‘I feel like’ doesn’t mean what you think it means

As an English major, I’ve always found it fascinating to watch the rise and fall of popular phrases in our everyday vocabulary.
Do you remember when “legit” was a thing? For that matter, does anyone remember when the question “Is that a thing?” became a thing?
Most phrases that worm their way into our meme-saturated culture are inane but humorous. Others are incredibly annoying but mostly harmless (“YOLO,” anyone?).
But there are certain phrases that insert themselves more insidiously into our speech and change the nuances of our language—phrases that, while they may be applicable in certain casual scenarios, have no place in our academic environment.
I’m thinking of one in particular: a seemingly innocent little linguistic chimera that has gotten out of control. You might think I’m crazy for suggesting this, but the phrase “I feel like” has got to go.
In your next conversation, pay attention to how many times you hear someone use the phrase “I feel like” to introduce a claim. Then compare it to how many times you hear it used in class—particularly if your class is seminar-based.
I can almost guarantee that the average in each situation will be pretty similar. In my own classes I’ve noticed that most of our comments—if not all—are prefaced with “I feel like.” And I can’t claim to be immune to the influence; several times I’ve literally had to stop the words from coming out of my mouth.
Somehow, we have made them a very natural part of conversation.
Which is unfortunate, because it’s kind of a stupid phrase. (Along with “kind of”. Count that one up in your next conversation, too. I dare you.)
When we preface what we say with the phrase “I feel like,” we are suddenly reducing our mental processes to something much more basic.
With this language, we say that the opinions we choose regarding religion, politics, human interaction and the way we view the world—all vitally important topics that deserve careful contemplation—are more like emotional whims than critically explored ideas.
And that is a big problem. Do we really want people making decisions based purely on feeling and impulse?
The underlying assumption of this seemingly innocent phrase is: Yes, we are perfectly fine with letting emotions trump reason. Whether we believe the sentiment or not, this is what the meaning of the phrase boils down to.
It’s also an apologetic way to introduce what we think. We know how fallible “feeling” is; that’s the point of logical thinking. But by introducing our thoughts as feelings, we hide behind that fallibility by default.
On the one hand, we can easily blame feelings we already know are illogical when someone challenges an argument we prefaced with “I feel like.”
On the other hand, we can assume that because our thoughts are feelings, they are placed beyond the realm of logic. As a culture we don’t often say to each other “Your feelings are wrong” for fear of stepping on toes.
Whenever an idea or argument is presented as a feeling, the unspoken assumption is “If what I’m saying is wrong, I can’t really help it; it’s just what I feel.”
We came to college to learn how to think. In a liberal arts education and in a science- and math-based education, we are taught to rely on logic and critical thinking.
The philosophers on whom our education is based argued for methodical, step-by-step processes by which we come to informed beliefs and decisions.
If they could hear us trampling all over that groundwork with our emphasis on “feelings,” they would probably be rolling in their graves.
Don’t get me wrong: it would be ridiculous to assume that this thought process runs through our heads every time we use the phrase “I feel like,” or that we consciously choose the words because we are trying to avoid having other people reproach or critique our ideas.
However, words carry with them nuances that affect the way we perceive them. Even if we mean “I think”—even if our entire class knows we mean “I think” when we say this in a Great Books discussion—the words “I feel” carry a very different nuance that our brains recognize, even if only subconsciously.
Let me also be clear that I don’t think that listening to one’s heart—one’s feelings—is always a bad thing.
Certain philosophers that I’ve quite agreed with have argued that some feelings are fundamental in human nature and help direct us toward truth.
Sometimes our sentiments have a better idea of what is going on in a situation—particularly a relational one—than our cluttered brains can comprehend.
However, when it comes to beliefs and especially when it comes to academics, a feeling just isn’t going to cut it in an argument.
If we truly regarded beliefs as ideas that sprang from our feelings and emotions, we would never challenge them and would never come to better understanding.
We would hinder our own growth. The heart and the mind aren’t mutually exclusive, and the best understanding is going to come from a marriage of the two.
I propose that we exorcise this linguistic from our vocabulary. At the very least, let us take responsibility for our mental processes.
Honestly, we are smarter than we think we are and should not try to hide our brains behind our emotions. As students of academia and of the world, we’re a lot better than that.


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