THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS:
WHAT ARE THEY AND HOW DO THEY DIFFER?
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
WHAT THEY ARE AND HOW THEY DIFFER
Thoughts convey to the listener what we are thinking. Sometimes these are referred to as cognitions. Thoughts and beliefs (another form of thought) usually precede our emotional or feeling state(s). The combination of thought and feeling states eventually have a hand in how we behave. Bottom line is this: it’s all data—feeling or emotional data, and thinking, cognitive or intellectual data.
Feelings convey to the listener our emotional and/or physical states. That means there are basically two types of feelings: emotional and physical. I find it easier to distinguish between the two types of feeling states by referring to emotions as “feelings,” and physical feelings as “sensations.”
EMOTIONAL: “I feel happy.” (feeling state)
PHYSICAL: “I feel cold.” ( physical sensation state)
Generally, thoughts precede what we feel. Thoughts, or beliefs (which are also thoughts) may be conscious or unconscious. Some of our core beliefs may be buried deep below the surface of our awareness. That means it is possible we are unaware of the thought or underlying belief that might be fueling a particular feeling.
For example, on the surface we perceive ourselves as competent. However, if we had a hyper-critical parent when we were growing up, who frequently put us down, another part of us (out of our conscious awareness) may question our competence. Then, at unpredictable times we may feel fear if we think our competence is being doubted by others (bosses, etc,) and our behavior might be affected, and we won’t know why.
In order to be fully understood when discussing a conflict, especially when talking to our partners, spouses, etc., the listener needs to know the speakers thoughts and feelings. Therefore, feelings and thoughts need to be expressed in different ways.
IT’S ALL DATA–WHY THAT MATTERS
This all matters for one simple, but powerful reason: Thoughts and feeling are two different types of data. More data and accurate data sent to your partner gives you the best shot at being understood, appreciated and cherished. That’s a pretty good payoff, I’d say!
WHAT THIS DATA LOOKS LIKE
The difference between the two is as follows:
EXPRESSING A FEELING: “I feel (or “I am”)____________________.” (fill in the blank with a feeling word below:)
ANGRY, MAD, IRRITATED
EXPRESSING A THOUGHT (UNWITTINGLY) DISGUISED AS A FEELING: “I feel like you always (fill in the blank.)”
SAME SENTENCE AS A FEELING: “I feel scared when you raise your voice.
EXPRESSING A THOUGHT: “It is my perception you yell more often than not when you get angry.”
When you start your sentence by saying, “I feel LIKE or THAT (fill in the blank) you are probably not expressing a feeling. This does not provide the listener an accurate account of your emotional state. Next time, take out the word “like” or “that,” and fill in the blank with a feeling word.
It may seem like I’m splitting hairs by drawing these distinctions, and perhaps I am.
I know, too, that each couple often has developed their own language, so to speak, that they use when they deal with a conflict. If yours works, don’t change it! But if you are bumping in to some difficulties, use this as a guide where you see that you may be confusing feelings with thoughts. You will reap the rewards.
Differentiating between thoughts and feelings will give you a better chance of being understood.
Wishing you a satisfying relationship,
Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT
© Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT, 2005, 1225 Crane Street, Suite 108, Menlo Park, CA 94025 650-321-0860