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What You Probably Don’t Know About Emotions

Written By: Kristin Backstrom, PhD

I always ask my clients if they can describe the difference between thoughts and feelings, and it’s pretty rare that anyone successfully does. We talk about our feelings frequently . . . imagine being in a meeting and hearing “I feel like we should try this”, or “I feel this is something we should send to Joe next.” This isn’t quite the right use of the word ‘feel’ and it signifies the challenge so many of us have in understanding our thoughts and feelings.

Before you read on, maybe take a minute and see what you come up with for your own definition of thoughts and feelings.

We all experience feelings (whether we know we do or not), and of course, we all have thoughts. And understanding the difference is a great access point to building self-mastery that will greatly improve not just your work life, but your whole life.

Let’s start with what they are, and what they are not.

Thoughts are ideas, beliefs, concepts, and memories; they show up as words or images in our brains.

Feelings are sensations in our body. Feelings might be something like tight, hot, cold, tingly, or pressure. Note that those are descriptions of sensations, not labels for emotions. Feelings are not actually emotions . . . that’s a psychological construct that we all engage in.

Where our brains complicate our lives is in taking sensations in our body and naming them. When you feel pressure in your chest, perhaps you call that anxiety. Your head feels hot, and you name that anger.

But what we choose to name our current sensations is a relic from past experiences that our brain re-uses, over and over again. One of my favorite pieces of research around brain science suggests that since our brains require a tremendous amount of energy, it looks to reduce demand by recycling previous experiences in a predictive kind of way. For example, if you believe you are afraid of heights because you had a bad fall years ago, and you now have to climb a ladder, your brain will automatically remind you of your past experience and trigger your discomfort in a microsecond. In my experience, when my clients learn this it gives them an access point to create some change in how they let their feelings affect them.

Here’s an example from my own life about how I acknowledged my feelings and changed how I interpreted them.

I ride horses and had a few terrible experiences many years ago that left me with significant fear. I labeled it fear because I had the feeling of butterflies in my stomach. Other experiences where my stomach felt like this had been categorized as fear, so that’s the message my brain sent in this instance.

But I was tired of feeling afraid. And when I thought more about it, I realized I could also call the feeling of butterflies something different . . . it could be excitement. The next time I mounted my horse, I chose to label the feeling something that helped me, rather than limited me.

Because emotions are such a significant part of how we interpret our world, getting a better handle on how we ‘name’ our feelings is a big step towards self-mastery. By learning to be more aware of our emotions, we can better understand them and respond in different ways that better serve us.


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