Driving along one evening with a good friend, she was deep in explaining a somewhat complicated and upsetting situation. We were going round in circles, so I asked her how she felt about her situation.
“Well, I think…” she started, then paused for thought.
I asked again, “how do you feel about it?”
She started again, “I think it’s something…”
This time, I cut in: “no, no, no, how do you feel about it?”
“Hmm? Well, I think that…”
“Erm, how do you feel about it?”
She paused and looked at me with a mixture of cross and perplexed. “Sue, what are you on about?!”
I was asking about her feelings. And she was trying to reply with her thoughts.
With a lot of patience, my friend was doing her best to tell me about her feelings, but she was actually telling me about her thoughts.
When you’re always in your thoughts, you can’t feel your feelings. When you can’t feel them, you can’t process them, you can’t understand them, and you can’t let them go.
Thoughts and feelings are different. Related, but different.
Thoughts can actually get in the way of feeling your feelings, sometimes even to the point of derailing and/or invalidating your feelings so much that you can’t process your emotions anymore.
This is a particular habit of intelligent people, people who are used to relying upon their thoughts to process the world for them. People who have strong, rational minds, but little time or space for emotions.
As an aside, your thoughts about your feelings may or may not be accurate. You may think that you’re upset, but actually you feel relieved. You may also think that you’re fine and not bothered by something, but underneath you’re fuming!
Anyhow, when you prioritise thinking about your feelings over feeling your feelings, you get stuck, blocked, and out of touch with yourself. You’re not in a position to feel your feelings, process them and let them go. That leads to anxiety, built-up anger, distress, zombie mode (where you don’t really feel anything), crappy decision-making, sleeplessness and a whole host of other malaises. Essentially, your head is in control of your experience and squeezing your emotions out of the conversation.
When you’re doing this, one of the hardest things to do is to realise that it’s happening. That your head is, in fact, dominating your experience. And that it shouldn’t!
It’s important to recognise when your thinking is getting in the way of your feeling, and you can start the journey into feeling your feelings and allowing them to process properly.
Here are ten ways to recognise when we’re (mis)using our thoughts to block our emotions:
- Replying “I think…” to a question about how you feel. Unless you’re using “I think” to express some uncertainty. The same applies to “I mean…”
- Explaining it away. “It could be… it might have been… maybe it was…”
- Getting stuck in circles of thought. “He did, she said, I can’t…He did she said, I can’t…” ad infinitum. Stop spinning those circles and feel!
- Rationalising it away. “There’s no point feeling sad about it – it’s already happened and feeling sad won’t change it. It’s just one of those things” The point of feeling the sadness is not to change what happened; the point of feeling the sadness is to feel and release the energy in the sadness so you’re not carrying it around with you any more.
- Generalising in the abstract. “Well, anyone who’s been through this would be upset about it.” How about “I’m upset about it!!?”
- Fantasising about future events. “We’re going to… then… then…” Stop the thinking and feel your excitement and anticipation.
- Angsting about future events. Stop thinking and feel your fear, or nervousness, or excitement (yes, anxious thoughts can actually be masking excitement).
- Catastrophising. You imagine catastrophe and devastation. In your mind, a mild cold becomes a trip to intensive care. A delayed train becomes a totally missed business trip. A spilled drink becomes a new suit (and the expense involved with that). Feel your fear, or excitement, or even care and love that are driving the thought train.
- Distracting yourself with planning, reading, crosswords, number puzzles. Anything to squash that feeling away. If you do these, you might do it without even being aware that there’s any feeling to be felt. You just have an itch to do something that’s mentally taxing and absorbing.
- Checking things. Mild anxiety, for example about going out somewhere new, can manifest in checking that things are in order: that you’ve locked the doors, turned all the lights and appliances off, that the taxi is definitely booked and on its way. There’s a difference between practical, purposeful checking and anxiety-driven checking. Let yourself feel your nervousness!
Once you’ve done this, the next tricky thing on your to-do list is to get your mind to quiet down so you can actually feel your feelings. Then, and only then, can your emotional processing really take place.
Try as you might, you can’t think yourself out of an emotion. You can feel your way out, or your can release it using other methods (more on this in another blog post later), but not think your way out.
Do you recognise yourself in this? How often do you think about your feelings instead of just feeling them?