insecurity and its various cohorts are relevant to their points of view, and I occasionally do make that point myself.  But today I am not as interested in those issues as I am interested in a thought which occurred to me yesterday in a new way, and that is this;

It is important to be comfortable with your insecurity.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I struggle with insecurity.  I have struggled with feelings of fear, inadequacy, and pessimism all of my life, although not consistently.  For many years I was unable to recognize this for what it actually is, and then to subsequently look back on my life and recognize at what points these feelings were responsible for acting in ways which damaged friendships, romantic relationships, etc was valuable in shifting how to live my life.  It has been a new struggle with mixed success, but one perseveres in failure and partial success towards a goal that may be ill-defined.

(And, of course, eventually it lead me to recognize when the fault was not mine, where at previous times in my life I may have blamed myself for the mistakes of another.  Anyone who knows my story about moving to Atlanta with my ex and being abandoned and screwed over by her will know precisely what I’m talking about.)

My personal story aside for the moment, I was thinking yesterday about how there is a significant difference between people who are insecure, afraid, etc and who are aware of it, and (on the other hand) those for whom such a fact would be rejected or suppressed.  It is my contention that the level of willingness to accept such an emotional foundation to how one interacts with and views the world is the beginning of transcending such insecurities.  It is, in fact, the beginning of emotional security.  Because while the fundamental hormonal and chemical realities open which the edifice of behavior is mounted are more difficult to change*, a willingness to be aware, observant, and proactive in planning our actions based upon this knowledge may be essential in behaving in less insecure ways.

Knowing you are insecure, you can be aware of how you will tend to act in situations of anxiety, fear, and discomfort and plan a set of actions that will counter-act such proclivities.

But this requires a willingness to introspect.  You must be willing to see what lies inside the caverns of your (for a lack of a better word) soul in order to be aware of your personal psychological landscape.  As was written upon the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, yνῶθι σεαυτόν (‘know thyself’).  This remains part of the core of my personal philosophy (along side carpe diem et noctis; ‘seize the day and the night’.) Without the willingness and ability to bare your whole self to, at least, your conscious self to the extent that such a feat is possible, there will be behaviors that will not really be wholly yours.

Stuart Hampshire

As Stuart Hampshire has said:

A man becomes more and more a free and responsible agent the more he at all times knows what he is doing.

And the more we know about the psychological mechanisms behind our thoughts and actions, the more we can be aware of what we are doing, and possibly why.  And when we are willing to be honest with ourselves, possibly sharing those realities with those close to us, the more we can find ways to grow, mature, and generally better ourselves.

For good measure, I’ll add this quote of Hampshire:

As self-consciousness is a necessary prelude to greater freedom of will, so it is also a necessary prelude to a greater freedom of thought.

Because in the end, all life is but a footnote to George Lucas….


In Star Wars, Episode I, Yoda is faced with the young Anakin Skywalker in the Jedi Council.  I don’t remember the exact words, but Yoda asked him something like “Afraid, are you?  Miss your mother, do you?” The young man seems to be confused what that has to do with anything.  Yoda’s response is memorable and prophetic, as he says that it has “everything” to do with it, then continues:

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

And, of course, we all know what happens to Anakin’s fear on his path to becoming (spoiler alert) Darth Vader.  We track his story of once where his fear of losing his mother become the key factor in his anger and hate for the village he slaughters, and the suffering he portrays in telling Padmé about his actions.  And while most of us don’t slaughter villages of sand people, we do have moments like these from time to time.

We know that bullies act the way they do for a number of reasons, much of which is being abused themselves along with the subsequent feelings of insecurity, fear, etc.  But there is also jealousy, which I think is related to this same insecurity and fear.  In fact, I think much of human behavior which is damaging has an element of personal fear and insecurity to it.  We will not all “turn to the dark side,” and become our own Darth Vaders, but many of us will act in less than admirable ways, clam up and retreat into ourselves, fail to tackle challenges, or pass up experiences because we are not feeling secure about ourselves, are afraid, etc.

