A number of years ago, a counselor friend of mine introduced a simple and accessible concept that he regularly uses in his practice. He calls it “felt reality.”
Reality is reality. It’s objective. It’s what’s actually happening. Felt reality is what’s happening from my vantage point. It’s reality framed by my own thoughts, assumptions, and emotions.
Reality and felt reality aren’t the same. Sometimes they align — what I think and feel fits with what is actually happening. Other times, my felt reality is out of accord with reality. In such cases, I might be believing lies, or framing reality wrongly, or overreacting. My perspective might be distorted by my emotions or my sinful desires or my own limitations.
Once my friend gave me the category, I found it to be incredibly fruitful in my own life and marriage and parenting and ministry. It gave me a way to speak about human experiences of reality — whether mine or another’s — without necessarily validating those experiences. In other words, it enabled me to acknowledge that I think and feel a certain way, without affirming that such thoughts or emotions were necessarily true or right or good.
“Getting felt reality on the table can be the first step in seeking to steward and shepherd our thoughts and emotions.”
Getting felt reality on the table can be the first step in seeking to steward and shepherd our thoughts and emotions so that they more fully align with God’s.
‘Cut Off from Your Sight’
Even more than that, the concept (though not the term) seems present in the Scriptures. Consider the Psalms. In the middle of Psalm 31, David pleads with God to deliver him from his distress. In doing so, he vividly describes what it’s like to be in the pit:
- His eyes are wasted from grief. They’re heavy from crying; they feel like lead. He just wants to rest, but there is no rest (verse 9).
- His soul is wasted. His body is wasted. There is a weariness that reaches to every part of David’s existence (verse 9).
- His life is spent with sorrow and his years with sighing (verse 10). This is how it feels: “I’ve been here forever, and I’ll be here forever.”
- His strength fails (and he knows he partially deserves it because of his sin), and his bones just waste away (verse 10).
David’s powerful emotional and physical responses are influenced by his perception of reality, of what’s going on around him:
- His adversaries have made him a reproach to his neighbors. Everyone runs from him because they think his suffering is contagious (verse 11). “Don’t stand too close to David. Don’t let him breathe on you. You don’t want to catch what he’s got.”
- He’s forgotten like the dead. People remember the dead — for a little bit. Then they’re forgotten. That’s how David feels. Dead and useless, like a broken vessel (verse 12). “What good am I?”
- He hears the whispering of his enemies around him — terror on every side. The other shoe could drop at any minute. Every rock and tree is ominous. Every bit of news produces fear. The future is filled with the almost certain prospect of bad surprise (verse 13).
This is David’s felt reality, and he gives explicit voice to it in verse 22:
I had said in my alarm, “I am cut off from your sight.”
‘I Shall Never Be Moved’
But these aren’t the only feelings David has had. In the previous psalm, David describes different circumstances and therefore a different felt reality:
As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” (Psalm 30:6)
Notice the contrast. On the one hand: “In my alarm, I said, ‘I’m cut off.’” On the other hand: “In my prosperity, I said, ‘I’ll never be moved.’” In terms of content, these felt realities are exact opposites. But at another level, they display the power of felt reality in the exact same way.
Both circumstances of alarm and circumstances of prosperity led David to wrongfully exalt his felt reality. In Psalm 31, when he was alarmed, when all the walls were closing in, his felt reality was “It’s over. I’m done. God has abandoned me.” In Psalm 30, when he was living the high life, when he prospered and everything he touched turned to gold, his felt reality was “I’ve made it. I’m immovable and unshakable. God will never test me.”
These are two very different places, but they showcase the same confusion of felt reality and actual reality. In both cases, David was so overwhelmed by his felt reality that he made what he felt into what is. But it wasn’t. Felt reality is not the same as reality.
Facing Our Felt Reality
How then can we face our felt reality? Granting that our feelings and perceptions can be out of accord with what is truly the case, what can we do?
First, we can recognize the crucial connection between our felt reality and our self-talk. David didn’t just feel; he expressed his feelings in speech. And his words reinforced his felt reality.
Words are powerful. What we say shapes the way we view ourselves and our circumstances. Our feelings often reveal our unstated assumptions, our hidden beliefs, and the unrecognized stories by which we make sense of our lives. And then our words give voice to these feelings and reshape or reinforce — for good or ill — who we are and how we see ourselves.
Second, we see the importance of bringing our felt reality to God. David doesn’t muzzle his feelings; he lays them before the Lord in prayer. Whether or not his felt reality corresponds to actual reality, he eventually brings all of it before God, in hope that God will act and speak to him in his prosperity and in his pain.
So too with us. It does no good to hide our felt reality from God. He sees it already. Our task is to unveil before him, to take off the silly mask that we wear and be as honest as we can be in his presence. And the category of felt reality really helps us here. We can both be honest and humble. We can say, “I feel this way” while also saying, “But I don’t know if my feelings are right. Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and then lead me in the way everlasting.”
“We not only can bring our felt reality to God, but we can submit our felt reality to the truth of God.”
Finally, bringing these together, we not only can bring our felt reality to God, but we can submit our felt reality to the truth of God. Recall again the two examples of felt reality from Psalms 30 and 31. “In my alarm, I said, ‘I’m cut off.’” “In my prosperity, I said, ‘I’ll never be moved.’”
Hear David’s words in Psalm 31:14, right after he describes his felt reality: “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’” This is David submitting his felt reality to the truth of God. He brought his felt reality to God, and now he speaks to himself and reasserts the truth of who God is for him.
With God’s help, we can learn to do the same. We can learn to be honest with God, to ask him to bring our hidden assumptions and unseen narratives to light.
- In my alarm, I said, “I’m cut off from your sight.”
- In my prosperity, “I’ll never be moved.”
- In my grief, “God has forsaken me.”
- In my pride, “I’m thankful that I’m not like other men.”
- In my envy, “God doesn’t love me like he loves others.”
- In my suffering, “No one understands what I’m going through.”
- In my despair, “It will never end. It’s hopeless.”
These are the sorts of statements we make in the midst of our trials and our triumphs, out of our passions and our pain. Listen to them, and then bring those feelings and that speech to God, and learn to say something else.
- “I trust in you; you are my God. I’m not cut off.”
- “I’m not unshakable.”
- “You’ve not abandoned me.”
- “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
- “You do love me.”
- “You do understand.”
- “This trial will end. There is hope.”