Two Reasons to Know the Difference Between Thoughts and Feelings

Have you ever told your friends how sad or worried you felt and they said, “It’ll be fine,” or “I’m sure it will all work out for the best.” That doesn’t help, does it? Those are platitudes. Those are things people say because they want to make you feel better, but your rational, intelligent mind knows that nobody knows how things are going to turn out. Those sayings ring hollow. Maybe you’re guilting yourself by saying, “I have no right to feel so badly when other people have it so much worse.” That doesn’t help either. One thing that can really make you feel better is to know the difference between thoughts and feelings. I’ll give you two reasons why:

1. Because thoughts tell us how to feel and behave.

In my favourite cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) workbook, Mind Over Mood, Greenberger and Padesky present a useful scenario of a man at a party. I’m going to borrow that scenario now to explain how thoughts tell us how to feel and behave. Let’spretend Andy is at the party talking to John whom he has just met. John is making no eye contact at all. He is looking anywhere but at Andy.

Andy thinks, “This guy is really rude. How disrespectful.” Now Andy feels angry and offended. He may even make an unfriendly comment and walk away from John.

What happens if Andy thinks, “John is so shy, he can’t even look at me.” Now Andy feels compassionate and maybe even protective. He might make more of an effort to engage John and try to set him at ease.

But what if Andy thinks, “I’m so boring, no one wants to talk to me. John can’t wait to escape me.” Now Andy disregards the efforts other people made to talk to him, he feels depressed and sad and he may even make up an excuse to leave the party and not attend another in future. The isolation that results may only confirm his idea that he is boring and unlikeable.

The reality is that we have no idea why John is not making eye contact. Maybe his date has not yet arrived and he’s looking for her. Maybe he has an irritable bowel and needs to always know where the bathroom is. Who knows? Only John.

By identifying the situation, thoughts and feelings you have when you feel badly, you can actually weigh the evidence. As you test out your thoughts, you might find you are feeling worse than you need to. We are not trying to put a positive rainbows-andunicorns spin on things here. That doesn’t work. We want to have clear, balanced thinking so that what is left is the shape of the real problem. And then we can problem solve.

2. Because thoughts are like ninjas.

Since thoughts are like ninjas, we seldom see them coming and are often unaware of their presence. Most of us remain unaware of the constant chatter of our minds and how these thoughts are making us feel. Thoughts can be very automatic and sneaky. They tell us things like, “This is going to be really bad and I’m not going to be able to handle it.” They tell us that the one small mistake we made means that everything we did was not good enough.

We all have triggering thoughts and most of us seldom notice them (this is the ninja thing), let alone examine them to see if they are completely, always, and exclusively true.

When we notice a situation where we feel strong emotion and we manage to identify and evaluate our thoughts, we can reach for more balanced thoughts that create more balanced (and usually better) feelings. This allows us to see the shape of the real problem and then we can address it with problem-solving approaches and with a sense of being in control of our own selves.

By addressing the ninja thoughts, you get a clearer picture of what the problem is and you are also likely to feel at least a little better immediately. You are likely not as bad as you think you are and your situation is likely more manageable than it seems at the moment. The story you are telling yourself, the one that is making you feel terrible, may not be 100% true all of the time.

It can be difficult to evaluate thoughts and feelings on our own, but you can learn how. Thought records are excellent tools used in CBT for this very purpose. Some of my clients like to learn how to engage in this process with me and together we sometimes fill out thought records. Most importantly, I really listen, seek to understand, and ask questions in a way that people can slow down and tune in to themselves. This experience of talking to someone who genuinely cares and is authentically curious often results in people who notice on their own how they have been caught by ninja thoughts. People are really incredible in that way. (And ninjas are really cool, too!)