The Limitations of Knowledge, Part 3

[Remember, don’t forget to participate in the Mad Men DVD giveaway.]

As I mentioned in the last installment,the three steps to really make a change for the better are:

  1. Know the truth (mental)
  2. Feel the truth (emotional)
  3. Live the truth (physical)

We often have enough intellectual grasp of the truth to properly deal with certain situations, but we don’t know how to emotionally grasp that truth, especially while in that situation, therefore we become unable to properly act on it in the heat of the moment. But what exactly keeps us from feeling the truth, even when we have full knowledge of the truth?


The reason we can’t always make ourselves feel the truth even when know it is because of emotional interference. You experience an emotion that runs counter to your logical mind and is strong enough to totally overpower it. Objects and events that make these counterproductive emotions arise in us are what people are talking about when they talk about negative emotional triggers.

Examples of emotional interference caused by negative emotional triggers:

  • You want to be skinny and logically know that junk food will make you fat, but you fixate on the immediate emotional satisfaction you get from overeating and the horrible anxiety-filled day at work you want to recover from. A particular junk food may nostalgically remind you of happier days in your childhood. These triggers interfere with and overrule your logical mind and you choose the bad behavior of eating the junk food.
  • You’re a pro athlete and know how to play your sport like a master. But during your first big championship game, you get a flashback of the big championship game you screwed up in college. You feel anxiety and fear or reliving that shame, and you end up doing a bunch of boneheaded plays you’d normally never make and you choke.
  • You’re a guy who has had intensely negative experiences with the opposite sex, especially pretty women. Maybe they rejected you in utterly humiliating ways that crippled your self-esteem when you were young. Maybe you have memories of public embarrassment that stemmed from something a pretty girl did to you growing up. Maybe your first beautiful girlfriend was a vapid narcissist who cheated on you, stomped on your heart and was remorseless about it. And you ended up building a lot of resentment and bitterness in your heart. You can intellectually learn how to pick up and impress pretty women until you become a walking dating encyclopedia, but during those key moments when you are on the verge of happiness with a pretty woman, all those negative emotions will come rushing back to you in the form of insecurity and neediness, and you’ll end up self-sabotaging at some point.
  • You’re a girl who has a boyfriend who is a bum. He’s totally no good for you, and on an intellectual level you totally know that. But on an emotional level, he totally makes your loins tingle and your juices flow. No matter how many lectures your friends give you or you give yourself, no matter how you become more and more convinced that he’s totally bad for you, those triggers of his lips, his smell, his voice run interference on your brain and you cave in. Again.
  • You’re a guy who understands human nature. You read up on it. You realize that women don’t respect a man they can walk all over. And when you deal with women you are not in love with, you can totally be that dominant guy who’s not needy. But you meet a girl, and you put her in the category of “good girl.” Because she’s special for superficial reasons (smart, says extra sweet things, well-traveled, well-read, nice pedigree), you label her a special little unique snowflake and break out the pedestal. You’re in love. Then she starts showing negative signs. She acts like a drama queen and makes big humiliating public displays at your expense. She shows signs of big-time narcissism and total self-absorption. She disrespects you in front of others, including family, coworkers and friends. She acts entitled. Despite the fact you know on a logical level that she needs to be checked, or better yet chucked, these feelings of love run interference on your brain, and you keep letting her slide or making excuses for her. And not only does she not change for the better, her behavior gets worse, she ends up losing respect and attraction for you, and you either end up broken up, or worse, in a long-term relationship with an irreversibly toxic dynamic. Yes, even the sensations surrounding passionate love, which our culture overwhelmingly celebrates as positive and beautiful, can be negative emotional triggers that undermine our logic in the wrong situations.
  • You grew up in grinding poverty. Your father was a drunk and chronically unemployed. You were always starving and never had two nickels to rub together. You had to work from the time you were a teenager to support your family. Now that you are solidly middle-class and have saved more than enough for retirement, you never allow yourself to feel financially secure. Emotionally you can’t grasp that you’re no longer poor, so you become deathly afraid of risk. You opt for security, even if logically you know you can stop working or open up your own business any time you want and you realize you totally hate your job with a passion. You’re cheap to the point that you alienate and insult family and friends, despite the fact you know you can afford not to be stingy. Everyday you are surrounded by emotional triggers that keep you from ever feeling secure in your current financial position. Emotionally you have a poverty mindset, and always feel at any moment you can lose it all and go right back to poverty.
  • You want to be a writer/artist/photographer, and talk about it to anyone who will listen. You let them see snippets of your work, get that quick crack hit ego boost of having them tell you how talented you are, then proceed to sit back on your ass, procrastinate and go back to watching life pass you by. This is because you may have had so many dreams fail, either because you were pressured out of them or because you tried them and failed, that any act that brings you closer to completion of your dream ends up acting like a negative emotional trigger that makes you recall all those past disappointments, failed aspirations and shattered dreams. You negative emotional triggers cause you to develop a fear of success that runs interference against the talent you logically know you have. Whereas your identity as an aspiring artist and the quick ego boosts it wins you from others gives you a feeling of a noble, heroic struggle, almost like a martyr for a beautiful cause. And as long as you choose to avoid your negative triggers by deliberately remaining stuck at aspiring artist, you never actually become a failed artist, thus you can continue to protect your ego.


