Everyone’s heard this cultural mantra: our feelings define our identity. According to pop-culture wisdom, truth itself is created and validated by our feelings. We must listen to and act upon our emotions, as they are the most authentic part of who we are. Just think back to the most popular psalm of the cultural doctrine-defining movie, Frozen.
Elsa couldn’t hold back her feelings because they were the truest part of her identity. The story shows her parents reacting to her powers with the untenable command: “conceal, don’t feel.” When Elsa finally “can’t hold it back anymore,” she releases the “real her,” full of power and glamor and no limits. What an attractive message!
The problem? It’s just not true.
While our feelings are powerful and our emotions are important, they do not define our identity, unless we decide to accept this teaching and choose to be ruled by our feelings.
Media giants constantly immerse us in music, videos, and apps that repeat the mantra that our feelings define our identity. Advertisers then manipulate us by creating feelings of longing or discontent or nostalgia or sexual desire. They know that when we submit to our feelings, we will make emotional decisions, which results in spending more of our money—or worse, our attention—on what the manipulator of our feelings is leading us to desire.
It’s no wonder Disney wants us to embrace Elsa’s philosophy: it’s very profitable for them.
Thermometer vs. Thermostat
While culture tells us our feelings are like a thermostat, the truth is that our feelings are like a thermometer.
What’s the difference? A thermometer in your house tells you how warm it is. A thermostat controls your heater and decides what to do when the temperature reaches a certain point. If it’s winter and your thermostat is set to 68°, your heater will turn on when the temperature drops below 68°.
If your thermometer says it’s 45° in your house, that’s important information. You now know that either your heater is off, broken, or something else is wrong.
However, the thermometer doesn’t control the temperature. It just tells you how cold it is.
Our feelings are like a thermometer. They give us information about the world, but our will, the thermostat, decides what to do with the information our feelings provide. If we feel angry, lonely, or anxious, that’s important information, but we need not allow our emotions to control our behavior or define our identity.
Feelings Aren’t Identity
We all know our feelings can vary like the outdoor temperature in the spring. One cross word from a family member can make us feel discouraged, while a later email with an unexpected opportunity can make us feel hopeful. Our identity is much more stable than how we might feel in a given moment.
We know that we are not our feelings, because there is an “I” that is thinking about our feelings right now. Our self, our “I,” can choose to evaluate our feelings and decide if and how to act.
When we express how we feel, we often use words like “I am frustrated.” This links the identity statement “I am” with the feeling “frustrated,” linking the feeling to our actual self.
Instead, when we become aware of our ability to evaluate and respond to our feelings, as you are right now, we should replace the word “am” with “feel,” as in, “I feel frustrated.” This reflects the reality that our feelings are separate from our identity.
(We must always be vigilant about anything we put after “I am ____,” as those statements of identity define who we are and are becoming. Make them true, and positive, and hopeful, like: “I am learning,” “I am getting stronger,” “I am blessed,” or “I am loved.”)
We Can Set Our Minds
Sensibility [feeling/emotion] is neither good nor evil in itself, but in its application. Under the influence of Christian principle it makes saints and martyrs; ill-directed, or uncontrolled, it is a snare, and the source of every temptation.
—Hannah More (1745-1833)
The Bible says that God doesn’t want us to be controlled by our passions. “The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). Notice that the mind (or the will) is in the driver’s seat here. When we focus on the “flesh” (our desires, how we feel), it leads to a bad place, but when we focus on the “Spirit,” we find life and peace.
Our feelings will follow what we focus on. They have to. Not immediately, like a light switch, but eventually, like a thermometer. If the heater is broken and it’s 45° in the house, it might take a while after it’s fixed to return to a comfortable temperature. Likewise, if you’ve had a tragedy in your life, you might need help to get back on track until you feel positive again. However, if you choose to make negative feelings your source of truth and focus on them, they’ll lead you to an even more unhappy place.
The key is that we decide, and we can use our free will to evaluate our feelings. We can even make choices that will change our feelings, causing them to follow our wise selections of input: what we listen to, watch, read, and think about.
I’m definitely not saying that we should stuff our feelings like Spock on Star Trek, completely unemotional until you explode in passion every seven years. That’s like putting duct tape over your thermometer so you won’t know how uncomfortable the temperature is.
Instead, when you have strong feelings, consider what they are telling you. Make wise decisions—filled with truth, love, and grace—about how to respond. Use the gift of your free will to take steps that will lead you to life and peace.
Pay attention to the thermometer of your feelings, but choose to set the thermostat of your mind according to all that is “true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy.” (Philippians 4:8)
Did this resonate with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and would be grateful if you’d share it with others. I also have an email list if you don’t want to miss anything.