Thoughts and Emotions. Are They Really Different?
A reader asks, “Which comes first, our thoughts or our feelings?” So, let’s consider this question, as well as how an understanding of our thoughts and feelings can help us lead better lives. But before we begin, let me clarify what I mean by “feelings.” The word has two meanings. First, our bodily sensations. Second, it is commonly used to mean emotions. When I use the term feelings in this article, I will be referring to the second meaning (emotions).
The reader’s question has been and continues to be asked by many people. It seems as difficult to understand as the mystery of the chicken and the egg. If we cannot have a chicken without first having an egg, and cannot have an egg without first having a chicken, which came first?
Feelings and thoughts are similar, for experts remain divided on which one comes first. Why is that? Look, if I were to give you a map of London and ask you to point out the location of the Brooklyn Bridge, no matter how hard you searched, you would never find it because the Brooklyn Bridge is located in New York City, not London. You have to use the right map, don’t you? Well, the questions we ask map out the possible answers. How can I get the right answer by asking the wrong question?
Why is our reader’s question wrong? Well, it assumes or implies that feelings and thoughts are different and that one of the two always comes before the other one. Suppose thoughts and feelings are the same thing. How could you discover that by asking which one comes first?
Wait a minute! How can thoughts and feelings be the same? Aren’t they very different? Well, let me ask you a question. Are water vapor, rain, water, snow, and ice different things or manifestations of the same thing? Hmm, they’re very different forms of the same thing, aren’t they?
We use words to describe the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of our conscious mind. However, our subconscious uses images and feelings, not words, to record those same beliefs. So, we can call feelings the thoughts of the subconscious. In other words, thoughts and feelings are the same thing expressed in different languages (the language of words and the language of feelings/images).
Still not convinced? If not, I don’t blame you. After all, in our attempt to understand the world, we break down everything into pieces, label them, and separate them. And then because we use different words to describe pieces of the same thing, we come to believe they are different things. Here’s an example of what I mean. In trying to understand the world, we label some things as animate and others as inanimate. Are animate objects, such as dogs, cats, and people different from inanimate objects, such as stones, tables and chairs? Or are they the same?
Why were you so quick to assume there is a big difference between you and a stone? True, you can move, talk, and reproduce while a stone cannot. But all you are is a swarm of molecules. And the same is true for the stone. How are your molecules any more animate than those of a stone? Here’s another point, since both thoughts and feelings are registered in our body as a series of chemical reactions and electrical signals, aren’t they basically the same thing?
But enough of that. Let’s now assume that feelings and thoughts are different. If they are, the question is then which comes first? The answer is neither because what first occurs is a stimulus, which then evokes a feeling or thought. If the stimulus brings up a feeling, that feeling then leads to a thought. But if the stimulus causes a thought, that thought then leads to a feeling. Sound confusing? Let’s try to clarify by looking at some examples.
Example 1. Tom wakes up at 3 am because of a full bladder. His full bladder causes a bodily sensation that acts as a stimulus, causing him to awake and think “I need to relieve myself.” This thought leads to the emotion of fear or anxiety because if he fails to do anything about it, he may wet the bed and himself. When you think of emotion, think of motion, for it is always emotions (feelings) that motivate us to take action.
Example 2. Larry arrives at his desk ten minutes early with a coffee in his hand. He takes a few sips and a computer alarm goes off, reminding him that he has a 10:30 appointment with a very disagreeable client. “Ugh!” thinks Larry, “I hate doing business with that client. He’s so hard to get along with.” These thoughts create a feeling of distress. He would love to somehow avoid the meeting. After a pause and a prompt by his conscience (which is a feeling), he thinks, “Men and women of integrity live up to their responsibilities, whether they’re in the mood or not. After all, some things are more important than feeling comfortable. So, I better prepare for our meeting now.”
In this example, a stimulus (the computer reminder) led to unpleasant thoughts, which appeared before the unpleasant feeling of anxiety. Although tempted to avoid the meeting, this desire was replaced by another feeling, the feeling of guilt and that he should do the right thing. In other words, the pattern was stimulus thought feeling action (planning for and meeting with client) consequences (feeling good because he did the right thing, and an improvement in relationship skills).
Example 3. Harold is walking on a crowded street when he is struck from behind with such force that he is knocked down, painfully landing on his right knee. The jolt from behind (stimulus) causes him to think, “Who could be so careless as to bump into me?” That thought leads to anger, and as Harold falls to the ground, the searing knee pain enrages him. Raising to his feet, he turns to face the perpetrator, only to discover the person who bumped into him was a blind man who tripped and stumbled because of a pothole in the sidewalk. Seeing this, Harold felt sheepish and all anger dissipated.
The above scenario can be mapped as follows: stimulus (bump from behind) thought feeling (anger). Stimulus (searing pain) feeling (rage) action (face ‘perpetrator). Stimulus (sight of blind man) feeling (shame) feeling (relief).
As you can see, it is not such a simple matter as thoughts or feelings always coming first. Rather, the order in which they appear vary. However, if we must answer the question which comes first, the answer is it depends on whether we are acting consciously or automatically. When we act automatically, without thinking, our emotions rule us, and when we act consciously, carefully selecting our thoughts, we can rule over our emotions.
By the way, most of the time we act automatically. Part of the reason for this is the habits we form. Also, we are programmed to do most tasks automatically so we can focus on more important matters. But perhaps the major reason we usually act automatically is because our feelings flow from our old brain (reptilian brain or brain stem and the limbic brain), and signals from our old brain (feelings) reach our awareness before signals (thoughts) from our thinking brain (neocortex). This makes it possible for us to act in times of emergency (fight or flight), even when there isn’t enough time to think.