Not all emotional triggers are negative. If an emotional trigger complements and supports what you logically know instead of contradicting it,  than it’s a positive emotional trigger. Like the song on your playlist that makes your workout go better than usual. Or that love that comes from a mature, functional positive relationship that inspires you to chase your goals harder. Or the presence of a family member who has always been supportive of you growing up.

Negative emotional triggers are stimuli that make you recall negative emotional memories, which then work against your logical mind and keep you from living the truth you know. Positive emotional triggers are stimuli that make you recall positive emotional memories, which then work to affirm and boost the truth you know, which in turn makes you live said truth with double the conviction and enthusiasm. It’s much, much easier in life to accumulate negative emotional memories than it is to accumulate positive emotional memories, and for this reason, most people have much, much more negative emotional triggers around them than positive emotional triggers. It’s hard to have positive emotional triggers if you don’t have a lot of positive emotional memories to be reminded of in the first place, or if your positive emotional memories are too distant in time and weak in intensity compared to your negative emotional memories.

This is why when people are extremely close and passionate about their families, it’s not always a good sign, especially if everything else in their life seems to be a directionless mess. Sometimes it just means they have a great solid family, but sometimes it also means that their family has become the last consistent source of positive emotional memories they have, and therefore are now their only positive emotional triggers. Their family has become a type of security blanket, as their recent experiences has been nothing but a buildup of negative emotional memories leading to a ton of negative emotional triggers.


So in review, if you want to start living the truth that you know, you have to start feeling said truth. And how exactly do you start feeling the truth in such a way that you can eventually become congruent and start living the truth through your actions? By conquering your old negative emotional triggers and creating and using new positive emotional triggers.

How do you conquer your old negative emotional triggers? By identifying them, then either confronting them head on to resolve them, learning to make peace with them, or finding a way to avoid them altogether.How you do this is up to you. Everyone has a different path that suits them, be it meditation, religion, therapy, packing up and moving to a new city, cutting off toxic friends and family, having a heart to heart with the people perpetuating bad patterns in your life so that you can gain closure, changing jobs, etc.

How do you build new positive emotional triggers? Remember, positive emotional triggers are stimuli that recall positive emotional memories. The reason so few people have so few positive emotional triggers is because they’ve accumulated so few recent positive emotional memories to be reminded of. While all their negative emotional memories are fresh and raw, most of their positive emotional memories are distant and stale. If your biggest positive emotional trigger is something like your high school yearbook from 20 years ago, that’s a problem. If you want to start emotionally grasping and feeling the truth that you already know but can’t seem to put into concrete physical action, then start with small goals related to that truth and build up small successes related to that truth, so that you can start emotionally feeling that truth in a positive way.

