On our podcast ‘Tales That Tethr’, tethr Founder & CEO Matt Zerker interviews entrepreneurs, experts, thought leaders, and regular people about what is means to be a man, the challenges that modern men face, and how to overcome challenges and live life in a more connected and authentic way.
I will never forget the first time my mentor asked me how I was feeling. I answered that “I feel like I am not good enough.” She quickly responded, "that is a thought, not a feeling."
BOOM. I suddenly realized that most of my feelings, in the aftermath of losing my brother to cancer, finding my father after his suicide, and surviving a fatal car accident, were actually thoughts. Even worse, many of them stemmed from limited beliefs about self-worth, love, money, and a victimized worldview.
Learning the difference between thoughts and feelings is the greatest gift I have ever received.
So what is the difference between thoughts and feelings?
An emotion is a physical state as a result of stimuli. A feeling is your experience of the emotion and its context. A thought is all the words you use to describe it. Our thoughts often skip labeling the emotion. We say "I feel like I’m not enough," but really, we are experiencing the emotions of fear and sadness. We then tell ourselves a story about those emotions and what they mean in our life — thoughts about feelings from emotions. Yikes.
We’ve all reached the end of a hard day and said to ourselves or someone else, “I feel like I am not good enough.” I’ve learned to pause at the end of sentences like that. In that pause, I decide if what I just shared was a thought or a true feeling.
If it was a thought that I tried to pass off as a feeling, I challenge myself to express what I am actually feeling.
From this I've learned:
- Checking-in more often on how I am feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally. The trick here is to only use one word to describe each. The more words I use, the more likely what I am saying is a thought not a feeling.
- I sometimes tried to use language to "trojan horse" thoughts into my feelings check-ins.
"I feel as though..."
"I feel that..."
"I feel if..."
"I feel like I am"
- Checking in with thoughts always leads to more thinking. It becomes very tiring. When I started focusing on feelings, I felt a sense of connection to myself because I was seeking acknowledgment from within versus external sources.
- Feelings are present. Thoughts are generally unwanted and complicated gifts from the past or too far into the future.
- Be patient and be your own translator. It will serve you. If you find yourself feeling a thought, translate it right away: "I feel like I’m not good enough” translates to "I feel sad, lonely, insecure and my chest is tight.”
Use experience and senses to guide you to feelings and emotions:
- "I feel like a failure" is a thought. Failure is not something we can actually feel. The feeling might be "I feel nervous and afraid."
- "I feel like I'll never be happy" might really mean, "I feel overwhelmed and sad."
- "I feel like a loser" --> "I feel insecure and lonely."
And this doesn't only apply to negative thoughts and feelings. It's important to name and understand our positive emotions as well:
- "I feel like someone people look up to" is not actually a feeling. The feeling behind that thought might be, "I feel joy and peace."
Below I’ve asked four experts to explain the difference and connection between thoughts and feelings:
Sam Morris, Zen Warrior Coach: “I see thoughts and feelings as existing on a continuum. Feelings show up as physical sensations in the body. Thoughts then tend to follow immediately to respond or react to the feelings. Those thoughts may or may not accurately interpret the feelings. Cultivating mindfulness is essential, because otherwise people will tend towards misinterpreting their feelings with old patterns of thinking that are not in service to themselves in the present moment."
Jason Shiers, Advanced Certified Transformative Coach: “Thoughts appear in the form of our own voice, in our head, as words..they can be completely random, and are transient, they come and go, yet people often think they have meaning... The longer people dwell on them, the more energy they gather, the more bodily sensation we experience (feelings). All feelings are experienced as a sensation of the body in our awareness, those sensations are given names, like sadness, anger, excitement, shame and guilt."
"I recommend you choose your thoughts much more carefully than you choose what you are going to wear as they have so much more impact.”
Debbie Rivers, Dating and Relationship Expert: “It’s easy to believe that your thoughts, feelings and beliefs are facts! Yet really, they are generalizations your mind has come up with based on your previous experiences. When we have experienced something 3 times, our brain will see this as fact, yet it is only a generalization. When you choose a different thought, it will lead to different feelings and different beliefs and ultimately different actions! You can choose your thoughts! Many people don’t even realize that is possible. I recommend you choose your thoughts much more carefully than you choose what you are going to wear as they have so much more impact.”
Ryan Cole, Clinical Psychologist at Brain and Body Integration: "There is a separation between the experience of thoughts and emotions. Thoughts are typically our verbal inner voice. Emotions tend to be rooted in physiological reactions to your self, others, and the world. In other words, if you feel sad, then your brain and body are interacting with each other to produce that emotion. The same goes with the other emotions. An important fact to remember is that thoughts and emotions can be treated together, especially once you realize that thoughts and emotions occur within the brain and body and working on one tends to help the other."