Published on August 4th, 2013 | by Amy Jane Helmericks

Thinking vs. Feeling: Logic and Emotion in Decision Making

Everyone reading this uses words.

See? Told ya.

But how they use words differs.

A number of writers I know insist that they are no good with words until they’ve written. Other people cannot organize their thoughts enough to write them down until they’ve talked about those ideas.

Both ways are an effort to communicate, and most people will be more comfortable with one pathway than the other. Though each approach has a context where it is more useful, that doesn’t change the inherent value of either approach.

Different brains can work in different ways to achieve the same goal, using two different paths to arrive at the same goal: meaningful communication.

Feeling and Thinking, At Odds With Each Other?

In the same way, there are different ways to make decisions. One of the main dichotomies I run across is the war between Feeling and Thinking (shorted in many discussions to F & T).

The difficulty with these labels is that they can encourage a binary way of looking at the world, and people who are highly aware of their preferred way of deciding can become proud or ashamed of their preference, based on the message they get from the world around them.

With T and F we see two very different ways of doing things, and they are frequently set in a hierarchy rather than seen as two tools in a toolbox, neither of greater value, both necessary in different contexts.

A woman I know came from an entire family (both parents and sibling) who lived in the F-preference. The people they knew and met from the T-preference were perceived as harsh, unyielding, and definitely unloving.

In contrast, all my life I have been surrounded by T-preference people who are very driven, immutable, and organized, in both their behavior and their thoughts. This became my standard or assumption for maturity. Thinking was the way “real grown-ups” made decisions.

Showing emotions (especially “violent” emotions, like anger or loud tears) was evidence of a lack of control, which inevitably held echoes of those childish, impotent outbursts we used to call tantrums.

I understood the value of Thinking and did everything I could to ignore or repress Feeling, seeing it as only a distraction that strong people can get over.

Physical Needs and Emotional Needs: Both are Real and Necessary

At various times throughout the history of philosophy and religion, the physical body has been disdained, seen as a distraction or downright evil in its essence. Thing is, we can’t get away from it. Our bodies are the way we inhabit this physical world, and we have to do the best with what we have.

Our needs to eat and sleep are inconvenient and unavoidable, but if we pretend those physical needs don’t exist, we will end up very, very sick.

The emotional part of me is not less-real than the physical or mental parts. This resignation—emotion is something I can’t get away from—was my first stage in accepting my feelings. I grew to recognize that emotional needs are immutable and must be acknowledged and met in order to strengthen the whole of who I am.

The next (I don’t dare say “final”) step is where I am now: learning to actively value and nurture my emotions the way I do my body.

Just as there is a difference between grabbing any food that’s easy and making time for food that’s nourishing enough to meet my body’s needs, there is a difference between knowing emotions are unavoidable and actually nourishing the emotional part of me.

Protected and Connected by Skin and Emotion

Since I’m still learning what this means, I can only offer analogies.

Emotions are as much a part of us as our skin. Our skin constantly changes, dying at ten thousand-million skin cells each day. Dr. Paul Brand, a leprosy specialist, wrote the book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made with author Philip Yancey. In it he noted that 90% of the dust in our homes is made up of dead skin cells.

Our skin changes and yet stays the same. It is a huge part of how people see and respond to us, how they recognize us. As quickly as it changes (old cells sloughing off), it is slow to change.

So with emotions. We may go from sad to angry faster than we can keep up, but we get sad about the same things, angry at the same things. Much of the time there is a consistency.

Skin is damaged as it protects us. Bruises reflect an absorption and dispersal of harm that could have been much more damaging without the skin’s mitigation.

This is one way emotions serve us as well.

Emotions are a warning system, an awareness and foci of both pain and pleasure. Emotions are the place and means by which we connect with the world and people around us. In a way, emotions are a step beyond skin, because they do not stop when they meet something like themselves. Instead they often meld and merge in a way that skin never does.

There is an old saying that “Sorrow shared is half sorrow, joy shared is doubled joy.” Through Feeling we enter deeper into life with others.

We Need Both Logic and Emotion in Decision Making

Logic isn’t (usually) motivating, but emotion most definitely is. Emotion is powerful, but (usually) needs a trajectory that logic can supply.

Anger, delight, surprise, joy, fear…all these are fuel cells adding a jolt (or rocket boosters) to a course of action (ideally) mapped out by that highly valued logic. Emotions aren’t designed for precision, but not everything we do requires precision.

Coming down to it, I think the biggest objection to emotion in the modern world is that we cannot control it.

We can order our thoughts, map our logic and discipline our bodies, but managing emotion is almost like managing another living being: you can shape the environment, persevere in efforts to make good choices and guard against triggers, but you still have to accept being surprised.

The third spectrum of the Myers-Briggs personality theory sets Thinking on one end and Feeling on the other, and some people assume that spectrum means you can think without feeling, or feel without thinking. Neither of these extremes is a healthy way to approach life.

Since we each have a bit of “type patriotism,” an attraction or affinity to the pole we sit closest to, that makes us quicker to pull that tool out and assume it’s applicable. But we will be our most effective when we consider more than one tool for the job in front of us.

This is part of maturing: using all of what you have and maybe hesitating long enough to check if you are using the right tool for the job.

Image by Soffie Hicks. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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