It seems that many people identify themselves with their subjective emotional state, as if this is some kind of ultra-authentic expression of what is happening deep inside of a so-called “true self.” Culturally we idealize emotions, and we attempt to make judgements about ourselves and other people based on our emotional responses to our experience. This is partly reactive to our historical development as a culture, where for a long time our survival was so dicey we had to ignore our emotional reactions and do work. It is not that we were unaware of our emotional states, it is simply that we believed we needed to repress them in the interests of manners and social functioning. As we became able, we have honored and expressed our emotions in increasingly subtle and sophisticated ways, and we have developed means of addressing unwanted emotions in therapy, in self-help, and in various activities of distraction and pain relief.
The truth is, the ways we feel are not based on our thoughts, which is the contention of cognitive therapies, nor are they based on some kind of accurate self structure. They are learned through culture, through our families, and through our own unique experiences. We learn what to be afraid of and what to be sad about. This learning gets stirred together with our own unique ways of experiencing the world and with the smorgasbord of normal human emotional experience. In other words, when we encounter a loss, we are sad. That comes with the biology. But what we define as a loss may vary widely from culture to culture, from family to family, and from person to person. If we spend our lives chasing our preferred emotions: happiness, desire, attraction, we are chasing the clouds to some extent.
Of course we want to have preferred feelings rather than unpreferred feelings. We would rather be happy than sad, rather be silly than grim. But emotions are epiphenomenal to our deeper realities. We can waste our lives trying to be happy, whatever that means, or we can figure out what matters to us and try to construct our lives so that they are in line with those deeper ideals. Pleasure is in and of itself neither good nor bad, but everything is based on its context. If we find ourselves in work that matters to us, taking care of ourselves and the people we care about, doing some kind of meaningful good in the world, that deeper sense of living a good, in the sense of aligned, life returns more of a reflection of our true selves than any emotional state, fleeting or lasting.
We are not what we feel, and we are not what we think about. We create ourselves moment by moment in a cumulative fashion based on the choices we make. This meta-emotional, meta-cognitive process is the dynamic ongoing expression of our deepest self. Because ultimately a self is an actor in the sense of an entity that takes action, even if that action is just internal processing. A self is not a static structure, but a changing, dynamic process of experiencing the world. Now that is a definition to try to get our arms around. Yes our feelings matter. Yes our thoughts matter. But there is something deeper that matters more, and that is the process, intentions, and ideals that underlie what we might call a “self.”