Don’t Believe Everything You Think!

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]


When we speak with one another in English, we have a remarkable tendency to use the word “feel” to describe what are actually our thoughts.

For example, have you ever said something like: “I feel like you did that on purpose!” or “I feel I’m a horrible person.” or “Don’t you feel that kitten is the most adorable thing on the planet?”.

When we separate out thoughts from feelings, we see the meaning behind what is actually being said. Translating the above is something more like: “I think you did it on purpose, and I feel frustrated and suspicious. Why did you do it?” or “I think I’m a horrible person, and I feel regret and shame for harming you.”, or “Don’t you think that kitten is the most adorable thing on the planet? I cherish it!”.

When we distinguish thoughts from feelings, we come closer to being accurate about what’s going on. We are more grounded in reality.

Another way we mix up thoughts and feelings is with phrases such as, “My boss made me nervous when she gave me feedback”, or, “I’m sad because you didn’t sit next to me”, or “That shooting enrages me”. In these expressions, we are assigning our feelings to someone else’s behavior, or to events. We are linking our feelings to what someone does or does not do, or whether something does or does not happen. In this way, imprecise language lends a slippery slope toward blame and finding fault; we attribute our emotions to events and people outside of us, and our perceptions of those things. Assigning fault to others for our feelings ironically leaves us feeling helpless and disempowered.

Alternatively, the principles of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) suggest that our feelings are fundamentally related to our needs being met or unmet. We are inspired to feelings of fulfillment when our needs are met, and to feelings of discomfort when our needs are not met. In this vein, translating the above sentences into statements that more accurately convey our experience looks like this: “I felt nervous when my boss gave me feedback, because I want to be seen as competent.” “I was sad when you didn’t sit next to me because I really enjoy being intimate with you.” “When I heard about the shooting, I became enraged. Our children’s collective safety really matters to me!” Taking this a step further, we can also choose to perceive others’ behavior and events through this lens of needs met and unmet. “My boss gave me feedback because she wants me to succeed and collaborate effectively with the team.” “I’m guessing you didn’t sit next to me, because you wanted to enjoy the movie with a clear view of the screen?” and “I bet so many people are looking for understanding and justice after that shooting.”

Our thoughts can be useful; they are sometimes neutral observations reporting back to us what’s going on in the world and with the folks around us. This is necessary information supporting us to navigate our lives. However, when running on automatic without being checked our thoughts are more often interpretations, assumptions, beliefs, perceptions and judgments. When we act out of our perceptions, trouble often finds us! So how do we get free?

While our feelings are swayed by our perceptions, it’s important to enage with the concept that our feelings (beyond physical pain) are not determined by what others do, they are motivated by whether our needs met or unmet. Thoughts influence our feelings, but they are not our feelings. Thoughts act as an unintentional representation of or place marker for our needs. For instance, when I think about spending relaxed and connected time with someone I love I feel a certain kind of way imagining a need met for closeness. When I think about that same person not being truthful with me, without a doubt I feel another kind of way with a need unmet for transparency and trust, and so on… Try those two thoughts on for yourself and see how you feel, and see if you can get a hit on connecting to that need met or unmet as well. How does that feel in your body? What emotions come up for you?

It’s important to note that we can have so many different thoughts within seconds of each other and while standing in the very same place! Like a piece of driftwood floating on the ebb and flow of the ocean’s edge, our emotions can take quite a ride on our thoughts. If we are not aware of this influence or able to manage it we are more likely to act on our emotions by way of these fleeting and interpretive thoughts, especially if we are disconnected from what’s beneath our thoughts, what really matters to us, unconscious of the needs met and unmet that are motivating us from deep within. And, like that piece of driftwood… from this disconnected place… we can end up anywhere!

A short anecdote… one day between jokes in conversation with my Dad, we narrowed in on a topic he seemed curious to solve. Being the daughter of an engineer and librarian, focused on resolving dilemmas, I recommended he get to the bottom of it through some quick online research. He said, “No, no… not yet… I want to believe it a little longer.”

I cannot remember exactly what we were talking about, but I do clearly recall bursting out in laughter at his brilliant honesty… and wisdom. What we choose to believe can shape our reality. The longer we hang on to certain beliefs, the longer we see the world in certain ways.

Feelings are our emotional states, responses and physical sensations that arise signifying what’s important to us. They are temporary and sometimes difficult to identify without practice.

Feelings are valuable to discover and connect with because, like thoughts, they can drive our behavior unconsciously. Not only that… they also tell us what matters to us, and they are universal. We all have “the feels” and experience these emotions, so feelings are a gateway to connection with other humans.

We can connect with our emotions through awareness, which can be built through mindfulness practice. As we become familiar with our feelings we can build our vocabulary by identifying them when they come up. Recently I was struck by this short article describing thirteen words with no English translation, offering feeling words that extend my list! Such as: “saudade,” a Portuguese word for “the feeling of longing for an absent something or someone that you love but might never return.” “Forelsket,” a Norwegian word for “the euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love.” And, “depaysement,” a French word for “the feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country; being a foreigner”.

When we conflate our thoughts and our feelings, we are distracted from engaging with our emotional experiences. When we delineate what is a thought and what is a feeling, we can begin to acknowledge our feelings and allow them to direct us to what really matters deep within our souls, and to connect with others on an intricate and satisfying emotional level.

The last way that I will exemplify how our thoughts get mixed up with our feelings as we use language to describe our experiences being alive is through words that we so often misunderstand to be feelings, words like “attacked’, ”abandoned”, ”disrespected”, “betrayed”, and “unloved”, etc. These words are thoughts about what’s happened to us, what someone did. When we experienced someone doing this thing we felt certain emotions. For example, the expression “I feel abandoned”. When we separate out the thoughts from the feelings, this looks more like, “When you left me alone all day, the story I told myself was that you abandoned me. I felt sad and wanted companionship. I feel vulnerable right now sharing that and would love to understand what happened that day from your perspective. Are you willing to share that information with me?” Behind these thoughts about what someone did or may do, live our feelings. When we can reach the place of our emotions, then it is possible to investigate further to uncover the need we want fulfilled. From this place comes empowerment; if we know what we need, we then have the possibility of getting that need met.

Thoughts and feelings wield powerful energy. As we untangle them in our language, and then in our minds and bodies, we can direct our energy toward designing our life in a way that is conscious and connected to our needs. We can authentically connect with others, and heal through being with our emotions, which are precious indicators of where we are impacted and what’s important to us.

Rather than reacting habitually out of our stories about what’s going on, we release that pattern and are in touch with our feelings and can connect to our deeper motivations. We find ourselves in the position of coping and responding to reality from a genuine and grounded place. The process of watching our thoughts and feeling our feelings allows us to sincerely connect with ourselves and the people around us. This small skill has the potential to facilitate deep healing. In this way, deciphering the difference between “thoughts” and “feelings” could very well change your life.


Sheila Menezes, M.S., CPCC, is a Co-Active Coach focusing on Leadership Development & Communication. She brings coaching, training and mediation to individuals, couples, executives and organizations. She is a Collaborative Trainer with BayNVC, and has brought NVC into San Quentin State Prison with the Safer Communities Project since 2015. Sheila holds sacred our shared humanness, alongside the unique depth and uncanny wisdom that each of us stewards. She loves getting results that are tangible supporting people to access their human potential, humanize each other, build effective relationships, authentically express, and actively listen for the heart of matters so that the actions her clients take have intention and impact.