This is my experience, and I have talked with others who share this experience.  And I am sensitive to this part of human nature in a way that others may not be, and often see it in others.  This should be part of growing up and maturing, but the simple fact is that many older people suffer form the effects of insecurity when I would expect to see them have left such things behind. It also effects young, beautiful, and intelligent people just as easily (that reference is for Ginny’s sake, who knows exactly who I’m talking about.  I blogged about her about 6 months ago, if you are curious enough to put the puzzle together.)

I picture a world where people are willing to challenge themselves both intellectually and emotionally.  I think it can lead to a world where people are less susceptible to the trappings of faith and of interpersonal jealousy.  It will not solve the world’s problems, but it will help.

But, honestly, I’m not really hopeful that this will happen on a large scale.  I can only work to make sure it happens for myself, and to assist others for whom I care.  Know yourself; examine your behavior, your reactions to criticism and different opinion, and push yourself beyond your comfort zone sometimes.  And yes, internet trolls, this applies to myself as well.  I have not claimed to have mastered said request, only to be aware, and comfortable, with my own insecurity.

And, finally, do seize this life, for it is the only one we have.  Life is too short to be paralyzed by our fears.

*–I am aware that medication is useful and effective for many people, even if I leave it aside in this analysis.

Growth: the result of challenged insecurities and fears

The longer we go in not challenging ourselves and others, the longer we will continue to live in a world that will crawling towards progress.

We are weak, insecure, fearful, and habitual people. I speak primarily of Americans, because that’s the culture I live in, but I think it is true everywhere to some extent. We are afraid of challenging the mythological assumptions of the world around us. Most believe that faith is good, monogamy is the default, and that success is more important than integrity. We believe these things because the structure of the culture that dominates the world is populated by people that were taught these things and perpetuate these things. Thus, in some perverted sense, they are practically true because they are tradition.

But what is the basis for these beliefs? How many times have I heard that to not believe in something, to simply believe that the world in blind processes without the faith in a god, some paradise, or at least some ultimate meaning, then life is not worth living. Fucking bullshit.

People believe such things because they have never challenged themselves to actually think about this seriously. People are emotionally attached to their beliefs, and so their is a kind of pain when some fact, idea, etc comes to mind that contradicts their worldview. More common is the cognitive dissonance that arises in people who accept contradictory ideas.

Then there are the insecure, lazy, and ignorant hypocrites of the world;

Sunday Christians (those that really are only god-fearing at church, and otherwise don’t give a rats ass except when they meet an atheist). You have never really challenged yourself to figure out what you might really believe if you looked at the claims of your religion. You rely on the support group of the others around you (many of which are using you for the same thing), and have probably never even read your holy book.

Monogamous couples who cheat. You know very well that you want more people in your life sexually, and most even still love their spouses. Yet when you are asked what is wrong with polyamory you say it’s wrong, unnatural, or “not for me.” When you say it’s not for you, you mean its not for your partner, or that you don’t have the guts to open yourself up to the jealousy and insecurity that come with thinking about sharing yourself and your loved ones. Yes, there are some people who just make poor choices and really aren’t into being poly, but I think that a lot more of you out there are just scared, insecure, and fearful of the concept of you not being enough for someone else.

The worst part is that we don’t talk about these things. Religion and politics. Ok, sex too, at least insofar as challenging the fantasy of the soul-mate or the “one for me” mythology; the things that we are not supposed to talk about. Bullshit. The only reason that is true is because when we do, we expose the insecurities and fears of those that refuse to challenge themselves. We tell ourselves that we do it out of respect, but respect for what; Insecurity and fear?

Stop allowing your fears, as well as the fears of those around you, from preventing these discussions. Challenging the worldviews of people we disagree with (hopefully after honestly considering your own position), is how we can help our culture grow out of this insecure and fear-ridden infancy.

Grow up, and help the world around you grow up.