I Am Not My Feelings: On Guilt, Cynicism, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

I go to therapy, and I’m one of those freaks who finds it fun because I love introspection. I frequently find myself looking inward to discover new things. That I am infinitely complex in my feelings means I will never finish that project, which is exciting to me.

The issue I run into is that when I engage in the project of introspection, I often over-identify with the feelings I have. I have a terrible habit of taking too much responsibility for even having those feelings in the first place.

There’s a leap I take where my feelings are my identity and that I am solely responsible for my identity. This is incredibly optimistic. But before I jump into optimism, I want to talk about guilt, because the concept of guilt is what started me down the rabbit hole I’m about to explore.

During my last therapy session, I was talking about a feeling I had that I felt guilty about having. My therapist said there was no reason to feel guilty about a feeling because it’s something out of our control. What I can feel guilty about is whether I act wrongly in response to that feeling.

My philosophy brain was immediately piqued. Guilt stems from feeling one did something wrong, and “wrongness” is in the language of ethics, and ethics only exists in the context of the narratives that contextualize action in such a way that it can be right or wrong.

My therapist liked this train of thought because she believes “reframing” is one of the most powerful tools we have. Reframing means changing the narrative around something to make it more helpful, which I agreed was possible. We can reframe the narratives that give us the ethical framework in which we deem an action right or wrong.

This points toward the fact that narratives are subjective. If you can change them based on what’s helpful, helpfulness is the metric over truth. This also piqued my philosophy brain because in the earliest days of my doing philosophy in college, I was convinced that a) there was a Truth and b) that Truth is something to be attained through philosophy.

Even having transitioned from a more “classical” philosophical lens to the world of postmodernism, I think there’s a part of me that still believes there is truth out there. Call it a post-postmodern mentality, one interested in reconstructing after the postmodernists deconstructed almost everything imaginable.

But I don’t think an interest in reconstruction is what’s driving my gut feeling that truth exists. It’s more likely religious conditioning, but that’s a can of worms for another time. The point is that I went down this path: if all narratives are subjective, then all narratives are permissible to the extent they help the subject using them, and that made me cynical as hell.

I don’t like being a cynical person, but it’s a position I often find myself in, and it’s one I feel deep guilt about. This is the cycle I keep passing through: having a feeling, feeling guilty about that feeling, realizing guilt is an ethical construct, identifying the narrative that forms that construct, recognizing that narrative is subjective, becoming cynical about subjectivity, then feeling guilty about feeling cynical.

So then I started to think about what personal narrative needed to change to break this cycle. The easiest reframing was to say “cynicism isn’t bad” and sit in that feeling without feeling guilty about it, but cynicism is bad in that it’s lazy, and my parents instilled in me an ethic of hard work, which I’m thankful for.

No, the unhelpful narrative I hold is that I can control my feelings, and, by extension, my identity. This is the conversation I had with my therapist that started this whole thing. I started to think about what it would take to undo the damage that false responsibility has done only to get to a more cynical place. Let me explain:

I over-identify with my feelings, and “identify” is the operative word there. It’s a matter of identity for me. And if I can control my feelings, which I wrongly believe form my identity, then I can control my identity. It’s a control thing, and to think that this identity is something controllable is optimistic.

That’s a lot of power to wield, and to believe we as humans have the power to influence our identities feels naive, especially when we take into consideration a) there may not even be a stable identity to influence and b) if there is, we certainly can’t control how other people identify us.

Those two points are actually kind of one in the same. There’s a lot of instability in the fact that other people perceive us. We don’t just exist in our own subjective narrative but also in every other person’s subjective narrative that they’re using to contextualize us for themselves.

We exist in a diverse multiplicity of contexts, each one of which contextualizes us differently and gives us a different identity in each of those instances, and that is scary. So is there a stable self? There is to the extent that I exist to me as a subject, but subjectivity was the whole reason I was feeling cynical.

Also, I’m not just talking about metanarratives when I talk about the narratives other people use to identify us. According to Oxford Languages, a metanarrative is “an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences.”

I actually really like this definition because it aligns with the way Lyotard (the father of postmodernism and my favorite philosopher) talks about metanarratives. They’re meant to be all-encompassing, outside of every other narrative we tell ourselves to give them greater meaning.

This implies the existence of smaller micronarratives contained within that metanarrative, and it’s those micronarratives that make me itchy. You can figure out the metanarratives people hold onto just by asking them about what they believe; it’s much trickier to identify the micronarratives that arise during the act of situating oneself with other people.

When I talk about the act of situating, I mean that every time we encounter another person or people, we enter into a situation. We relate to one another in some way, but it’s subjective for every person how those relationships are contextualized.

That contextualization depends on the narratives that inform what that situation means. They’re mostly micronarratives that are themselves a byproduct of this situation. The micronarratives give the situation meaning at the same time as they come to be as the direct result of that situation needing meaning. It’s likely unconscious, which is why it’s so much harder to identify them.

There are an infinite number of possible micronarratives based on every possible situation that can occur. Every time we come into contact with another person and are situated with them, our identity changes in some way based on all of the baggage they carry that informs the narratives they use to identify us. This baggage includes their expectations, prejudices, physical preferences, beliefs, fears, assumptions, etc.

We have our own subjective identity, but other people don’t have access to it in the same way we do. They form their own identity for us, and each one of those identities is valid because there is somebody experiencing them as a subject.

The ambiguity that comes from this difference makes me real fucking anxious. We exist as subjects, but so does everyone else, and we exist to everyone else as objects ripe for projection because we are fair game for their narrative contextualization. Everything is. Nothing has its own meaning: it’s all dependent on what narrative it finds itself in based on the subject experiencing it and the narratives they wield.

So not only am I cynical, but I’m also anxious, guilt-ridden, and, to a certain extent, hopeless. Cynicism breeds immobility because “what’s the point?” But if what we can control is how we act as the result of our feelings, which in this case is cynicism, doing nothing is still a decision. It’s within the scope of our control, so we are choosing to do nothing.

That to me is worth feeling guilty about because one of the narratives I tell myself is that the choices we make are what define us. We have no choice but to do things (I guess the only non-choice we have), so we might as well do the things that are helpful if there is no objective ethics we can appeal to by means of a truth narrative.

What’s helpful for me at this stage in my life is the story that we are not our feelings. I need to believe this to stay sane, and the moment I internalize it (I’m getting there), I think the guilt will go away, and that’s all I hope for anyone. I never want to stop introspecting, but I think a healthy level of distance will go a long way.

I was hoping to end this with a strong call to action, which my marketing brain tells me every blog needs, but I don’t think I have one. This feels almost like a resignation, as philosophy often yields for me, and the nature of a resignation makes it the “non-choice” I referenced earlier. We have to act. We have to exist in the world. We have to be perceived as many things out of our control. And that’s okay!

The good news is that we have the ability to make decisions (maybe that’s bad news if you were hoping for the anti-existential comfort of not having to make your own choices), but our feelings are not one of them.

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Tommy Kessler

Chicago-based writer and musician. 1970s drug-fueled private investigator.