If I asked you to define a feeling right now, what would you say? Do you know the answer? Or would you be tempted to google for the dictionary definition under your desk while I was looking the other way?
The truth is, all of us have some intuitive sense of what a feeling is. But when we try to talk about our feelings, we often run into trouble. A very specific kind of trouble, which comes from conflating our thoughts and our feelings.
In order to separate these out, you need to know what a thought is. I explained what a thought is in the first installment of this series, so if you didn’t read that, hop over and do it now. I’ll wait.
So a thought, to recap, is a sentence in your mind.
A feeling is a physical sensation in your body.
Let me say that again. A feeling is not an abstract concept, and it’s not a thought. A feeling is one word – two at most – and it can be located in your body by describing a physical sensation.
Here’s an example. I used to get very anxious about the idea of arguing in court. I would have a lot of thoughts about doing it, like: I’m going to be terrible. It’s scary. The judges are going to ask me questions I can’t answer. I’m going to look like an idiot.
Those thoughts would produce a physical sensation in my body: Anxiety. I could tell it was anxiety because of how my body felt: For me, anxiety feels like a fast heartbeat, difficulty taking full breaths, and a sense of thrumming agitation through my limbs (probably my blood moving faster because my heart is beating faster).
Do you see what I mean? We call that sensation “anxiety” – that’s the feeling. But the feeling can always be located in the body and described in physical sensations.
Most of us don’t notice it, but we are constantly treating our thoughts like they are feelings. Today I asked a client what she was feeling, and she said:
“I just feel like my boss should be more understanding of the fact that I have little kids at home and sometimes I need to leave early.”
You can see though, that given the definition I just established, that is not a feeling. That is a thought. Attaching the words “I feel” to the beginning of a thought doesn’t make it a feeling. It just confuses you.
The benefit of learning and practicing how to identify your feelings is that they become much less intense and more bearable. When you can’t tell the difference between thoughts and feelings, it’s too easy to get caught up in your thoughts and start ruminating about them. None of which relieves the feeling.
But focusing on a feeling as a physical sensation in your body is powerful for a few reasons.
First, it gives your brain something to do – if you don’t occupy your brain on purpose it will just keep thinking the thoughts that are upsetting you. But if you give it the task of describing the physical sensations you are experiencing, it keeps it busy.
Secondly, describing emotions as physical sensations makes them less scary for your brain and body. When you are avoiding really tuning into how you feel, your brain is scrambling to get away from the feeling, which can produce more anxiety and fear. When you focus on the feeling and just describe it to yourself, you defang it. “Anxiety” sounds really unpleasant and scary. “A faster heartbeat and tightness in my chest” is not nearly as dramatic. As you give your brain something to do and calm it down, your body will follow.
That’s because your body and brain are connected – more on that next time when I will be teaching you about how your thoughts and feelings are connected!
For now though, just focus on identifying your feelings as one word, and experiencing them as sensations in your body. You’ll find that going through this mental practice every time you have an upsetting emotion will defuse the feelings and help you move through them more quickly. Try it out and see!