What’s The Most Difficult Question of Your Life?

To dig out of pain and find real meaning, you’ve got to learn how to answer something far more complex: How do you really feel?

Early on we learn to nail the basic questions of life.  What’s your name?  Where do you live? When’s your birthday?  Anyone with kids knows answers to these aren’t automatic.  Children have to work a few years to have answers at their fingertips.  That’s why they’re overjoyed to answer them.  As we get older, we sort out more complicated questions. What profession do you want?  What makes a good friend?  Who do you want to marry?  We manage these questions in our early twenties giving us a sense of identity and purpose.  Yet, these answers aren’t enough.  To dig out of pain and find real meaning, you’ve got to learn how to answer something far more complex:  How do you feel?

A lot of things stand in the way of that question.  One road block is most people have very little experience noticing their feelings and way too much experience noticing their thoughts.  Some common mistakes are, “I can’t believe you did that!” “I feel like you’re an idiot.” “Confused.” “I feel things are going well.”  None of these are feelings.  They’re a colorful assortment of thoughts and descriptions of the external world.  Some are more blaming than others.  After all that training with our name, birth date, and who are friends are we come away with a sharp ability to pay attention to intellectual judgements but remain foggy on feelings.  Sizing up a situation intellectually is vital but missing that first step of identifying feelings leads to incorrect conclusions and that’s the shortest road to misery. 

Clarifying feelings and acting on them well is like working out a math problem.  If you skip steps and don’t show your work two thinks happen.  You irritate your math teacher to no end but worse, you get the wrong answer.  Like math, this problem is simplified by memorizing the key equations.  Luckily, there’re only six.  Happy, sad, surprised, disgusted, angry, and afraid.  We’re born with these.  They have clear biological markers and universal facial expressions.  There are also more advanced social feelings.  Think of these like calculus. Some examples are shame, love, and guilt.  They’re more complex because they combine the basic six and have more to do with other people and society than biology.

What these two groups of feelings have in common is they have clear sensations in the body and grip us to act.  Where thinking comes in is assessing those feelings with what we know.  Do things check out or is the feeling responding to something that isn’t rationally present?  By feeling first and thinking second, we balance our internal world and gauge it with our external circumstances.  Aware of both before acting, we show up to our lives as a full person and better able to be effective in our relationships and pursue our dreams.     


Rabbi Yonasan Bender, LCSW, graduated from Hebrew University’s School of Social Work. He works with adults, couples, and children in his private therapy practice in Jerusalem.  He holds several semichos from Rav Yitzchok Berkovits, shlita.  To share your thoughts, experiences, questions, or a different perspective, you can reach Rabbi Yonasan Bender LCSW at 053-808-0435 and at info@jerusalemtherapy.org. Learn more about Rabbi Bender and his work at www.jerusalemtherapy.org.


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