The Rational vs. the Emotional – or feeling/knowing

Two posts ago I wrote about vulnerability. About how having certain emotions seems “wrong” because of a certain tendency to over-analyse and to be harsh with ourselves when we feel a certain way. This post is related to that, but I want to focus more on the age-old supposed dichotomy between feeling and thinking. This dichotomy has been packaged as emotion vs. rationality, and is of course a highly racialized and gendered one. Women feel, men think. Women are emotional and let their feelings make decisions, while men are rational and are able to control their feelings. Feminists have spent a long time trying to destabilize this dichotomy. This has been done not only by pointing to the fact that men are emotional and women are rational, but also by arguing that we can’t separate rationality from emotion.

I have always faithfully subscribed to this view. For as long as I can remember, I have believed that everyone is both emotional and rational and that it is very difficult to separate the ’emotional’ and the ‘rational’ in any given decision. I do think that certain personalities relate to the emotional/rational in different ways and to different degrees, but I don’t think this is related to gender. While I do think these feminist arguments are extremely important, I think that in some ways they have failed to argue against seeing emotions or being emotional as negative. In other words, in order to argue that women are not simply emotional beings and are rational too, we haven’t really argued that being emotional is not only fine, but necessary.

This continued negative aura surrounding emotionality has meant that in any situation where I may be feeling something very heavy or intense, my automatic response has always been to rationalize it; to turn to rationality; to think things through; to analyze; to understand. This is not to say that these things are simply rational and not linked to emotion. But at the same time, they often mean a turning away from feeling things. I have found myself hiding from what I am feeling precisely by trying to understand it “rationally.” It is almost as if I am hoping that by understanding why I feel this way, it will go away. Of course that never happens. Logic or making something legible is not the same as your body, mind and heart feeling something it needs to feel. One process cannot replace the other; they must both happen.

It seems to me that many women these days are told that we have to understand why we are the way we are. Therapy, self-help, tough love from friends, and all these other mechanisms are there to help us understand so we can change. I don’t see anything wrong with that, other than that it assumes that everything is understandable in a logical way. It tells us that once we understand why we do these things, we’ll stop. But understanding our feelings is not the same as feeling them; understanding pain or why we feel pain is not the same as actively feeling that pain. Just like understanding what makes us happy will never be a substitute for us actually feeling happy. In this way there seems to me a clear disjuncture between knowing and feeling. And in this way it seems clear why it is dangerous and ultimately futile to try and replace feeling with knowing.

Thinking this through reminds me a bit about religion. There is something in Islam that I have always been touched by, and that is the emphasis on the inability of humans to know. The aim is not to understand everything, and definitely not to understand God or why things happen the way they do. The emphasis instead is on a way of connecting with each other and with God, and this connection is ultimately based on accepting certain things: that we don’t need to know everything, and that we need to accept that we will never understand why some things happen. Of course in this day and age, with our ingrained ideas about modernity and humans-as-knowers, it is very difficult to accept the idea that we can’t understand something. We exist as humans in a state of demanding to know everything. Accepting that we can’t know or understand everything that happens to us doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about why it may have happened; but it does point us towards acceptance rather than resistance. If we can’t understand, we have no choice but to accept – and it is through this that we feel. Accepting something means feeling the pain and disappointment that comes with it. Continually trying to understand it means delaying the moment of pain; it means hoping that once we understand, we won’t feel the pain, or even that once we understand, we can change it.

It seems to me that the path of acceptance -> pain is what can eventually lead to understanding, because we’ll be in a better place to understand. We won’t be trying to understand to avoid something; we’ll be understanding because we have felt what we need to feel, and are ready to confront why it is we had to feel that way.

As someone who is an academic, who likes to try and understand things, and who is a control freak in general, it’s obviously been very difficult over the past few months for me to accept things and deal with the feelings that come with acceptance. Accept choices I made, accept that some years are harder than others, and accept that things will work out in the end. I constantly fought against this, by trying to rationalize what I was feeling. There is also the gendered element here: I was always afraid to let myself feel things because I was conscious of the tendency of women to “over-feel” or so we are told. So I was always conscious to not let myself feel too much, or to not let my feelings cloud my judgement. But maybe that was my mistake: I should totally have let my feelings cloud my judgement! Maybe my feelings were supposed to be telling me what to do. Sure, our feelings can often be based on insecurities and other things that we should be trying to work on and get better at; but feelings are also intimately connected to who we are. Looking back, I can see that many times my feelings were trying to tell me something that my brain just didn’t get yet, or didn’t want to get.

So this is what I would do as a feminist: of course the feeling/knowing dichotomy is not as solid as we think; and of course it isn’t related to gender or race. But at the same time, we have been brought up to value knowing and devalue feeling. But it is feeling that puts us in touch with things we have slowly lost touch with as we have grown up. It is feeling that allows us to continue growing. And it is feeling that makes us know in a more expansive way. So here’s to feeling, whether the feelings are good or bad.