A key component in finding happiness and health is identifying the difference between our feelings (emotions) and out thoughts (belief, expectations, viewpoints, memories, etc). Very often our thoughts and feelings have become intertwined in way that it is difficult to know where one begins and the other ends. Being able to tell the difference is critical however. As a therapist I work to help individual, couples, and families begin to identify the important roles and differences between thoughts and emotions.
Emotions are a powerful force in our everyday life. They often drive us toward or away from people, places, and situations long before our thinking self has had an opportunity to act. Emotions give us that strong sense of good or bad, right or wrong. They tell to be more involved, get closer, stay longer or to run away, attack, or get rid of something we have encountered. Yet if we were asked why we chose to do what we did we could be hard pressed to explain.
Feelings and emotions often defy verbal explanation or description. Feelings are of the moment and at their most powerful they can trap you. In our healthier moments we recognize that you may experience them and then they are gone.
Thoughts involve what we see, remember, understand, and believe. Typically thoughts can be verbalized and can be shared with others. We can describe the shapes, colors, and smells of a good meal as well as who we shared it with and where we were. I can outline specific and easily identifiable aspects of my experience through my thoughts. I can recreate the details of my experience based on my memories. Through the power of my imagination I can even create mental images of what might occur.
Thoughts are often systematic and we can follow our ideas, memories, and fantasies back their origin if we take time to reflect on our thoughts. We each develop a unique set of thoughts- based on our experiences and responses. They create a picture of the world and how we fit in it.
As therapist I often find that clients struggle with identifying the difference between their thoughts and feelings. When asked to describe their first thought in a difficult situation they will say “Well I was angry”. When encouraged to indentify the beliefs, memories, or fantasies which preceded their anger they can often identify past experiences, hopes, and beliefs that triggered their frustration and disappointment. These experiences of identifying what ‘lies behind’ feelings and emotions is a critical point in finding a greater sense of control in your life.
Emotions are powerful forces. They add color, excitement, and interest to our lives. Yet if we are not aware of where they come from or how they function they can quickly overwhelm us and sap our energy. Recognizing our thoughts and beliefs become an important framework in giving our lives stability and direction. Emotions will move in, through, and out of our lives. In the midst of our most intense emotional moments we can remember that emotions are ‘visitors’ and that the “I” that is at the center of our self is permanent. When we have this tool we can begin to find a peace that will carry us through even the most difficult and painful times.