Full text of Natasha Sharma’s talk: Why What We Feel Matters More Than What We Think at TEDxStMaryCSSchool conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Why What We Feel Matters More Than What We Think by Natasha Sharma
Natasha Sharma – Psychotherapist
Have you ever made a bad decision?
We all have.
Most of the decisions we make are based on how we feel: Overeating, cheating on an exam, maybe staying in a bad relationship or ending a good one. The majority of our decisions are guided by our emotions. So it’s important that we understand this.
We make about 35,000 decisions in a single day. Now, I don’t know how many of these are bad ones, but what I do know is that most of them are guided by our decisions or emotional process.
People say funny things to me all the time. They say things like, ‘I’m not an emotional thinker’, and they say funny things to other people like this.
Have you ever been called an emotional person? “I’m not an emotional person”, but that always seems very funny to me because all human beings are emotional people. It’s part of being a human and yet we hear this all the time.
Here’s something else funny that people say.
They say that when they get old, they’re okay if their body breaks down, they’re fine if they need help going up and down the stairs. They need a little assistance getting in and out of bed, but they want their minds to be intact.
Ever heard that? They want to be of sound mind, and yet how many of us actually take the time to become emotionally fit?
I’ve never met anybody who’s older who actually wishes that they knew how to play more Sudoku. But I have met people who are older who wished that they’d connected more with other people, who wished that they’d experienced more of what life has to offer.
And yet we don’t learn about how to become emotionally fit.
We take care of our bodies all the time. We go to the gym, we put protein in our shakes. We wear a little devices on our wrists that track every single movement that we make in a day, and we put turmeric in our lattes. We drink turmeric lattes.
But what do we do for our own emotional health, our own emotional fitness?
Unfortunately, we’re not actually taught to live in the world emotionally. We’re taught social skills. We’re taught lots of important things, but our parents never came around and said, all right guys, gather around the table. We’re going to talk about how to manage our emotions today. It just never happened, at least not in my house.
What we’re taught is important things, how to read, how to write, how to talk and walk, how to make friends, how to not piss off your boss, but we’re not taught about our emotional health.
Now I’ve conducted in my career close to 500 psychological assessments. And this basically involves me running a bunch of tests and I measure things like IQ and attention, and academic knowledge, and social emotional functioning and memory.
And then I deliver the results and there’s always one score that everybody wants to know and they’re like, ‘I don’t care about the rest of this course. Just tell me my IQ. I want to know my IQ.’
That’s the one they want to know the most, especially when they think it’s high. And that’s because we still have a very strong association between conventional smart or conventional wisdom, and success and happiness in life.
And it’s just not the full picture. IQ plays an important role, but actually people, and this has been shown and proven through studies, people who show higher levels of emotional fitness, they’re much likelier to be happier and successful later in life than those who have lower levels of emotional fitness and higher IQs.
But we don’t learn this.
Things are actually getting tougher in the world and emotional fitness is going to be more important and not critical for all of us going forward. But especially you guys. And here’s why.
The pace of the world is changing at a rate that is faster than it has ever changed in the past. And our brain’s ability to process this world, which we’re doing all the time, we’re constantly modulating, interacting, trying to make sense of it, It has not increased at the same rate and this is just getting worse.
We’re having a faster, more automated world and a brain processing speed that can’t keep up.
Result: more stress and more anxiety.
So it’s going to be more crucial than ever to be able to manage our emotions. And we know life can get tough and it will get tough. And for young people, in some ways it’s going to get tougher.
The average income for people aged between 18 and 35 has gone down for the past 25 years. Meanwhile, the cost of living has gone up. The majority of jobs that are created now are part time or contract. Student debt is the highest it’s ever been and wealth disparity is also the highest it’s ever been.
So we’ve got some problems.
Anybody here seen the movie: ‘Inside Out’? Great movie, great, great movie. There’s so much going on in that movie. When I took my husband to see it halfway through he looked at me and he’s like, “this is a psych movie.”
And it is. Because it talks about the five most basic primal emotions that we all experience in life. And by universal, what I mean is they look the same on our faces across all countries.
But there’s only three emotions that matter the most when it comes to our decision making process. Because these are the ones that drive our decisions more than any other emotion. And those are love, hate and fear.
So if you can understand that love, hate and fear will drive your decisions more than any other emotion, you’re already on the road to emotional fitness.
Let’s talk about love. All since the beginning of time we’ve had the desire for love and it made a lot of sense because to be loved and approved of it would ensure our survival, right? If we got into trouble, someone would help us.
And even today there’s lots of benefits to being loved: companionship, support, help. So it’s very natural that we desire it. As long as we don’t take it to an extreme. And this is where so many of us run into trouble.
We’ve got this idea in our minds that we have to be loved, we need to be loved in order to be happy. And somebody else has got to give it to us.
And we see this in books and TVs and films, magazines, everything. Turn on the television, watch a commercial. You’ll see the product or service that’s being advertised. The message isn’t very subtle: buy our product or buy our service because you need it to be better. And if you’re better, you’ll be loved. And if you’re loved, you’ll be happy.
