A Labeled Box of Feels

I am about 80% sure I did not initially come up with this concept. As I remember it, the idea of jealousy in particular being a "feelings box" was something I originally heard at an open relationship discussion group some time around mid-2009. But it's come up 3 times in the last few weeks in various conversations, and I haven't been able to find any sources online other than my own tweets. It's possible that I've explored it enough that it may as well be mine, and so I ought to write it up here.

There are a few examples of things we often think of and treat like "feelings" or "emotions" that are in fact not feelings, but a labeled box of feelings.

A dramatic example of this is "jealousy".

Jealousy is a Feelings Box

To be jealous is not to have one specific identifiable feeling. Unlike "true" emotions, "jealousy" is a combination of many different emotions all jumbled together. We shove those feelings into a box, put a label on the box, and seal it up tight. From then on, we only interface with the label, not the contents.

In the case of jealousy, the label reads: YOUR FAULT. Then you huck the box at the person who did the bad thing that made you jealous, and now it's their problem. You are now entitled to demand that they change their behavior, whatever it was that caused you to have this box of feelings, rather than unpack the box and figure out what's really going on.

There is no way to productively address the issue without opening up that box and really examining what's inside. It may be some mix of longing, resentment, sadness, grief, anger, anxiety, fear, even lust or excitement can get stirred up in there! Each of these are associated with extremely different stories, different experiences in the body, different framings and conclusions and reactions and, most importantly, needs. Because the box can contain emotions with contradictory aspects (eg, grief and excitement, or resentment and lust), it is all the more important to tease them apart and address them one by one.

If the box contains resentment, maybe the "jealousy" story is something like "You're spending so much time with him, that you haven't been keeping up with your share of the chores. That extra work is falling on me, and it's not fair." The intervention here might be something like a clearer structure for accountability and expectations, to ensure that we all contribute fairly, and can easily see who's done what.

If the box contains fear and anxiety, maybe the "jealousy" would be addressed with reassurance and reflection on what it is about you that your partner appreciates. If it's grief and longing, maybe it's just that you need to make some more explicit time for one another to do the things you enjoy together.

If your problem is grief or longing for the relationship you once had, a chore wheel isn't going to help. If your problem is resentment, being told how important and valuable you are is fucking insulting. And if your issue is that you're afraid they're going to leave you at any moment, it'll be hard to enjoy doing fun hobbies together.

As long as we interface with the label rather than the feelings contained in that box, no healing can happen, and any processing will likely make things worse.

Happiness is a Feelings Box

Similar to jealousy, "happiness" is a labeled feelings box as well. But in this case, instead of the label ultimately meaning YOUR FAULT, the label says GOOD.

Consider these statements:

3 extremely different emotions! But once labeled with that GOOD tag, we stop looking at it.

"Happiness" might contain satisfaction, bliss, mania, pride, ecstasy, excitement, or even some less "comfortable" emotions, like longing or anticipation. In the way that "hope" and "fear" are two sides of a coin, and work together to take you out of mindful presence, "happiness" can be just as much an obstacle to introspective englightenment and connection as jealousy is!

While the jealousy box was mostly some unpleasant or difficult feelings steming from current or anticipated unmet needs, the happiness box is usually filled with mostly good feelings.

Why would we hide those from ourselves?

It's important to realize that our minds and brains are not goal-optimizing machines or rational hedonic maximizers. Like everything else made by evolution, our minds are optimized for reprodutive fitness, with survival as a means to that end. So, they take shortcuts to conserve energy and offload work whenever possible.

It is much less effort to want to be happy than to actually figure out how to be happy or get the thing that will make us happy. The quest to "define" happiness is futile; it is not one thing, but a contextual framing of many different contradictory states, grouped by a label. By interacting with the label instead of the states themselves, we can bemoan our lack of happiness, without ever being compelled to make the changes that would bring us more happiness.

Other Cases (Exercises for the reader)

Consider how this concept is at play in the concepts of:

In these cases, what might be in the box? How does the label prevent us from seeing and addressing that?

Twitter Threads On This Subject