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Feeling Substitution: Tit for Tat

 

Feelings are essential to our lives and well-being, because they give us information about what is going on around us and inside of us. We learn from an early age that there are acceptable feelings and unacceptable feelings. Many families have only one or maybe two feelings that are understood and accepted by its members.

 

For example: a child grows up in a family where the only acceptable feelings are sadness or depression. When someone expresses joy and excitement, (s)he is met by a lack of enthusiasm, perhaps is even told to “calm down.” Children in this family quickly learn that excitement, joy, and enthusiasm are unacceptable.

 

ACCEPTABLE AND UNACCEPTABLE FEELINGS

 

In other families, the unacceptable feelings could be anger and unhappiness. Those families would tell you that happiness and perfection are the only normal ways to feel. The Harsh Inner Critic aids in the process in both families by supplying messages about how wrong it is to have these feelings.

 

In order to survive in this family, children learn to do what I call “feeling substitution.” In this process, an “acceptable” feeling replaces the true feeling. This suppresses the unacceptable feeling, and it goes unnoticed. Children soon learn to do this automatically. As adults, feelings that are suppressed, or substituted, can make it difficult for us to know how to handle situations. Being human means having a wide range of feelings that help us understand the experiences we encounter.

 

TWO LEVELS OF MEANING IN COMMUNICATION

 

In communication, there are two levels of meaning: the social and the psychological. Take, for example, the greeting, “good morning.” A change in tone of voice or facial expression can change the meaning. “Good” means positive, therefore, on a social level it is a positive greeting. On the psychological level, if it is said in a pleasant way with a smile, it can convey the speaker is glad to see you. If it is said in a dull voice with a frown, it does not convey that it is indeed a good morning. We interpret the meaning through the feelings/response elicited during the interaction. Without experiencing your emotions, you could miss the meaning.

 

Feelings Help Us

 

Feelings also help us know, understand, and express who we are. They give us dimension. In the movie, The Matrix, Neo’s facial expressions were one-dimensional, and his voice was monotone. It was intended to represent his strengths and abilities. It also called into question his humanity, because he did not show the human characteristic of feeling. We received no information about his internal responses, and we were unable to “know” who he was.


Feelings at times make us uncomfortable and are downright messy. Even so, when they are combined with our good thinking, they become a powerful tool, through which to see, interpret and understand ourselves and our lives. As humans, the clearer we are about what we feel, the more we can react authentically to a person and/or situation. When we use “feeling substitution,” we are unable to know the truth about ourselves and the situations we face on a daily basis.

 

If you would like help identifying your true feelings, I can help. Call me at: 919-881-2001.

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Raleigh Psychotherapy

409 Snelling Rd

Raleigh NC 27609

919-881-2001

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5 Blocks To Empathy

15 Jun 2020

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