This is third post in a three part series on Feelings
Forces that we are unaware of - especially emotional forces - can influence lives in surprising ways. I first encountered this fish joke when reading David Foster Wallace's Commencement Speech. While you may have heard this joke before, I think it's worth revisiting.
We all swim around in our emotions and feelings without naming them or even being conscious of them, just as fish swim blithely through water. We may think we know what is propelling us through life, when in fact we can be as unaware of emotional forces that propel us as these fish are unaware of water. But emotions are as critical to our world as water is to the world of fish. Fish may be able to thrive without being aware of the water they swim in. But experience and research tell us that we humans stumble and fail to thrive when we are unaware of the emotional forces that operate within us.
It can be life-altering to identify and name something that is familiar, but has not yet been "thought about." Until feelings are identified and understood, it is virtually impossible to use reason and effective communication to address problems and find areas for growth. Naming the “unthought known” of your inner life – your emotions and feelings – is the first step to managing an inner life.
As a child, I loved the author Maurice Sendak's character Pierre, whose famous words were "I Don't Care." Of course, we learn, Pierre DOES care, but at the beginning of the story he seems completely detached from his own fears or desires. Pierre’s ignorance of his own needs left him vulnerable to neglect and danger, and ultimately to being eaten alive. Obliviousness to his own motivations got him in a lot of trouble.
I know Pierre’s dilemma. As a teenager, I felt self-satisfied with my independence (and I had a lot). There were things and people that I thought I didn't care about, at least not “officially.” It was easier to swim around without being conscious of my needs. Apparently, another part of me was more astute; one of my favorite songs was Desperado by the Eagles.
Desperado, why don't you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences, open the gate
It may be rainin', but there's a rainbow above you
You better let somebody love you, before it's too late
Looking back, I suspect these lyrics expressed the other side of the coin for me: sad and familiar emotions that resulted from acting cool and self-reliant – parts of my “unthought known” to which I never gave any voice. The song was wise, though I was not; in some small way, the song spoke to what I was ignoring, but only a bit. In later years, I learned to name and know many of the needs I did not acknowledge as a teenager, and make better life choices.
Behavior can often be entirely inconsistent with our deepest emotions, as it was for Pierre and me. Feelings can develop that mask deeper emotions (for example, feeling like you don't care when you really do). Such feeling can rule us, leading to confusion and even danger. Screaming angrily when you are fundamentally sad or scared sends confusing messages to everyone. Feigning independence when you need care usually backfires (read more about avoidant attachments here).
In short, naming feelings that are part of your “unthought known” allows you to see how emotional energy steers you. With conscious understanding, you can make better plans, not just in order to “manage” emotions and feelings, but to grow and accomplish larger goals. Sometimes, with a little foreknowledge and thought, you can even resist the pull of your own inner tides.
How to learn from the fish's mistakes and see what you are oblivious to?
You can look at your tastes in art, literature and music to expose hidden parts of your personality. What is your “Desperado?” Do you only like art that is abstract and cerebral? Do you prefer to see films that are light and playful, steering clear of films that address difficult or painful emotions? Artistic and creative preferences are often eloquent indicators of the feelings that make up your “unthought known.” Naming and identifying the emotions that underlie your feelings, while it can be difficult or unpleasant, can help you think openly and logically about yourself and your future.
Try this bit of detective work:
- What were your favorite songs, plays, books, and paintings when you were a teenager?
- Look up the lyrics to your old favorite songs and see what they were telling you. What emotional themes drew you to your favorite books or paintings? What feelings, if any, did your favorite songs or books or paintings evoke from you? Were these feelings that you were otherwise masking or disregarding?
- What are your favorite songs, stories, paintings these days? What emotional messages do these works of art express and evoke?
- Look up the lyrics to the music you like to listen to when you are angry (it's probably online). What do these lyrics suggest about the sources or extent of your anger. What do the lyrics to music you listen to when you are happy or sad suggest about you?
- How have your tastes changed over time?
- What messages you have been sending to yourself and what messages you have been avoiding.
Recognizing the hidden emotions that lie beneath your "official" feelings lets you anticipate and recognize emotional riptides before getting stuck in them over and over again. Becoming an Emotional Detective enables you to swim out of oblivion to discover new parts of yourself and of life!