Updated: Dec 8, 2021
First things first-- Thinking and feeling are different. Very different. How they come up in conversation, though, often gets muddled together because talking about feelings involves that dreaded v-word: Vulnerability.
“But thoughts and feelings are both in the mind. What do you mean they’re different?”
We are aware of both thoughts and feelings in our minds, but they come from different parts of our brains. Our emotions (or feelings, whichever word feels more comfortable for you) come from our cerebellum and amygdala, which is deep in the “older” part of our brain. They are automatic and out of our control. Take a breath. That decision to take a breath is like the decision to do something that brings you happiness. We’ll breathe and feel emotions automatically, but can also decide to take actions that affect these processes. Thinking, on the other hand, happens in our frontal cortex, a “newer” part of our brain. So the decisions that I just mentioned, those decisions to engage with automatic processes consciously, are happening in the frontal cortex. That is also why we believe we can control our emotions.
Not-yet-popular opinion: Vulnerability is a strength to be embraced.
There is a major misnomer that showing vulnerability means you are showing weakness--that you are weak. Ha ha. Nope. Partially because of coming out from under that impression, and partially because it is so scary, embracing vulnerability is a quiet, beautiful, show of strength. It is also a more honest, often more clear, and, frankly, more efficient way of communicating.
Being vulnerable with what we’re feeling doesn’t mean that we are baring our souls 24/7, or sobbing every time we get into a conversation. It just means that we say what we’re feeling, and what we think about what brought up that emotion. It can be as straightforward as that.
Bringing it all together.
On the other hand, when we talk about our emotions, rather than saying what we are feeling, we are bringing in judgements, beliefs, and interpretations of what that feeling means. Those expressions of thought are also when we tend to assign motive to the actions of others. And that is a whole other post, so stay tuned; but in short, this is most often when misunderstandings happen and arguments start.
So often we say “I feel like you….” or “You made me feel like I…” and when we do that 1) we’re not talking about how we feel--we’re talking about what we think while not really being aware of exactly what we’re feeling, 2) we’re not owning our feelings or thoughts, and 3) no one can make you feel anything, it just happens. Part of being vulnerable and having an effective conversation about feelings, also means allowing and accepting whatever emotions come up. And, yeah, that can be hard. We don’t have to like how we or someone else feels, we just have to accept that--another show of vulnerability!
However, when you own “This is how I feel, and this is what I think” you are standing on the solid ground of your truth (a really short version of why we therapists are so big on I-statements!), and not making assumptions of what the other person is saying/doing/thinking. Which can reduce defensiveness for everyone involved and keeps the conversation focused where it needs to be.
If vulnerability is something you struggle with, come on in, let’s process why and build that strength for you! Additionally, for some great reading on the subject: check out Dr. Brene Brown’s books, her TEDtalk, and podcast.