Emotions vs Feelings vs Thoughts: How do you tell the difference?
To continue from my last article, I want to shed more light on the difference between emotions, feelings, and thoughts. As such, what we would then be doing is to describe them individually and see how their definitions show us the contrasting differences between these concepts.
The easiest way to lead someone — a person who has largely experienced trauma — down a road of mental health issues is to continually tell them how rational a person they are. I know so because I have been this person, the person who many people have referred to as rational. I’m a feeling person almost more than I’m a thinking person. This is not to say that I’m not a thinking person. Instead I mean that I feel more than I think. And somehow because of the rational persona I’ve assumed, all I do is think — and then I’m thrown down the rabbit hole of overthinking — when sometimes (most times) what is required of me is to feel.
So you see, this is exactly why it is imperative to illustrate the differences between them. Because I’m always feeling, and I’ve never bothered to take note of the emotions I’m feeling, I start to conflate my emotions for my thoughts. How do I mean? I could be feeling sad and instead of paying attention and properly labelling the emotion, I begin to ascribe words that can best describe my emotions, creating scenarios in my head and forming stories. I might then end up thinking that something is wrong with me and that I’m weird. Then I get crushed by the feelings that follow.
One thing I didn’t know until recently is that there’s a stark difference between emotions and feelings.
Emotions are manifestations (in the conscious and unconscious mind) that alters your physical state. They are objectively measurable as emotions affect our blood flow, facial expressions, and body language. The most striking difference between emotions and feelings is that emotions are physical sensations that spawn from our genes and are instinctual while feelings occur after emotions show up and are how our bodies make meaning of the emotions through thinking.
So, really, emotions, feelings, and thoughts are interconnected. Even though they function differently. Emotions are a natural occurrence and cannot be questioned nor ignored. Feelings, however, stem from a person’s temperament and how they’ve responded to an emotion based on past experiences. Thoughts are the words and images that you associate with your emotions. The trifecta come together in situations and can be really overwhelming.
Let me put this in perspective. Imagine you worked in a company and your boss was really hostile to you. Every day you go to work, he makes sure to frustrate you, screams at you for every tiny mistake you make, and generally makes your life miserable. Naturally, you begin to fear him. Whenever you come to work and you see his car, your heart skips a bit, you start to sweat under your armpit, your hands start to shake. It’s not the car that’s making you feel these things, it is the feelings that are attached to how your boss treats you. In this situation, the primary emotion is fear(/anger). The feelings are what you (learned to) associate with your boss.
In this scenario, your thoughts give life to your feelings (and emotions) with words and images. How do they do that? You start to think about how your boss treats you, the cruel words he says, the way he looks at you when you do something he doesn’t approve of. You think that you’re the one who’s simply not good enough. This tends to lead to overthinking and your feelings then spiral out of control.
You don’t feel like a failure. Failure isn’t a feeling.
Somehow, your thoughts find a way to turn to beliefs and so when you feel an emotion in a situation, those thoughts show up in form of beliefs and in a scenario where your boss is maltreating you, you believe that you have no worth. Now, the biggest issue here is that instead of paying attention to the actual emotions and feelings, you instead pay attention to the thoughts. You fuel the thoughts by doing more thinking. You might even say that “I feel like I’m a failure.” But that’s not what you feel, it’s what you think. It was thinking that led you to that belief of being a failure. What you feel is sadness, insecurity, fear, anger. You don’t feel like a failure. Failure isn’t a feeling.
What is the major takeaway from this?
Emotions, feelings, and thoughts are not enemies in a feudal war, no. They are not to be pitted against one another like gladiators in a ring. Most often than not, they operate simultaneously. What you should be doing is to be mindful of them. To understand that emotions are physiological in nature, that feelings are how emotions are announced in our bodies, and that thoughts are the inner voice in our head that help us to make sense of our emotions. But thoughts are hardly ever accurate in their bid to make sense of your situation.
What should you then do?
Give more energy to your emotions. Label them and ensure that the labelling is not more than one word as emotions can only be sadness, anger, fear, disgust, despair, happiness, and more — all one word. When you label them, you understand them better. When you give emotions energy, you are much more connected to yourself. That helps you become more mindful so you begin to see the pattern of your thoughts. You can begin to get better control of your feelings when you are aware of your thoughts and pay them no attention.
Obviously, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. It would require a lot of work to give your emotions energy and not your thoughts. But the moment you begin to do that successfully, you’d notice changes in how your mind works and your feelings wouldn’t be so overwhelming.