Saturday, June 28, 2008

How to tell the difference between thoughts and feelings

In my work as a psychotherapist, I’ve found that many people have trouble distinguishing between thoughts and feelings. For example, if I ask “What are you feeling?” they may reply, “I feel like I shouldn’t be so open with my partner anymore.” Even though this insight begins with the right word, it’s actually a judgment, rather than a feeling.
Here are a few pointers for telling the difference:
  • Feelings occur as a set of recognizable sensations in your body. When you’re angry, for example, you may feel tension in your shoulders and jaw and experience a rush of energy in the back of your head. When you’re sad, by contrast, you may feel a heaviness in your chest and heart and a congested feeling in your sinuses and throat. Through meditation, you can discover how to experience your feelings directly as sensations, separate from the thoughts and stories that perpetuate them.
  • Thoughts are the images, memories, beliefs, judgments, and reflections that float through your mind and often give rise to your feelings. If you follow the word feel with the word like, you’re probably voicing a thought or a belief, rather than a feeling. You can practice breaking strong feelings down into their component parts by asking: What are the thoughts and images in my mind that keep me feeling the way I do? And what am I actually experiencing in my body right now, aside from my thoughts?
Thoughts not only generate feelings, they often masquerade as feelings (so you won’t actually feel the ones you have), attempt to talk you out of your feelings, judge your feelings, or suppress them entirely. The more you can disentangle your thoughts and feelings, the more clearly and consciously you can relate with (and express) your inner experience.

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