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Distinguishing Thoughts from Feelings


Many clients and the children, partners or parents they bring along to sessions have no idea that there’s a distinction between what they feel and what they think. Confusing the two leads to their being reactive and to poor decision-making and problem-solving. Differentiating the two is key to improving your relationship with food and your body. Here are examples to help you distinguish thoughts from feelings. 

  • I ask a client how he feels about his job taking him away from his wife so much of the time and he responds, “I don’t really have a choice about it right now.”
  • A client tells me that when her mother gets drunk, she’s nasty to her and I wonder how that makes her feel. She says, “Mom doesn’t mean anything by it. She’s drunk.”
  • A client reports that his son came out to him as gay and I ask how he feels about that. He tells me, “The bible says it’s a sin. I love him but don’t know what to think.”
  • I ask a client starting a new job how she’s feeling and she goes into a rambling history of how she’s been fired or has quit previous jobs.

I’m asking about feelings and the client is responding about thoughts. Emotions are sensations that arise and call attention to themselves (for more about emotions, read my Food and Feelings Workbook). Usually you can identify them with a single word or, if you have mixed feelings, you can describe them in two or more words. Emotions include, but are not limited to: elation, disappointment, frustration, anxiety, joy, jealousy, envy, happiness, despair, relief, fear,  helplessness, confusion, surprise, revulsion, contempt, disgust, loneliness, boredom, or uncertainty. Identifying emotions requires that we direct our energies inward and reflect on what we’re experiencing, not thinking.

Thoughts are electrical signals that pass back and forth in the brain. Ideas also emerge in this way. Note that neither can generally be described in one word but require more words in sequence to be expressed. Feelings can give way to thoughts and thoughts can produce feelings. “I have no close friends (a thought) can give way to loneliness (an emotion). Or feeling lonely can generate the realization that you have no close friends. 

Differentiation comes with practice. Listen to others and try to identify whether they’re expressing thoughts or feelings. Listen to yourself and do the same. In a situation, reflect on or write down your thoughts and feelings and notice their connection. At the end of the day, review what you’ve thought and felt. With practice, you’ll soon automatically be able to identify what you’re thinking or feeling, a big step toward better mental health. 



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