Distinguish Thoughts From Feelings

Us Brits can get in a terrible tangle when it comes to our emotions (OK, we’re not alone, but we do rather stand out). We have this fabulous, enormous vocabulary and yet we often misuse it to hide our emotions from others – and ourselves. We can all benefit from noticing our feelings more. Emotions are satnav for the soul. Yet very often what we do – without even realising it – is muddle our thoughts and feelings. This can lead to mixed messages, misunderstandings, resentment and conflict. So how do you sort this stuff out?

Pay attention to your language. Notice what follows when you say “I think…” and “I feel…” Very often we will say, “I feel it’s unfair”, or, “I feel you aren’t listening”. Yet actually these are not words or phrases describing sensations, let alone emotions. Both the examples are really opinions, the viewpoint of the speaker – they are thoughts. We tangle this vocabulary so habitually we have no idea we’re doing it – nor that it is being done to us. Yet it’s much more than just a figure of speech. Making the distinction is vital to having the kind of conversations that build relationships (rather than blur them). For example, “I feel it’s unfair”, can be emotional blackmail, whether intentional or otherwise.

Clearly distinguish thoughts from feelings. Of course, the two are closely related: when we think of a wonderful experience, our emotions follow suit. When we laugh we tend to think complementary thoughts. When we dwell on bad times, our emotions will spiral down too. Whilst it’s important to understand the link between thoughts and feelings, it’s equally important to make the distinction – to ourselves and others – for the sake of authentic conversations.

Check in with your emotions, often. When you’re walking to work, queuing for coffee, catching up with colleagues, meeting friends in the evening – in other words, throughout the day – ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?” and notice the emotions you are experiencing.

Expand your emotional vocabulary. As you practise checking in with your emotions, you may notice the labels we apply to our feelings can seem incredibly simplistic at first. It’s simply a question of practice. ‘Happy’, ‘Sad’, ‘Angry’ are words that we start using at a very early age and they may be the words we keep using when we start checking in with our emotions. Over time, you will be able to develop an expanded vocabulary for your emotions, more accurately identifying them in all their variety.

Once you’ve developed your emotional satnav, you will then be able to move on to the next level, which is describing how you feel to others, even in tricky situations. But that’s for another blog post…

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