“So, how does that make you feel?” This simple question routinely asked by most therapists makes the majority of people cringe. This is because most of us are conditioned to override our feelings and go straight to our thoughts. It’s uncomfortable to talk about feelings because it means being vulnerable, which most of us tend to avoid. This is especially true if we have grown up in families where feelings were not discussed. However, thoughts and feelings are two very different things and it is important to understand the distinction between the two.
What is the difference between a thought and a feeling? A thought is an opinion or idea that is produced by thinking. As I type the words on this page, I am thinking about how I want to construct these sentences. A feeling is an emotion, a reaction or our emotional state. As I type the words on this page, I am feeling productive.
In order to have a balanced state, I must recognize the significance of both my thoughts and my feelings. When I want to strengthen my arm, I must exercise both my tricep and my bicep in order to prevent one from becoming overdeveloped, the other underdeveloped. The same is true if I only tune into my thoughts and I ignore my feelings. I must recognize the role of my feelings in addition to my thoughts.
If I primarily operate from my thoughts, opinions and ideas, I become detached from myself and from others. Like most, I have a tendency to start believing my thoughts are facts! The more I adhere to this, the more rigid I become in my thinking, leaving little to no room to explore alternatives, including my feelings. This is a common defense mechanism when something is too painful or when I feel helpless and don’t know what to do in a given situation. I intellectualize the problem so that I don’t have to move through the hurt, fear or uncertainty. (Over time, if I were to become too removed from my feelings, it could create psychological dysfunction, which actually can sometimes lead to a mental health disorder).
If my loved one comes to me in crisis and I rely too heavily on logic rather than listening and acknowledging their feelings, I may respond intellectually to the problem, giving them my opinion or my advice regarding what they need to do differently. This does not go over too well! It makes my loved one feel unheard and criticized, causing an emotional disconnection between us. When I do the same thing to myself, internally intellectualizing my own process, I am not creating a safe place for my feelings to emerge.
So, what do I do to break away from this normal, but destructive habit? I’ve found that it is helpful to slow down and observe whether what I am experiencing is a thought or a feeling. If I find that I am mostly in my head– overanalyzing, looping, and formulating opinions about things, I try to become aware of this pattern. Once I see it happening, I can take the next step and check in with my feelings. What emotions am I having in response to the situation? Am I feeling happy, sad, fearful, excited or overwhelmed? I try to acknowledge these reactions without judging or criticizing myself for having them (easier said than done, but nonetheless, still possible). Simply validating my feelings about something makes me feel better and gives me more insight. Typically things resolve on their own or I find a solution to the problem, without making myself miserable in the process. The more accustomed I become to this practice, the more patient and understanding I am with myself and in turn, with those around me.