For example, the weight loss goal, rather than focus on the fact you still aren’t 100% junk food free and still haven’t lost any weight, instead look for small positive goals. Like, if you can pass up one piece of junk food a day, feel good about that victory. Then build on it. Add a second small victory. Allow yourself to feel good about that. When you lose a pound, then 5 lbs, allow yourself to enjoy those victories. Walk for five minutes. Then learn to walk for 10 mins. Graduate to 15 mins. Rather than fixating on the big victory you’ve yet to achieve overnight,focus on these little victories to give you momentum. Each of these little milestones becomes a positive emotional memory, and anything that you can associate with and use to remind you of these  positive emotional memories (your exercise playlist, your exercise partners, your favorite healthy dish, your new shopping spree for smaller clothes) in turn becomes a positive emotional trigger. The more positive emotional moments and triggers you accumulate that reinforce the truth you already grasp intellectually (in this case, the truth that eating healthy improves one’s life), the easier is becomes to then reach the final step of living that truth. This approach of positively focusing on accumulating small victories rather than negatively focusing on how far I have to go overall has helped me immensely in my novel-writing goal, whereas before my negative triggers and irrational fears kept me procrastinating and making excuses.  And as a result I’ve made the most progress toward living the truth of being a novelist than when I was trying to conquer my procrastination strictly through intellectual betterment (that is, reading book after book about the technical craft of writing).


Some last thoughts on the inadequacy of logical clarity and knowledge of the truth when it comes to self-improvement. Up until now I’ve been discussing how knowledge of the truth is not enough and that it’s only the beginning of the journey. Now I’m going to take it one step farther: not only is knowledge not enough on its own, sometimes it’s not even necessary for the journey at all. If you can skip the stage of knowing the truth altogether and go straight to feeling and living the truth, you often end up just fine.

This is something I recently realized from listening to and reading the Zen Buddhist teachings of Alan Watts. Watts gives an example of a neurosurgeon who understands the biomechanics involved in the process of opening and closing one’s hand to an insane level. He intellectually grasps the neurons and parts of the brain involved, the nerve endings and impulses that are sent to the muscles, how the muscle fibers and tendons and bones react to those messages from the brain and what messages the muscles in the hand send back to the brain…and so on and so on. Yet despite all this knowledge, is he any better at opening and closing his hand than you or me or a 15-year old high school kid? Does his superior knowledge of how and why the hand can open or close make him feel that ability to open and close his hand any more profoundly than most other people? Because we instinctively feel the truth of how our hand opens and closes on a very deep, primal level, we can physically execute the opening and closing of our hands with ease, despite the fact we intellectually grasp little of how it actually works.

Engineers have discovered and totally broken down the complicated physics behind a soccer kick down to the most minute details. They scientifically understand the mechanics of a good soccer kick on a level that the best soccer players on earth could never grasp. Does this knowledge make them any better at kicking a soccer ball than a soccer pro?

There are bodybuilders who follow all types of bad science and exercise technique in the gym. They have no idea what they’re doing, no scientific grasp of what’s involved in muscle building, and carry out ass backwards and counterproductive workout programs with horrible form on the individual exercises, many of which are pointless, but they feel emotionally motivated and strong to their cores and physically live the exercise lifestyle day in and day out for hours a day. And they get results. Meanwhile someone could know much more about putting together better exercise programs and the science of muscle building, but doesn’t emotionally feel the drive to go to the gym religiously or work out really hard while he’s there. Who gets better results in this scenario, the guys without the knowledge who feel and live the lifestyle regardless or the guy with impeccable knowledge?

Of course when something goes wrong in any of these categories (hand won’t open and close any more, an athlete is in a slump, the bodybuilder stops getting results) the person who grasps the truth intellectually is the person with the advantage and is the one more likely to figure out (1) what the problem is, (2) at which stage of the process the problem occurred, and (3) what adjustments to make to fix the problem. The person with the intellectual grasp is also better at using hindsight of past performances to fix future performance and is better at breaking down a process into smaller parts and using those parts to create a teachable system. This is why so many average players can become great coaches. The saying goes, “Those who can’t do, teach,” but instead it should say “Those who intellectually understand, teach, regardless of whether or not they can do.”

So not only is intellectual grasp the least important step, sometimes it’s not even essential at all. Which leads me to the mot important point I’ve been getting at during this series. A blog like mine, while it may make you feel smarter the more you read it, can only take you so far, and nowhere near as far as you think it does. Don’t get overconfident just because you’re accumulating a lot of truths. Because if you’re not constantly exploring ways to truly feel and live the truths you read here, you’re just intellectually masturbating. And this is advice I constantly have to remind myself of as well when writing this blog: how brilliant the writing is or isn’t doesn’t mean anything if I can’t feel these truths and properly live them when it truly counts.