Thought or Feeling?
Tools for developing self-awareness are unfortunately not being taught in most schools, and thus many of us struggle through life entrenched in unexamined feelings and thoughts.
When things are going well for us, we see no need to examine the source of our well-being, because life is in flow and fortune appears to be kind to us. When things are not going well, we often accept our feelings as an inevitable consequence of outside events: our unreliable spouse, our bad tempered boss, or our misbehaving children. The one thing we did not learn to consider as the cause of our feelings is our thinking. But think of it (pun intended): our mood can shift in the split of a second, the moment a new thought enters our mind. We have the ability to go from tears to ecstatic laughter in a split second because of a thought.
Imagine this situation: Your boss says something to you and you don’t quite catch it, but you think you heard her say something dismissive or even critical about you. The moment you think this thought, you have a feeling — it might be fear (a sinking feeling in your stomach) or it might be anger. You then decide to double check if what you think you heard her say was really what she said. To your relief, you find out that you had only misunderstood her. Your feeling changes again, you begin to relax. In the outside world, nothing has changed. In the inside world, everything has changed.
What complicates our expression of feelings is that often, when we attempt to describe how we feel, it is actually a thought. Here are some examples of thoughts mistaken for feelings:
- I feel you don’t trust me.
- I don’t feel understood.
- I don’t feel heard.
- I feel judged.
- I feel let down.
- I don’t feel appreciated by you.
- I don’t feel safe.
Just because we pre-empt a statement with ‘I feel…’ doesn’t make it a feeling.
The psychologist and emotion researcher Paul Ekman discovered that there are actually less than twenty basic emotions:
- Pride (in achievement)
- Sensory Pleasure
While we have many more nuanced words and phrases for different affective states, they are all derived from the same emotional building blocks: Frustration has an element of anger, feeling down is a form of sadness. If we use the above list as a starting point for describing what is real for us emotionally, we create more clarity in our communication and make it easier for another person (and often for ourselves) to understand how we truly feel.
Since the majority of our thought is subconscious (just below the threshold of where we are fully aware of it), it often seems as if our feelings come out of nowhere, as if they are a direct and inevitable consequence of the external reality we are confronted with. We will explore the connections between thought, feelings, and reality on a much deeper level in the chapters to come. For the time being, consider the possibility that our feelings are not caused by events outside of us, but instead are the result of what happens inside of us.
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