Feelings vs. Thoughts
By: Liz Parker, LCMFT

Feelings vs. thoughts. How do we tell the difference? One thing I noticed, even before I became a therapist, is that there is a growing trend of people using the phrase “I feel…” followed by thoughts, not feelings. I wondered why this trend seemed to be growing. I decided that perhaps using the phrase “I feel” seemed less declarative/intense and made one feel safer about sharing their thought/insight.

Now, in my work with couples, I find that I often hear similarly phrased statements in my therapy office. “I feel like you are wrong.” “I feel like you were being mean.” While these are important to process and work through in a therapeutic setting, I encourage you to pay attention to the use of “I feel” versus “I think” when talking to your partner. When you say “I feel…” be sure to follow it up with an emotion that you are experiencing, or that you were experiencing. If you need some help with labeling your emotions, you can use charts as references as you expand your emotional vocabulary (a quick internet search for “feelings chart” or “feelings wheel” will get you plenty of examples). Identifying the type of feeling (for example, happy, sad, angry, scared) is the first step. Then, continuing to explore beyond that to distinguish the feeling further, like “disappointed” or “inadequate,” helps to deepen your understanding. Next, notice thoughts that are coming up, and how these thoughts are affecting your understanding of the situation. Pay attention to thoughts that explain your partner’s behavior (for example, “my partner did not follow through on the task I asked him/her to do because he/she does not care about me.”). When sharing these thoughts with a partner, remember to be considerate of your partner and avoid criticizing and attacking comments, focusing on sharing your own thoughts and feelings. Also, be open to being wrong about your understanding of your partner’s behavior and reframing your understanding of the situation with information that your partner provides to you.

This introspection requires that you check in with yourself, notice your feelings and thoughts (and notice the difference between your feelings and thoughts), and label them accordingly. As you label your feelings, you can ask yourself questions like,

  • Does this feeling remind me of an experience I’ve had before? Is it possible that this reaction is a combination of what is happening now, and some other experience?”

  • How can I share this feeling with my partner respectfully?”

  • What do I need from my partner in this moment? For myself?”

Making connections to previous experiences can help us to understand why certain circumstances or emotions can be more triggering for us than others, which helps to separate the present moment from those previous experiences. Identifying what you need from your partner, and more importantly, from yourself, can help to lessen the feeling of being out of control and at the mercy of our feelings.

In summary, when you notice yourself reacting to a situation,

  • Stop, check in with yourself, and look to identify the feelings you are experiencing. A good tip to keep in mind is that if your statement begins with “I feel THAT…,” or “I feel LIKE…,” it is more likely a thought than a feeling.

  • Identify thoughts you are having, and pay attention to whether the thoughts are based on your own assumptions or facts.

  • Explore how your thoughts and feelings may be related to previous experiences.

I know this is a tall order, especially when feelings can overwhelm us and cloud our judgment. If you find that you feel overwhelmed, take notice of this, and if necessary, give yourself time to calm down before approaching a conversation with your partner. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself as you engage in this process, and know that as you continue to practice, noticing, sharing, and managing your feelings gets easier. So, start 2019 off with practicing a new skill. Even though it may FEEL daunting, I THINK that you are up to the challenge!

Posted on January 6, 2019 at 8:49 am

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