Feelings, Thoughts, and Emotions

By | July 9, 2019

I’ve been considering the difference and interaction between feelings, emotions, and thoughts. At first I thought there may be a continuum between them rather than always being distinctly one as opposed to another. Now I’m thinking it may be more of a field between three points rather than a single line.

In my observation, we often don’t distinguish between these very well. For instance, I often say, “I feel like…” and then share a thought. And we typically use the words “feelings” and “emotions” interchangeably. However, let me trying to tease these apart.

Thoughts are an idea in our mind which we can often express verbally. We also may have impressions which may not be clear enough to express but I will still consider these thoughts. This latter kind is what I believe I’m trying to express when I say, “I feel like…”—I have an impression that an idea may be true but I am not yet convinced for certain.

This brings up another important point about thoughts: they don’t all carry the same amount of conviction. Some ideas we’re absolutely convinced of, others are things we think may be true but aren’t sure. Some are based on experience, others are abstract concepts we’ve been taught.

Now, on to feelings. I want to use feelings to describe those things we feel physically. If I stub my toe, I will feel pain in my toe. If I am hungry, I feel this in my stomach. I may feel tired or sleepy. These aren’t really ideas; they’re sensations. While feelings and emotions are often used interchangeably, I’m going to distinguish between them.

Emotions may be sensed in the body, but I don’t think are initially a physical phenomenon. Emotions are things like peace, gratitude, worry, and anger. These often do have related thoughts, yet we may also feel these against apparent reason meaning they’re not strictly ideas either. But they’re not simply physical sensations either, even though they effect how we feel physically.

Part of the trick is that there is a lot of interaction and influence between thoughts, feelings and emotions. So when I feel angry, I feel this in my body. But anger generally comes from the mind—there generally has to be some idea behind it I think. On the other hand, perhaps I wake up feeling grumpy for no particular reason. In this case, my body influences my mood (emotion) which is likely to influence my thinking.

In any case, the following idea occurred to me: Maybe feelings have to do with the nervous system whereas emotions have to do with the lower brain, while thoughts are located in the higher reasoning / rational part of the brain. This would correspond to how they’re all experienced a bit differently.

As mentioned, I believe all three of these influence each other. I started thinking about all of this from the angle of considering how they interact. I’ve heard some people talk about positive thinking and practices such as telling yourself positive messages. I think this can certainly be helpful, but I also don’t think it’s a cure all. I’ve held that our experiences shape what our lower brain (un/subconscious) believes to be true. This is where it’s possible to claim to believe one thing while acting as the opposite is true. If the effect of what we’re hypothesizing is negative emotions, then I’d say what the person needs is a new experience, not simply positive self talk. But on the other hand, I know that in some cases, positive self-talk lifts the emotions which may lead to better experiences. You can probably see the challenge here. It’s not necessarily easy to figure out how these interact or where to start if one of them is caught in an undesirable state.

photo credit: ccsdteacher via photopin cc

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