The Role of Emotions
Although emotions can lead us astray, they play very important roles, which include the following:
1. Emotions are how we experience life. Life excites us. It amazes, bewilders, disgusts, saddens, and worries us. It also fills us with love, hope, and joy. We can find it scary, wonderful, or boring. We know life by feeling it.
2. Emotions are at the core of our personality. It is what makes us find people attractive or unattractive. Think of people you like. Why do you like them? Perhaps you find them friendly, gentle, kind, warm-hearted, generous, cheerful, passionate, or enthusiastic. And those you don’t like? Perhaps they come across as arrogant, selfish, or meanspirited. We like people who make us feel good and avoid those who make us feel bad.
3. As suggested earlier, emotions prime the pump, turn on the ignition, get us moving. Behind every action, there is a motive. Emotions provide the reasons why we behave as we do. A mother who rushes into a burning building to rescue her child is motivated by love. Some are motivated by a lust for power, riches, fame, revenge, control, or pleasure. Others do good because it feels good.
4. Our feelings can also serve as a powerful guidance system or conscience. It illuminates the path to happiness if we choose to follow it. It’s a tool that simplifies life and one that was used by Abe Lincoln, who said, “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that’s my religion.”
5. Emotions help us know others better. We may think we learn about others by the conversations we have with them, but only 7% of their communication is verbal. That is, most of what we can learn about others is communicated emotionally, rather than by the words they use. It is not the words, but how they are expressed that speaks louder than words. More precisely speaking, the message is conveyed by the volume, pitch, Inflection, and speed that is used. These four characteristics of speech are called tonality and represent 38% of the message. The remaining 55% of the message is expressed by body language (eye movement, facial expression, body movement, gestures, posture, eye contact).
Nonverbal communication is done automatically and is controlled by the subconscious. The communicator cannot hide their emotions; it is there for all to see. Also, you do not have to understand all of the subtleties of nonverbal communication to benefit by it. You see, your subconscious understands and will automatically feed you impressions of the people you meet. That’s why you may find that you dislike someone and not (consciously) know the reason why.
6. Because of the mind-body connection, our thoughts and feelings have a huge impact on our body. Emotional and physical health go hand in hand. Conversely, emotional distress is the cause of stress and disease.
7. Emotions are the key to motivating others. When you are sincere and passionate, you can easily persuade others to your point of view. In relationships, affection and love form a strong bond and build lasting friendships.
8. Emotions also tell us what is important to us. What excites me? I should be doing more of it! What am I afraid of? I should do that to become more resilient!
Because of the roles emotions play in our lives, it is important to become aware of them. Here are steps you can take to increase your awareness.
1. The first sign of an emotion surfacing is physical. Is your heart racing? Palms sweaty? Muscles stiffening? Remain attuned to your bodily sensations for indications on how you are feeling.
2. Is there something you should be doing; yet, you want to do something else? What is that telling you? Are you avoiding something? If so, why? Are you afraid of something? We cannot change inappropriate behavior until we first become aware of it. Stay tuned to your behavior, and make corrections when necessary.
3. Perhaps something is troubling you, but you’re not exactly sure what it is. For example, you may feel bad, bored, or overwhelmed. It’s good to know that something is troubling you, but it’s far more helpful to know precisely what it is. So, when your negative feelings are vague, dig deeply and try to uncover the source of your problem, for it is only at that time that you can do something about it.
4. After a little digging, the troubling emotion will come into sharper focus. For instance, you may feel angry, sad, or worried. If so, dig deeper. What are you angry, sad, or worried about? What can you do to improve the situation?
5. Explore the full range of emotions you are experiencing. You may be angry about one thing and happy about another. At any one moment you are probably going through several emotions at once. How can you better harmonize them? What are they telling you about your present status?
Changing Our Emotions
Emotions are paradoxical. After all, they are spontaneous; they pop into our awareness outside of our control. Yet, we can choose to feel as we like. We can change our feelings. Let’s look at an example.
Jeffrey has just received an assignment from his boss. But Jeffrey feels overwhelmed. After a while, however, he realizes that sulking and feeling sorry for himself won’t help him get the job done. So, he decides to take a more positive approach.
Rather than remain paralyzed by fear, he asks himself what he is afraid of. He decides it’s not knowing how to start, where to begin. He then asks himself what are the possible beginnings? There must be many ways he could begin, what are they? All he is looking for at the moment are possibilities; he doesn’t need right answers yet, just possible answers. And after he has built himself a list of possible ways to begin, all he has to do is choose the best possibility and start with it. He can always refine or revise his plan later. The main point is to begin.
Can you see how Jeffrey’s emotions changed? Since we cannot think of two things at the same time, once Jeffrey started looking for a solution, his attention shifted from his fears to the hope of finding an answer. And as he grew embroiled in his hunt for possible ways to start, his project slowly changed from fearful to interesting to fun!
Returning to our original question, I still don’t know which comes first, the chicken or the egg. But when it comes to feelings and thoughts, more and more researchers are concluding that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions coexist as a unified whole and cannot be easily taken apart.
Regardless of the correct answer, I think we can all agree with Henry Ward Beecher, “See that each hour’s feelings, and thoughts and actions are pure and true; then your life will be also.”
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
Choose Them Wisely: Thoughts Become Things! by Mike Dooley
How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Molecules Of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Candace B. Pert
Handbook of Emotions by Lisa Feldman Barrett, Michael Lewis, and Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones, Editors
Dr. Eddie O’Connor: The Sweet Spot: Thoughts, Feelings, & Actions