And we listened to this as teenagers and our music, the lyrics, think about some of the lyrics in our music. I need your love. I’m nothing without you. You’re my everything. And my personal favorite: You’re nobody till somebody loves you.
That’s the message we listened to countless hours of this as young people especially. It’s amazing how much consumption of this kind of… these lyrics that we expose ourselves to. And the message is very clear: You can’t be happy unless somebody loves you. And that’s just not true.
So what we need to do is make a distinction between needing love in order to be happy and desiring it. Because we all have a natural desire and a natural drive to be loved. And that’s great because it’s amazing to feel connected to another human being.
But do we absolutely need to be connected to another human being in order to feel happy?
No, we don’t.
Let’s talk about hate and anger. This is a really motivating emotion. Now it can be helpful in some ways. It can help us create boundaries and teach people how to treat us. It can give us the courage to confront an inappropriate boss or deal with an abusive family member.
But it can also make us do very foolish things like drive dangerously behind the wheel, punch somebody in the face. I could write a nasty comment on social media from behind our computer screen.
At some point or another in our lives, we will all have felt as though someone wronged us, some past injustice that someone has done to us. We’ve all felt that way. Somebody wronged us and they’ve got to pay for it.
And it’s that feeling of hate and anger, it keeps us stuck… stuck on that idea that someone wronged us, stuck in the feeling of anger and hate and we need to let that go.
And the only way to let it go is to let go of the hope and the expectation that the world is a just and equal place all the time because it’s not.
Sometimes it’s not fair, sometimes people hurt us. It’s part of the human experience. And if we can understand that and come to terms with that, a great weight is lifted off of us.
Whoever it was that wronged you in your life, your sister, shady coworker, former friend, let go of the idea, the need to expose them as a wrongdoer to the world.
Now we’re all searching for the same thing in life where we’re all trying to go for the same thing; achieve the same goal, and that is to avoid as much pain and suffering as we possibly can.
And sometimes we’ll elect to choose or we’ll choose to feel misery over feeling afraid as a lesser of two evils. Because it’s easier to feel misery.
Feeling afraid is hard and we feel afraid. We’re afraid of failure. We’re afraid of getting hurt. We’re afraid of the unknown. And so we stay in situations, we stay in relationships or we vote for a certain person because we’re terrified. And it motivates us to inaction as much as it will motivate us to action.
In all my years as therapist, I’ve learned one thing. There’s only one way to deal with fear and that’s to look at straight in your face and invite it in. You can’t think your way out of fear. You have to act your way out of fear.
You’ve got to stare it down in the face like you would the barrel of a gun. You have to invite it into your life. You have to confront the very thing it is that you feel afraid of and you have to allow yourself to feel the fear in order to get over it.
If you’re afraid of flying, you’ll have to get on a plane. If you’re afraid your crazy new idea for a product or an app isn’t going to fly, launch it anyway. Fall flat on your face if you have to, because at least you won’t look back later on and say, I wish I had.
10 years ago, I was very afraid. I made a life changing decision, but it didn’t come easy. I just finished my undergraduate degree in McMaster, had been working in the corporate world for a few years. And I was living in London and I was working for one of the biggest cosmetics companies in the world.
And I was doing a lot of things that a lot of people would think are pretty fun. Things like traveling around the world first class, meeting celebrities, making a ton of money.
And I was miserable. And I was very afraid.
I was afraid that if I left, people would think I was a failure. And I was afraid that if I left, I would think that I was a failure.
But I knew something had to change. So I quit, packed up my stuff and I moved back to my parents’ house, into my old bedroom. That was the low point.
And I spent the next year just dealing with the emotions that came from making that change. Some of them were positive, but a lot of them were negative.
And instead of running away from those negative emotions the way I normally would, instead of distracting myself and figuring out ways that I didn’t have to deal with them, instead I sat with them. I let myself feel them. I didn’t push them aside. I made myself get acquainted with them. I became friends with them. I took the longest walks of my life.
I turned down invitations to go out with people and stay home on a Saturday night so that I could sit alone in the silence of my own thoughts: really getting to understand who I am and what I really needed, what I really wanted.
And it was doing that finally led me to the emotions that I needed to feel in order to make what I think was one of the better decisions in my life. And those feelings were hope, excitement and confidence.
And the decision I made was to go back to graduate school full time and I had to start from square one. I had to leave a career that I had built up and I had to go back to scratch, starting from the very beginning of a brand new career. And I was scared.
But I did it anyway.
And I’ve never regretted it because since then I have truly never worked a day in my life.
The time for you guys to get emotionally fit is now. I’m going to tell you what nobody told me, which is that you can actually learn this. This is a learnable thing: You can become more emotionally lean and if you start now, it’s going to be that much easier for you when life gets tough down the road and it will. It probably already has, but it’s going to get tougher.
Our problems just get more complex as we get older. And if you’re emotionally lean, you’re going to have the cushion and the buffer to bounce back from those stresses much more easily. You can learn this. So do this. And when you learn it, teach it. Teach it to your children.
Your emotions rule. So learn to rule your emotions.
Resources for Further Reading: