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  • Writer's pictureJodi Sheffield LPC

Thoughts on Thoughts & Feelings on Feelings


It is vital for clients to have a firm understanding of how to define, identify and cope with painful thoughts and feelings in order to effectively express them in their relationships. One of my goals as a therapist is to assist clients in mindfully noticing the connection between thoughts, feelings and actions in the context of their relationship with themselves as well as with others. This association is significant to the relational work I do with individuals and couples alike. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) techniques, I collaborate with clients to unravel the web of intertwined thoughts and feelings.


I like to describe thoughts as internal interpretations of our external reality. In her article What are thoughts & emotions?, Dr. Karen Lawson defines thoughts as “our ideas, opinions, and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. They include the perspectives we bring to any situation or experience that color our point of view (for better, worse, or neutral).” This definition paints a picture of the power one’s thoughts can have on our lived experience. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the power of thoughts cannot be emphasized enough. CBT suggests that “how we interpret or think about a situation determines how we feel about it, which then determines how we'll react” (TherapistAid, 2016). This means that if we change our interpretation of an event then we change how we feel and behave in response to the event. 


A real-life example may help to pull this information together. Let’s say your friend Sally asked you to meet at Whataburger for a breakfast date this upcoming Saturday. Saturday comes and you are standing in the line at Whataburger ready to order your Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit (HBCB). As you move forward in the line, you receive a text from your friend that states, “Hey. I won’t be able to make it to Whataburger. I need to reschedule. Sorry!” Your immediate thought is “This was a pity invite. Sally never wanted to hang out with me.” The feelings of hurt and rejection follow, which leads you to respond to her text passive aggressively with “It’s ok. I know I am not a priority. It’s my fault for expecting too much” and to leave Whataburger without getting an HBCB for the ride home. Now, let’s say you thought differently about Sally’s late cancellation. Instead, your first thought is “Bummer, I really miss Sally. She must not be feeling well or something urgent came up. We will need to get together sometime soon.” The feelings of concern and disappointment arise, which leads you to respond to her text assertively with “Hey. I totally understand. I hope everything is ok. Looking forward to seeing you sometime soon!” and to get your much anticipated HBCB. See the difference? It is how we interpret scenarios that leads to us feeling and behaving in certain ways. 


Did you know that, on average, 80% of a person’s daily thoughts are negative with our brain being predisposed to negativity to protect us from pain (Johnson, n.d.)? We need balanced thoughts in order to engage rationality and logic when situations require complex decision-making. When we have negative or irrational thoughts, we have options available to us to see situations through a different lens. 

So what does it look like to have a more balanced way of thinking?  Dr. Kirby Reutter (2023) describes balanced thinking as “learning how to bring our extreme thoughts and beliefs more to the middle. Balanced thinking means we learn to think about things from new and different perspectives—instead of thinking about things in only one way. Balanced thinking also means that we are flexible in how we think, that we can change our thinking if we learn new evidence, and that we can see things from someone else’s perspective.” Even with balanced thoughts, one must be cautious to not rely solely on thoughts to interpret situations and to make decisions. Our feelings are a valuable part of these processes as well. 

So now let’s take a look at the role of feelings and emotions on our mental wellbeing. Before tackling the question “what is a feeling?,” it is important to consider the distinction between feelings and emotions. Although these words are often used interchangeably, one’s emotions and feelings are not one in the same. In the article “What’s the difference between emotions, feelings and moods?”, Dr. Spencer expounds on the variance between feelings and emotions. 


Emotions, which originate as sensations in the body, are intense feelings (exhilaration, terror, despair) that last only seconds to minutes. They are controlled by chemicals our brains release in response to a trigger or event—basically our body's response to whatever is happening around us. The chemicals go throughout our body, forming a feedback loop between our body and brain, creating emotion. Emotions are always based on an external stimulus, and almost always come and subside quickly…While emotions start as sensations in the body, feelings are generated from our thoughts about those emotions. Or in other words, feelings are how we interpret emotions and let them sink in. Feelings can be diluted or distorted by the stories we've unconsciously created based on past events or experiences.” 


The meaning we apply to our emotional experiences directly impacts our ability to accept, validate, and embrace feelings about our emotions. We can change feelings by challenging thoughts associated with them and not avoiding emotions when they are painful or uncomfortable by engaging in mindfulness and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) practices, such as Opposite Action and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. (See links under Resources for more information).


So back to feelings…Feelings are the connective tissue that cultivates and sustains one’s relationships. Without understanding and creating space for our feelings, we may fall victim to what I call the Sherlock Holmes Effect, an approach to feelings that limits and prohibits access to emotions, due to the belief that feelings are unnecessary, unhelpful and harmful and are in direct opposition to engaging with logic and reason. Because of his relationship (or lack thereof) to his feelings, Mr. Holmes keeps himself at a metaphorical and literal distance from others, unable to meaningfully attach to anyone other than Dr. Watson, whose presence is consistently and persistently challenging his perspectives. Feelings also point to our values, and our relational needs, such as security, intimacy and respect. Participating in Emotionally Focused Therapy techniques, individuals and couples engage in experiential activities that identify relational needs that are overlooked or threatened and lead to distancing/avoidance behaviors and/or aggressive behaviors in their relationships. Values are what give meaning and purpose to our lives. Relational needs are the bedrock of relationships that help them to sustain and to protect the relationship when conflict, trauma, and pain arise. 


