While it often goes overlooked, the difference between our feelings and thoughts truly matters. Learning to separate the two can provide much-needed relief and allow us to lead happier lives.
We have thousands of thoughts that float through our heads each day. These thoughts are not always true to fact, nor are they always reflective of our wants and desires. Thoughts are simply a flowing of ideas, opinions, or beliefs (or something else even less significant). Because of this, it’s not uncommon for us to barely notice or pay attention to many of those thoughts.
I recently saw someone wearing a t-shirt from a race that I ran a few years ago. We crossed paths while I was out on a walk, and it caused me to think about the friends that ran with me that day, the training I did in preparation, as well as my overall experience of that day. This seemingly insignificant reminder triggered a thought pattern that was, largely, insignificant. Later during that same walk, I saw a piece of garbage on the ground and threw it away. Again, a thought was triggered (to simply pick up the trash and discard it). These thoughts did not carry any important meaning; rather, they just occurred. After noticing them, I continued on with my day feeling joyful and content.
What if these thoughts had instead been negative? For example, what if seeing that t-shirt from the race triggered a thought about how I’m a failure because I walked part of that race? What if the trash left behind prompted a thought about a time that I accidentally littered when a gust of wind carried a napkin away before I could grab it? These thoughts are still only thoughts, however, in this second case, I may be more inclined to continue on with my day feeling embarrassed, disappointed, shameful, and guilty.
Why is this?
In all situations, the thoughts I had did not change the reality of my current circumstances, nor did they change what occurred in the past. However, the type of thought I had did strongly influence my feelings. That’s because while they are separate, our thoughts and feelings are closely linked. The way we think about ourselves and the world around us does truly matter and greatly influences our perception and outlook.
How can we use this idea to our benefit?
Negative thinking can bring up feelings of failure, overwhelm, or helplessness. It is possible to gain greater control over how we feel by improving our ability to slow down and notice the thoughts floating through our minds. When we bring awareness to our thought patterns through mindfulness practice, we can begin to recognize them and their impact on us.
Once we start to recognize our thoughts, we can then decide how we respond to them. We can acknowledge a random thought and allow it to pass without assigning meaning or judgement. We can challenge negative self-talk with a more positive or neutral thought instead of accepting the negative thought as fact. We can learn to look at things outside of the black and white and consider other, more helpful, alternatives. The better we get at understanding this link between our thoughts and feelings, the greater control we maintain over our emotions.
There is a relief associated between learning to distinguish between thoughts and feelings - and externalizing them from who you are as a person. The next time you experience a thought pattern that triggers a negative emotion, remember that you are greater than any mind games you play on yourself.
Torie Cueto, LMFT
Licensed Therapist in California. Currently providing individual therapy services for adults.
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