Roger Ebert is famously quoted as saying, “Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.” This is an important point about feelings because your emotions are giving you critical feedback about three things: your experiences (e.g., “AHHHH!!! I’m on fire!”), your desires (e.g., “I really could go for a cheeseburger right now.”), and your beliefs (e.g., “I’ll never have enough money to buy that car I want.”). However, many people think that the quote is wrong because they think that it’s saying that your emotions are always right and you should immediately act on them. That is not the case at all, so let’s clear this up in this post.
What is the difference between, “Your emotions will never lie to you” and “Your emotions are always right”? It’s the same as the difference between when someone is telling you the truth vs. what they say being the truth. If someone is telling you the truth, they are being honest; it doesn’t mean that they’re right, just that they are not lying. For something to be the truth, however, it has to be factually correct or accurate. And that’s the same with emotions.
Emotions are always going to tell you with exact precision what you want, believe, and are experiencing. That doesn’t mean that you should necessarily act on them or that they are correct. Why? Because your beliefs and perception about your experiences can be wrong. For example, if you think that your spouse is cheating on you, you could go into a unbridled rage and start hurting people…only to find out later that it wasn’t true. Were your emotions an accurate reflection of your desires, beliefs, and experience? Absolutely: you wanted fidelity, you believed that you experienced the receiving end of infidelity, and you became extremely angry. All of those factors were spot on, and your emotional response was accurate. However, your beliefs were wrong, and so your emotions, while accurate, were not indicating that a. your instincts were right and b. you should, therefore, take that anger out in a violent way.
This is true in any circumstance and can be used to help you understand yourself and properly react:
So you can always listen to what your feelings are telling you, as they are always giving you useful information. You should always trust them because they are probably the most honest part of you. However, that does not mean that you should take them as fact and react exactly how you are biologically programmed to, or you’ll run out of a board meeting every time you are scared, punch someone every time you are angry, or cry every time you are sad in public. And, of course, if you are wrong, you are in for some painful consequences about reacting inappropriately to a situation even though you thought it was right at the time.
Learn more about your emotions, analyze them, manage them, and practice responding to them appropriately. But don’t assume that they’re always objectively correct about reality: they are only as good as your perception and beliefs, which are always based on incomplete information. Appreciate them as a signal and use them to figure out what you want and where you might have negative/destructive beliefs, but don’t blindly follow them. If you couldn’t control your behavior in response to your emotions, your life would likely be very difficult at best and very short at worst.