How to Differentiate Between Thoughts and Feelings

We humans are complex beings. We have brains that generate thoughts, a connected physiological system that creates emotions, and six or more senses that guide our knowing beyond the realm of thinking. And often, we get thoughts and feelings confused. When we do, it’s a recipe to make us unhappy.

I’ve found that learning to identify the difference between thoughts and emotions can help my emotional health as well as my relationships. Thoughts and feelings can contribute to mental distress, but in my experience, by learning to notice which of these is causing the distress—a thought or an emotion—I can significantly boost my inner peace.

We think pretty much nonstop

Directed thinking can be helpful at times. This is how we solve problems. When my sink is clogged, I think about what tools I have to clear it and which would be the best to use. Baking soda and vinegar? Green Gobbler? A snake? Then I select the tool and go to work.

However, the vast majority of our thoughts—something like 98%—are automatic, repetitive and involuntary. Thoughts just happen. All. The. Time.

Automatic thoughts caused me enormous pain, because I didn’t even realize I was thinking, so I wasn’t able to see that I was believing my thoughts. I just considered them facts. I am ugly. People don’t like me. Life sucks. Understandably, those thoughts that flew under the radar of awareness had a detrimental impact on my emotional well-being.

A quick introduction to Nonviolent Communication

NVC (Nonviolent Communication), developed by the late Marshall Rosenberg, is a communication framework based around identifying our needs and our feelings, as well as separating facts from interpretations.

It’s simple in theory but difficult (for me) in practice. Even after taking a course on it with Marshall Rosenberg himself, I often struggle to find the right words in real-time. However, when I’ve had the opportunity to step back and reflect on my thoughts, feelings and needs, and then communicate those to another person, the results have been nothing short of magical.

All of us have universal needs, and we’re constantly monitoring—consciously and subconsciously—whether those needs are being met. When our needs are met, we feel comfortable, content, peaceful. When our needs aren’t met, we experience discomfort, whether that shows up as anxiety, depression, rage or something else. I see this as upstream of neurotransmitter imbalances, a root cause, though it took me 20+ years to be willing to look at what that might be.

When someone else behaves in a way that doesn’t contribute to our well-being, instead of attacking them or pouting passive-aggressively (making them ‘wrong’ and ourselves ‘right’), we can talk to them using this framework—which does away with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ entirely. We can tell them which specific action didn’t meet our needs, how that action made us feel, and what actions from them would meet our needs (and in Rosenberg’s words, “contribute to our well-being”). The challenge most of us face is in discerning the difference between our feelings and our thoughts.

How thoughts give rise to feelings

More often than not, our subconscious thoughts give rise to emotions. We think about what we want, or how a situation “should” be—for example, if we believe the thought that a friend “should” have returned our text in a certain period of time.

Then—usually we’re not aware of this either—we start feeling annoyed or judging the friend (“That’s so rude!”). We might even begin having arguments with them in our mind (“Don’t you care about me?!!”) In turn, that creates unpleasant sensations in the body: clenched jaw, a knot in the stomach, muscles we don’t even realize we’re tensing.

Now we have a trifecta: Unhappy thoughts, unhappy feelings, unhappy body—without any evidence that our story (that this friend should have texted us back by now) is actually true.

This is an instance where we create our own suffering. The friend hasn’t texted back. That’s the only fact in evidence. Everything else is our mind’s creation. There are dozens, hundreds, of reasons why the friend might not have returned our text yet, and very few of those potentials are related to us.

What feelings are and aren’t

Do any of these sound familiar?

“I feel like you’re not trying.”
“I feel that you’re abandoning me.”
“I feel like I’ve seen that somewhere before.”

None of these are feelings. These statements are stories (interpretations) based on our thoughts. Full disclosure, I’m as guilty as anyone else of using “I feel…” when I should say, “I see…” “I sense…” “I believe…” I cringe whenever I hear these phrases come out of my mouth because I feel think I should know better.

I’ve seen this linguistic pattern evolve over the past 40 years. In the 1980s, as the popularity of psychotherapy grew, therapists taught us that when we speak our true feelings—emotions—nobody can argue with them. That’s true. If we’re feeling angry, nobody can tell us that we’re not feeling angry. 

But…

Thoughts are not feelings

Feelings are emotions. Happy, distraught, angry, astonished, embarrassed—those are examples of feelings. “I feel like you’re not trying” is not a feeling; it’s a story. The underlying feeling might be frustration, anger, sadness, or something else. As Rosenberg writes, “If it has the word ‘like’ or ‘that’ after it, it’s not a feeling.”

To circle back to inner peace, emotions help us see where our needs are being met and where they’re not. They can often guide us towards what steps we need to take to restore our well-being. The catch is that emotions only work as a guide when we’re listening to our true feelings, rather than believing, or trying to present, our thoughts in the language of feelings.

The key is to learn to observe

Until we learn to notice our thoughts and question them, automatic thoughts will give rise to feelings, positive or negative. And let’s be honest, those feelings are mostly negative, because our brains have evolved to be “Teflon for positive, Velcro for negative.”

Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach suggests a framing that has helped me many times: that feelings can be real but not true. In other words, the feelings of sadness are real; they exist in my body and I experience it physiologically. But the thoughts and stories I’m creating around that sadness aren’t necessarily true.

When I can observe my thoughts, I can detach from them, which takes away their power to create unpleasant feelings in me.

Similarly, when I can observe an emotion as something that is happening inside me (I feel angry), rather than the totality of my emotional state (I am angry), that creates space for the emotion to move through. We can notice the feelings of sadness without becoming swept up in being sad. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that’s significant in finding inner peace.

This is so much easier said than done. Our conditioned selves see thoughts are an anchor; they give us a perspective, something to hold onto. Yet I’ve found that grasping onto anything—a thought, a person, a situation—is a recipe for pain.

If we can identify our feelings—not always easy—then we can begin to look at which of our needs isn’t being met. In other words, we can begin to find the path back to inner peace.

I can’t fully do justice to this topic in a blog post, and I feel worry that I’ve skimmed over the essentials at too high a level. To learn more about NVC and the concepts in this post, I highly recommend Dr. Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. (That’s an affiliate link; if you buy it, Amazon will eventually send me, like, three cents.)

Image credit: Giorgio Trovato via Unsplash

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.

2 Comments

  1. sarah on July 22, 2022 at 7:51 am

    Thank you Sarah, that was such a perfect read for me right now. I so appreciate the insight you offer. You inspire me.

    • Sarah Chauncey on July 22, 2022 at 11:40 am

      Thank you, my friend. I think of you often and hope you’re doing well.

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