Though thoughts, feelings and emotions serve different functions, we need all of them to build what DBT calls a life worth living, a life where we live according to our values without avoiding the inevitable pain that is part of being human. A life worth living is cultivated through leaning into another DBT concept known as wise mind. Dr. Paul Green (2023) states that,


 “Wise mind is the state of mind when we are aware of our emotions as well as what facts and reason have to say. There is often a clarity to it…Wise mind is a useful concept in at least two important ways. For one, we can use it to make better decisions. If you make decisions in wise mind, your choices are more likely to reflect your own knowledge, insight, and values…Secondly, the concept of wise mind helps us determine which state of mind we’re in. There’s something extraordinarily valuable about that awareness. Knowing whether you’re in a wise mind can help you make choices that keep you happy and maintain the relationships you want to maintain.”


Wise mind bridges the gap between our emotional mind and reasonable mind to navigate life’s chaos and brokenness with stability, structure, and within the safety of intimately connected relationships. Without thoughts, we would be dictated by sudden urges and impulse like The Incredible Hulk. We would just do, we would just SMASH, without consideration of how our actions impact ourselves and others. Without feelings, we become disconnected from what it means to be human, to be in relationship with others. We would be helpless to protect ourselves safely in our environment without the quick reaction of emotions of anger and fear. We were created with complex minds that in the prefrontal cortex have the ability to calculate long division, to plan and organize an event, to execute a budget as well as in the limbic system to enjoy a delicious meal, to experience the love of friends and family and to appreciate the beauty of a sunrise or sunset. (See link under Resources for more information about Wise Mind). 


So how does all of this information apply to us inside and outside a counseling session? The answer is simple, yet often complex when implemented. When we live in a way that honors our emotions, feelings, and thoughts without prioritizing one over the other, we can avoid the inner conflict and unnecessary pain that often arises when we fight and avoid emotional and psychological pain. When a person  is able to engage in a wise mind, he or she is able to acknowledge the function of thoughts, feelings, and emotions and how they serve as part of our human experience. A person in wise mind is not threatened when thoughts, feelings and emotions do not appear to be in alignment, and, instead he or she can nonjudgmentally attend to the perceived tension without trying to fix it or become numb to it. He or she is able to build a life worth living through maintaining safe, secure relationships and to live according to his or her values and not at the expense of devaluing one’s reasoning and/or emotional lives. 


From a couple’s therapy perspective, engaging in wise mind allows each partner to identify their relational needs, raw spots and triggers in an assertive way without engaging in what Dr. John Gottman calls the four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling), the emotional and behavioral responses that lead to relational separation (Gottman, 2018). We can receive and provide feedback to our partner when we can link our emotions and feelings (subjective) to the observable action or event (objective) as well as validate our partner’s subjective experience without intellectualization (focusing on factual accuracy) or reactivity (emotional impulsivity). For example, when your wife does not do the dishes after being asked, you say, “You don’t care about me or this house. You never help out!.” When in a wise state of mind, you can say, “I feel hurt when I ask you to clean the dishes and you do not do them. I need help with cleaning the kitchen. When can you help me clean the dishes?” A wise mind allows for productive discussions between partners that gives weight to each partner’s emotions and states the facts. A wise mindset can help couples remain assertive when navigating problem solving. 


Ultimately, my primary goal as an individual and couple’s therapist is to facilitate a space where clients can explore, process and examine thoughts, feelings and emotions without judgment. I teach clients how to avoid avoidance of painful experiences, so that they are able to wholly and healthily heal from their pain. It is avoidance behavior that often leads clients to experience prolonged emotional, psychological and even physical pain that brings them to my office in the first place. If you are having trouble navigating negative thoughts and painful feelings and emotions on your own, we would be honored to walk alongside you in your healing journey! Reach out to us via email, phone or through our website, and we can get you scheduled for an intake appt. 




Resources



Citations

The difference between feelings and emotions: WFU online. WFU Online Counseling. (2020, July 13). https://counseling.online.wfu.edu/blog/difference-feelings-emotions/ 

Greene, Dr. P. (2023, December 22). What exactly is “Wise mind” in DBT? Manhattan Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. https://www.manhattancbt.com/wise-mind-dbt/ 

Johnson, C. (n.d.). Stuck on negative thinking. Care Counseling : Minneapolis Therapists. https://care-clinics.com/stuck-on-negative-thinking/#:~:text=For%20many%20of%20us%2C%20we,of%20our%20thoughts%20are%20repetitive

Lawson, K. (n.d.). What are thoughts & emotions?. Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing. https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/what-are-thoughts-emotions 

Restoring balance with thoughts. Dr. Kirby Reutter. (2023, March 20). https://www.drkirbyreutter.com/blog/restoring-balance-with-thoughts 

Spencer, M. (2022, June 7). How to tell the difference between moods, feelings, and emotions. Dakota Family Services Outpatient Family Care. https://dakotafamilyservices.org/resources/blog/archive/moods-feelings-emotions/#:~:text=While%20emotions%20start%20as%20sensations,both%20physical%20and%20emotional%20states

Therapist Aid. (2016, April 29). CBT psychoeducation: Article. Therapist Aid. https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-guide/cbt-psychoeducation/cbt/none 


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