An enormous amount of trouble in the world, especially at work and in relationships, is caused by a peculiar phenomenon of our minds: a tendency to be, as we put it, “out of touch with our feelings”. When we first meet this idea, it sounds strange and even a bit insulting. How could “we” not know what “we” are feeling? Of course, we look from the outside like unified beings; we carry one name, and sit in a compact, physical container. The distances between different parts of us aren’t so great. How then could we be so multiple as to have secrets from ourselves? But in reality, there are at least two distinct parts to mental life: a Feeling Self, and an Observer Self. Sometimes the two are utterly aligned, someone asks us what we feel like eating, and the communication between the two selves is clear and immediate, we don’t even notice a lag. we simply answer: “Salmon and Avocado” At other points, it’s far trickier – we’re sitting on the sofa at home after a long day at work and are under the impression that we feel quite calm, and suddenly, an apparently minor remark from our partner arouses us to deep irritation we stand up and start shouting about the unfairness of a host of issues we had until just then unaware we even felt strongly about. Soon, we’ve got a crisis in our hands. Why is it so hard for the Observing Self to report accurately on feelings? Firstly, because we’re afflicted by so many background ideas about the unacceptability of particular feelings. Across childhood, we have instilled in us, so subtly we don’t even notice, strong notions about what are, and are not, permissible things to experience. Traditionally, this might have meant that boys were not allowed to acknowledge that they felt like crying, or that girls weren’t allowed to entertain certain kinds of ambitions for fear of being “unladylike”. We might not have such obviously naive prohibitions today, but other equally powerful ones have taken their place. We may have picked up covert but forceful indications that no decent person, no one loved by their parents at least, could be enthusiastic about making money or unable to cope with work, tempted by an affair or still upset over a breakup three years ago. Furthermore, despite the apparently sexually liberated spirit of the times, the lion’s share of our sexual impulses remains impossible to avow. There is still a great deal we’re not meant to feel, in order to fit our most desirable of categories: a “good boy” or “good girl”. When difficult feelings do threaten to emerge, the Observing Self typically takes fright and looks away. Rather than produce an honest account of feelings, he may go numb, or try to file a report that’s more acceptable than true. “I’m feeling very tired”, instead of “I’m feeling you’ve let me down.” “I’m depressed” rather than “I’m furious”. “That’s absolutely disgusting!” rather than “I’m strangely turned on.” Our problems are compounded by the way that many powerful feelings, especially of upset, envy and frustration, can get kicked into action by apparently very trivial and seemingly nonsensical things in the outside world. For example, we might be thrown into paracosms of envy we find no room to confess to when a friend mentions that a mutual acquantaince has been promoted, or a partner may look away for 3.5 seconds before we’ve entered an explanation about how tricky a work meeting went, and we experience seething indignation and wounded pride that we haven’t got our lover’s full attention. But we say nothing, because to own up to many feelings of upset, involves acknowledging a humiliating degree of fragility. Yet, feelings that haven’t been reported don’t and can’t go away. They linger, and spread their energy randomly to neighbouring issues. Envy comes out as spite, anger over inattention comes out as a remark that the partner is looking “rather fat at the moment.” Though of course, by the time that hurt has manifested itself as aggression, any chances of being comforted are clearly over. Feelings we haven’t got a handle on wreak havoc. They buckle and strain the system We develop pernicious ticks, a facial twitch, impotence, and incapacity to work. Alcoholism, a compulsion to look at porn, most so-called “addictions” are, at heart, symptoms of insistent, difficult feelings that we haven’t found any better way to address. How then might we come to be more skilled observers in correspondence to our feelings? Reading may have rather a large role to play, a great writer is ideally, someone uncommonly patient about the curious, less discussed, and apparently weirder things that float around in the human head. Another move is to ensure that we’ve allocated a lot of time to self-observation. It can look rather self-indulgent to ask for a few hours in the evening, in which there is nothing more apparently demanding to do, than sit and stare out of the window or around the bedroom with a pad and pen on one’s lap. These so-called “idle moments” are when the Observing Self can finally catch up with feelings that might have been too shy, ashamed or harassed to emerge in the rest of the day. They are like church bells we can make out only in the evening when city traffic has died down. Failing to do this can, among other things, ruin our chances of getting to sleep. Insomnia, is the Feeling Self’s revenge. All thoughts that haven’t been properly catalogued in the day. Understanding the serious danger of the gap opening up between “what we feel” and “what we’re aware of” brings another major benefit: We grasp that this issue unnecessarily apply to other people too. Quite often, they will be saying things which are not, in fact, in line with their true feelings. Mean things when they’re feeling vulnerable, perhaps, or arrogant things when they’re feeling small, and will identify that it’s our duty to forgive them for not always managing to be reliable correspondents of their inner lives. It’s not really sinister to think this way of others it’s a kindly move that gives us the energy to lend a second, more compassionate look at behaviour that might initially have appeared simply horribly off-putting. Feelings are frequently far from wonderful, and often, should not be followed. But we should accept that if we ignore, deny, or overlook feelings entirely, the price will always be higher and worse. They will exercise a powerful, malignant, subterranean influence across the whole of our lives. One of the two often overlooked, but key arts of living, is to learn to devote ourselves to correctly labelling and repatriating our own, and others’, orphan feelings.