Head v Heart

Where is this love? I can’t see it, I can’t touch it. I can’t feel it. I can hear it. I can hear some words, but I can’t do anything with your easy words.
— Closer | Patrick Marber

The realm of emotions is a source of mystery for many people. In my practice, I have been struck by how often people mistake their thoughts for their emotional feelings. Often, the disparity is subtle because we have been conditioned to think about how we feel, and consequently, our vocabulary for describing our emotional landscape is vast, even though our repertoire of emotional feelings is fairly simple and straightforward.

I often find myself gently steering clients toward greater accuracy in describing how they feel; for example, feeling stressed or anxious can often be more accurately described as feeling fear – of not being able to do or say something. In the same way, feeling ‘frustrated’ might mean feeling ‘angry’, which is an emotion many people have been trained to think of as negative and to be avoided, to the extent they are often unaware that is how they actually feel. The many words we have for thoughtfully describing our emotions often saves us from being fully aware of what we actually feel in the moment. This is both a source of emotional defence and a liability in our quest towards living well – if we’re never quite aware of how we feel, we don’t realize how our thoughts and actions might be skewed in unhelpful ways by historical coping mechanisms that don’t serve who we are now.

Diana Whitney in her essay reflecting on her mother’s ailing health, discovers that a patient suffering from dementia might cope well with a later diagnosis of cancer as they don’t consistently remember the physical pain of chemotherapy, and are almost freed from the fear of treatment and the prospect of death. Ms Whitney worries whether dementia, which has served her mother’s ability to deal with the cancer treatments, might also be robbing her off genuine connection and her sense of self – to which the memory specialist treating her mother assures her that “When cognition falls away, what remains is the ability to love and be loved.”

Here, the challenge is to define ‘love’ – is it a thought, or is it an emotion? This is a question that has vexed philosophers, artists and thinkers from time immemorial. I think the playwright Patrick Marber offers useful insight in the quote above. In his play Closer (adapted for the screen in a version directed by Mike Nichols), a roundelay of lust and betrayal befall a quartet of two men and two women who are unable and/or unwilling to commit themselves to people they allegedly love. To be fair, Mr Marber’s play is really about power, but he appears to use the character of Alice to expound a thesis that love is far less the all-consuming emotional feeling that pop culture often portrays it to be, and more a collection of thoughts expressed through words to elicit the sense of a feeling – the ‘feeling’ of love.

Whether one agrees with his theory, I think it is worth weighing its merits against the understanding that thoughts are not emotions, and the ability to gain clarity over one’s heart is the key towards a clear head. I invite you to ruminate and respond if you wish.