I Feel That … I am Really Thinking…

The title pretty much gives it away, if you get what I am talking about. You know, all those times when someone says “I feel” and then describes what they are thinking, not what they are actually feeling. When they use an expression along the lines of  “I feel that the world is full of silly people.”  This is an opinion, which is a thought, not a feeling. Feelings include fear, anger, sadness, etc. Hardly a day goes by that I do not hear someone say “I feel” when they are describing their thoughts and opinions.

Hair-splitting? Perhaps… and perhaps not. You see, in my world, thoughts and feelings are really not the same thing, even though they often arrive together on the scene. It is normal that we feel a feeling/emotion (I’ll use both terms interchangeably here, for the sake of convenience), and have a thought or two about it at the same time. And vice versa – we can have a thought and then a feeling arises. Thoughts and feelings are usually linked together, so we tend to have them pretty much simultaneously in our inner world. And, as I’ll explain in a bit, being aware of the difference between thoughts and feelings can be quite important to our happiness.

Think, think, think

The interesting thing these days is that in most situations we are discouraged from feeling and encouraged to think instead. One of the earliest examples of this was when IBM put up “THINK”  signs in their offices starting in the 1930s. The intent was good – IBM wanted people to act consciously, not just go charging ahead without a thought for outcomes. This is a wise approach, and it certainly worked well for IBM for years.

The psychoanalytical community has contributed to this thinking bias as well, successfully convincing many of us that we need to think about everything, analyze it ad infinitum and if we happen to notice that we are having a feeling, that we should think about that feeling, determine why we feel that way, and think real hard about when was the first time we felt it, and finally, analyze it all, in the hope that we’ll discover some way to better manage whatever is bothering us. One of the ways this thought bias works against us in this particular realm is in suicide prevention, where a lot of attention is placed on suicidal thoughts and little on suicidal feelings. There is a big and potentially fatal difference between thinking about suicide and having the desire (feeling) to act upon those thoughts.

TV and films are full of examples of people going to see counselors as soon as they have some issue, and counseling/talk therapy has become a standard remedy prescribed by almost every advice “guru” out there. What is funny and sad at the same time is that while people are constantly pointed at talk therapy as the solution to their issues, rarely is there a pause for reflection on what is actually the appropriate course of action for the situation. Alternatives to going to see a talk therapist are rarely contemplated, so well has the campaign to instill the belief that talk therapy/counseling is the best approach succeeded. Be aware that I am not trashing talk therapy here, but merely pointing out that people often jump on that bus without actually giving it much…err… thought.

In addition, those who use their minds as their primary means of relating to the world, otherwise known as intellectuals, are revered in modern society. If you do not have a PhD, then you’d better be a rock star or TV/film celebrity if you intend to write a book and expect it to succeed or want to comment publicly on anything and be taken seriously. Yes, those prized letters after your name give you instant credibility, regardless of what your actual knowledge on a subject might be. Those who work in specialized fields such as anti-virus/anti-malware research bristle when the general computer security PhDs start to talk about the subject, as the generalists often get malware protection wrong, and assume that their academic degree was sufficient to allow them to draw conclusions about something they had not actually studied in depth.

In a somewhat related example, until recently many couple therapists in America could earn their doctorates without actually working with couples for more than a few hours. Their courses focused on theory and research, not working with live people. PhD or Masters in hand, they could pen works that talked about the theory of couples, relationships, personal growth, etc., and have the entire work based upon theoretical knowledge. Given how humans are a tad complex, it may make more sense to actually interact with them before writing something purporting to contain some valuable insight. When these ivory tower therapists started seeing clients, they often had to learn the hard way how to properly deal with a real human sitting in front of them, feeling upset over their relationship. I wonder if the clients got a discounted rate while the real world learning was taking place…

But I digress in my thinking about thinking.

I’m sure that if you take a moment, you’ll find plenty of examples in your life where you are encouraged to think about things, not have feelings about them. Thoughts are nice and neat, and feelings are messy and often out of control or overwhelming. At least, that is what we are told. Obviously, I’m not against thinking. I used it to prepare and write this. In fact, I use thinking all the time, regardless of what some people might say… 🙂

But, there is a need both for thinking and for feeling, at the the appropriate time. Living in our thoughts constantly is no better than living constantly in our feelings. Each can inform the other and we can achieve a level of balance when we pay attention to all aspects of ourselves. We’re not our thoughts and we’re not our feelings, even though they happen to us in such a way that we could be easily led to believe that they are.

Why do they say I feel when they mean I think?

In pondering why people might so often use the expression “I feel” when really they mean “I think”, I concluded that this is because there is a pent-up desire to express their feelings, and so it is a sort of warped Freudian slip. They really do want to express their feelings, but society has us managing them, or regulating them, or suppressing feelings to such an extent that when they do pop out, it is with a large POP. In the meantime, there is a tension just beneath the surface that creates situations in which someone wants to express a feeling, but knows that thoughts are more acceptable, and we get mixed up expressions. Of course, hearing others use incorrect expressions all the time trains us to use them as well, part of our mechanism to fit it. Using the expression “I feel” to express thoughts is a way to stay safe in the tribe and yet still suggest that one has feelings, albeit ones that are well managed to the point that they are hardly distinguishable from thoughts.

Why do we need to be more precise?

When people are encouraged to think instead of  feel or not express their feelings, there is a danger that those feelings will come out in some other way that is destructive. Men, who are constantly constrained in terms of feeling expression, suffer more heart attacks and die years younger than women, who are given a little more lea-way in terms of expressing feeling. This lea-way is not so great however, as no woman wants to be seen as hysterical, and so they too stuff down a lot of their feelings.

Allowing feelings to arise naturally and flow through and out is one of the key aspects of having a healthy relationship with them. Releasing old feelings which were stored inside is a necessary part of achieving a balance between healthy emotional expression and over-the-top emotional reactions. When one releases the stored feelings, the new ones that arise are not burdened with the excess charge of the past combined with the present response.

Becoming aware of this little mind game we play with ourselves is important, as it allows us to be more present in the moment and more congruent with our thoughts, feelings and actions.

The next time you say “I feel”, finish that sentence with a mention of a  feeling, not a thought or opinion.

Copyright 2010 Robert S. Vibert, all rights reserved

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