We all have feelings—happiness, anxiety, stress, unhappiness—and we feel them every day to varying degrees. Regardless of your age, gender, race, sexuality, status, strength, class or education, you could also experience emotional difficulties—too much of these feelings. Personal problems do not discriminate. In the UK, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year. You are not alone in experiencing your difficulties—it’s not just you.
Why do we feel the way we feel?
Our feelings can be influenced by hormones, our chemistry, illness, side-effects of medication, stimulant and relaxant foods/drinks/drugs, but largely because of what we’re thinking.
Situations themselves are not emotional. It’s what we think—our interpretation or perception—about the situation and the meanings we draw from them which upset us. To understand that more, and for an introduction to the self-help approach of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) then check out my first blog post Think Better To Feel Better.
So, just what are feelings?
Feelings are the emotional reactions that we have and the physical symptoms that accompany them. Emotionally, there are four types of feelings; happy, sad, angry and scared. Every emotion—no matter how colourful our description—can be reduced down to these four. This can be helpful to remember as it makes recognising and communicating what we are feeling easier. Symptoms are the sensations and reactions of our body that help us know what emotion we’re feeling. These can often be unpleasant, especially with anxiety and stress attacks. A feeling is not an interpretation, an opinion, a guess, or an explanation—these are characteristic of thoughts.
What is the difference between thoughts and feelings?
A helpful guide for spotting the difference between thoughts and feelings is that if it takes more than one or two words to describe what’s being ‘felt’, then that feeling is most likely a thought.
‘I feel so useless.’ That’s not a feeling; it’s a thought. The thinker is judging themselves as useless. How would you feel if you thought you were useless? Probably unhappy, and that would be the feeling this thought would most likely create within us.
‘You made me feel like it’s my fault.’ That’s not a feeling; it’s an assumption by the thinker that they are being manipulated to believe that what has happened is due to their action or inaction. How would you feel if you thought this? I would guess unhappy, or angry—perhaps even worried that we could be responsible. Again, it would depend on the thoughts in context with the other thoughts we had in whatever the situation might be.
‘I feel so ugly/fat/scrawny/useless, I feel like no one wants me.’ Not a feeling. That’s a thought too. An opinion—a judgement and an assumption. The thinker would most likely feel sad or resentful in response.
The terms we use within our thoughts and the way we use them and communicate them can confuse things; we often say ‘I feel like…’ and then follow that with a thought, not an actual feeling. That’s not very helpful for recognising how we feel. It is helpful, however, for identifying what we’re thinking—and if we understand that we can challenge our thoughts to change how we feel for the better. If you’re finding it difficult to understand what emotion you’re feeling, then ask yourself: ‘Do I feel happy, sad, angry or scared?’
Why do I find feeling my feelings so difficult?
Because there are ideas and attitudes which permeate society like ‘big boys don’t cry’ and ‘good girls don’t get angry’ and ‘people with mental health problems are weak/weird/lazy/unstable/dangerous (take your pick!)’ which can make certain feelings difficult to experience or express through fear of what that means about us and our fear of what others will think of us.
Symptoms of feelings—nausea, sweating, shaking, crying, breathlessness—can also be unpleasant to experience due to what we fear those symptoms mean or will lead to (panic and stress attacks or serious health issues) and our fear that these symptoms will be recognised by others and we’ll be judged on them.
So, feelings are difficult because others make me feel bad about my feelings?
The limitations and shame that become obstacles for our feelings do tend to stem from the lessons we learn through relationships, family, culture, religion, media and even laws, but however and whatever we’re taught about feelings, even as kids, we ultimately decide for ourselves what lessons we accept and those which we reject. You feel because of what you are thinking, and your feelings are difficult because of what you are thinking. They’re our feelings, and we’re in a better position to address problem feelings if we own them.
Generally, we are responsible for our thoughts about our situations—and our thoughts about our feelings—and our resulting feelings about both, because we’ve maintained those thoughts ourselves. We are being affected by our thoughts and feelings because there are lessons and ideas which have stayed with us and we haven’t understood them, challenged or changed them. This might sound like self-blame or a pity party, but accepting that how we feel is down to how we think puts us in a position of power to change how we feel.
But, people do and say things that are hurtful though, they made me feel bad, right?
Yes. And no. Unless you’re an android or a Vulcan, if someone you care about intentionally does or says something hurtful to you, then you’ll react to that. Why? Because we value that person and we expect to be valued in return. We care what that person thinks about us. We assume motive for what has been said or done. That’s all thinking in play (in bold and italics), so while technically we’re reacting to our thoughts, the person who is being hurtful towards us is still at fault. CBT can’t change
assholes other people, but it can improve our defences against, and limit the damage from, how we process and deal with such situations.
However, what we’ll take offence at will depend on the individual and their value of that person’s opinion and the resilience of their self-esteem. We might be able to push the buttons of those closest to us because we know how to hurt them, but we don’t have mind control. As much as we might want, and as much as we can try, we can’t make people scared, rage, laugh or love us unless we know their values, and even then their response will depend on their resilience.
If we’re already vulnerable through low or high self-esteem, then we are likely to find more offence in others because their words actions, or our interpretation of them, will feed into our existing vulnerabilities. The example of ‘You made me feel like it’s my fault’ could well be accurate, but we need to be careful that we’re not reacting to our own assumptions over what the person actually said or did to us. Such opinion can just be a way of blaming others for how we feel, or manipulating others into feeling guilty.
How can I stop feeling like this?
Stopping feelings really shouldn’t be a goal for anyone. Feelings are our natural reaction to our perceptions and interpretations of our situations. Put feelings back in their place and in the situations where they’re appropriate to have them, and reduce the intensity of them, sure, but feelings are important to us because they’re often the first indicator that we have of something affecting us, so we need them. If you have a smoke detector that keeps bleeping when there isn’t a fire you change the battery—you don’t throw it out.
Within CBT, feelings are really important as we can often use them as an inroad into what’s up for us at a deeper level. Feelings are red flags to help us realise when our rights are being infringed, when our values are being affected, when things are wrong or right for us, and they can inspire and motivate us into taking action. Instead of asking how you can stop feeling what you’re feeling, ask: ‘Why am I feeling like this?’ You’ll find thoughts ripe for challenging in your answers.
The chances are that you came here looking for ways to feel better. Recognising what you feel, and accepting what you feel, and your responsibility for feeling your feelings through your thoughts is a great start. Feelings are not negative in themselves, but there are negative ways of dealing with them and acting upon them, which I will be exploring in my next blog post, ‘Don’t Avoid, DO!’. As our feelings are influenced by how we think, the target for our efforts to feel better should not be our feelings, but our thoughts, and as we progress through this blog series that’s exactly what I will be sharing with you. In the meantime, the best new thought you could work on accepting is that ‘It’s okay to feel my feelings’.
If you’ve found this blog post interesting, and would like to read more, this is a semi-regular series here, so check back for more self-help posts on specific topics and problems which you might relate to.
For more details about feelings, unpleasant symptoms, panic and stress attacks, and the health risks of feelings, or perhaps just to show your appreciation of these free posts, then head on over to the Amazon kindle store to buy a copy of my book. You can follow these links for the UK and US stores. Thanks for reading.
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