Key 5. Distinguish between thoughts and feelings.

Uncle: How do you feel about circus lions being kept in cages?

Nephew: It’s cruel. It’s wrong. It shouldn’t be allowed.

Uncle: Wrong answer.

Nephew: Huh? Why?

Uncle: How do you feel about your basketball team losing yesterday?

Nephew: We were unlucky. Our best player was out with a crook knee and we lost by three points.

Uncle: Wrong answer.

Nephew: What?!

Uncle: I asked you how you felt about circus lions being kept in cages, and you gave me your thoughts on the matter. Big difference. A correct answer might have included words like ‘concerned’, ‘appalled’, ‘irritated’. Those words describe feelings.

Nephew: I get you. How did I feel about my basketball team losing? Disappointed. Deflated. Flat.

Uncle: Very good.

Nephew: Thanks for your sympathy.

Uncle: A good way to be aware of our thoughts and our feelings is to distinguish between them when we speak. When you say: ‘I feel —’ describe a feeling. When you say, ‘I think —’ give your thoughts.

Nephew: “I think it’s cruel to keep animals in cages. I feel distressed when I see one in a cage.”

Uncle: Good work! Make it a habit! From now on, use the right word, ‘think’ or ‘feel’, when you speak. Do that, and over time you will become skilled at knowing precisely what you are thinking and what you are feeling. That will significantly help you become aware of what is going on inside you.

Nephew: I feel I have had enough . . Wait. l think I have had enough of this conversation, because I feel like a break.

Uncle: Good work! Now clear off.

‘I feel we should look for another way.’ (Wrong)
‘I think we should look for another way. ’(Correct.)
‘I feel frustrated. I think we should look for another way.’ (Correct.)

‘I feel I’m unappreciated.’ (Wrong.)
‘I think I’m unappreciated, and feel hurt and disappointed as a result.’ (Correct.)

‘I feel you are not listening to me.’ (Wrong.)
‘I think you are not listening to me, and I feel irritated with that.’    (Correct.)

Jan: ‘I want to break up. How do you feel about that, Bill?’
Bill: ‘I don’t think we should break up.’ (Incorrect. That’s a thought. Before Bill expresses his thoughts on the matter he should address Jan’s question by telling her what he feels. Try again, Bill.)
Bill: ‘I don’t feel anything; I’m in shock.’ (Bill is not in shock. He’s exaggerating, and indicating that he isn’t aware of what is going on inside him. Try again, Bill.)
Bill: ‘I feel awful.’ (That’s a better answer, but Bill needs to be more specific. He needs to find words that describe precisely how he feels.)
Bill: ‘This is terrible.’ (Incorrect. He’s expressing his opinion again, rather than stating how he feels. Have another go, Bill.)
Bill: ‘I feel terrible.’  (That’s a bit better. He is describing a feeling, although he still not being specific.)
Bill: ‘I feel hurt. Frightened. Anxious.’  (Now Bill is getting the hang of it!)
Bill: ‘I feel nauseous.’ (Good. Bill is also recognising what his body is feeling.)
Bill: ‘I feel surprise, hurt, betrayal, anger, humiliation . . .’ (Good. It might sound like a shopping list, but by labelling his emotions Bill is becoming aware of them. He can now start to deal with them, and think things through.)
     When Bill got it right he: – expressed his feelings rather than his thoughts
          – used the word ‘feel’ to describe his feelings
          – allowed himself to feel vulnerable by expressing what he felt
          – labelled his emotion,
          – looked for other emotions he was feeling and labelled them too.
All in all, Bill did well. But Jan still dumped him!

Practise distinguishing between thoughts and feelings by naming at least six thoughts you might think, and six emotions you might feel, in each of the following scenarios.

You find a rabbit with its leg caught in a rabbit trap.
Six thoughts you might have:             Six feelings you might have:
        I think —                                                I feel —
it’s in pain.                                             concern, anger, flustered, outrage, distressed
this shouldn’t happen.
who would set this trap?                                I feel in my body —
will the rabbit be alright?                      a knot in my stomach, tense, nauseous, goosebumps
how do I cook a rabbit?

Your turn now.
(1) You discover that your best friend has been stealing money.
Six thoughts you might have:             Six feelings you might have:
I think —                                                               I feel —

(2) A close relative gleefully tells you she is pregnant.
Six thoughts you might have:             Six feelings you might have:
 I think —                                            I feel —

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2 Responses to Key 5. Distinguish between thoughts and feelings.

  1. D B says:

    Hi Mr B, thanks for your page, its really interesting. Strange how I’m in Montreal now but originally from Melbourne too… Anyway, this page in particular was helpful for me, but it assumes a certain amount of self-reflection and emotional stability and intelligence. I have just split up with a partner who had Borderline. For him, the shame of his emotions was so great that one way to help him was to reflect back his emotions and normalise them. For example: “You sound angry, that’s how anyone would feel in your situation”. Then when he had calmed down, we could reflect on whether his behaviour was helping him or not. If I just ignored his emotions, he would ramp them up until I reacted. Sometimes a sympathetic reflection of someone’s emotions may help, not telling them how they should feel, but understanding it. Many borderline people feel as if others are angry at them, or they feel ashamed of their emotions (deep shame is part of the issue). I am only just learning how to name and own my emotions and not rationalise them with thoughts. If you are interested, this is a really good resource on different personality behaviours.

    • Mr Bashful says:

      Hello! Yes, I guess my material does require a certain amount of self-reflection, but I’m actually trying to ‘teach’ self-reflection. It’s a big part of the book. However, it’s hard to teach something like that. I’m hoping the exercises help. (Though who actually does such exercises?)
      I like the way you reflected your companion’s emotions and normalised them. I wrote this book assuming the reader won’t have someone to assist them, so I can’t include that technique. Besides, I’m not qualified in such matters. I touch on what we can say to a companion in the section on relationships, but the hints there are for generic living, not for particular situations. A good book to write would be: ‘How to assist a Troubled Companion’.
      I looked at the suggested site. Yes, it lists behavioural problems I hadn’t heard of. Interesting. In this book I have avoided such territory, for two reasons. One: As I say, I’m not qualified. I wouldn’t dare try to help troubled people without a thorough and professional understanding of the subject. Two: The book is more a philosophy book about what makes a person happy in general. The umpteen keys followed as a natural consequence.
      You have just parted with your partner. I wish you my very best wishes in this new chapter of your life. Indeed, both of you.
      Warm regards,
      Mr B.

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