Untangling Thoughts and Feelings

Recently I was working with a client, a young man in his early 20s, and the topic of how to respond appropriately came up in the context of some important life decisions facing him. 

The session led us to look at the critical difference between thoughts and feelings, the difference between reacting and responding to situations.

So how can we tell if we are reacting or responding, operating from thoughts or feelings?  What’s the difference and does it even matter?

From a Zenshin point of view, developing our Whole Heart-Mind capacity as human beings means empowering ourselves to act with our full awareness.  Whole Heart Mind requires us to investigate our behaviors, motivations and mental-emotional patterns in daily situations.

Thoughts and feelings are often sticky—so sticky, in fact, that they tend to become indistinguishable from each other. 

For example, if someone bumps into you at the grocery store and spills your basket, what do you do?  First, there is the initial shock of the unexpected collision, but then what happens next?

It is at moments like this that we can start to see where our thoughts and feelings take a life of their own if left unchecked.

There you are, you have just been bumped and your groceries are scattered on the floor.  In that split second, your body has automatically scrambled its defenses and triggered a catabolic state—releasing adrenaline to break down stored glycogen and even muscle tissues to release glucose into your bloodstream and help fuel a fast reaction in case it’s a genuine life-threatening emergency.  Your pulse, breathing, and blood pressure are all elevated, preparing you to defend yourself or run away.  Undoubtedly, you are also a bit edgy, defensive, perhaps even slightly frightened and disoriented. 

These are FEELINGS.  They happen in the BODY.  They are raw and unprocessed, neither good nor bad, but they have already taken a toll on your whole system.

What happens next?  This depends entirely on your thoughts.

The first sign of THOUGHTS is that they come in WORDS.  

What do you tell yourself in this situation, in those first split seconds?  Can you catch it in time?  Even now, you might already be imagining different scenarios (a pushy man, a child running wild, a sweet old lady) and feeling reactions forming depending on what happened—something like, “Hey, watch out!” or “Control your kid, lady!” or “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there!”

Just being able to imagine different reactions to different scenarios is a big clue to finding where thoughts start to muddle the situation if they are not caught before they fly.  What we tell ourselves about what happened—in other words, our INTERPRETATIONS of events—matters enormously.  No one likes being pushed into fight-or-flight mode, and a snappy reaction is biologically supported.  But is it NECESSARY?  Do I need to shout, scream, point fingers, or even cower and apologize for something someone else did?

Knowing your tendency in this kind of situation tells you a lot about the ways you interpret what happens to you.  Do you tend to blame someone else, take personal responsibility, become angry or violent, pretend like nothing happened, or freeze up and do nothing?  There isn’t a right or wrong answer here.  But knowing how to spot your reactive tendency (which might also show up as a repressive tendency) to unexpected or spontaneous events is a huge shift in your consciousness.

Recognizing the trigger point, the moment when the fuel hits the fire, is the first step to being able to respond appropriately to a situation, rather than just unload an automated script of thought and emotion.  If you can see the point where your self-protective feelings start forming into a reactive story, rationalization, or justification, you can also learn to do something different with that energy.

That moment of recognizing the reactive trigger opens the possibility for a brief pause, even for just a split second, to take a breath and keep your feelings from becoming a runaway train.  This is the essence of RESPONSE.  It isn’t so personal or tied to the body’s default hormonal drive toward self-preservation.

Response follows pause.  It prevents us from automatically assuming the worst.  It allows for a clearing of the air, even for just a moment, and a chance to see what else is here besides our hurt feelings and instinctive assumption of intentional harm.  It keeps us from causing actual harm, to others or ourselves.  It also allows us to recognize actual danger and take the necessary steps to protect others (and ourselves) as required.

If you feel like pausing and responding are impossible, even if you have practiced mindfulness for years, it is quite likely that there is a biochemical connection.  For example, if your tissue calcium levels are elevated, you could feel defensive as a matter of course without understanding that the source is a cellular-level mineral imbalance.  This is why we encourage our clients to learn about their Whole Body-Heart-Mind system more deeply through Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis testing, or HTMA. 

Our brains are wired with what psychologists have labeled the Negativity Bias.  This means that our brains, as an instinctive survival adaptation, are constantly scanning our environment for threats and dangers.  Even though our bodies and lives aren’t generally in danger from large predators anymore, we are still vulnerable to human conflicts and social interactions of all kinds—everything from a mean tweet to full-scale warfare.  Our bodies react the same way to any perceived threat, or stress, whether life-or-death, or just an affront to our egos.  But we can use our conscious minds, and tools learned through Zenshin Method to minimize the damage of simply reacting by pausing before responding.

Many Buddhist traditions have described this process of reacting or responding as the difference between being struck by just the first arrow and being struck by an additional second, third, fourth, or even fifth arrow in the same situation.  The initial event or happening is the first arrow.  It hits you whether you like it or not, whether you wanted it or not.  It just happened.  You can’t help it.  But what you do with the first arrow determines whether or not you will be hit by another arrow of self-talk, or another arrow of blame, and so on.  In other words, stopping the story at the first arrow can minimize your suffering, because everything that follows the first arrow is self-inflicted.

So next time you feel your reactions being triggered, do everything you can to PAUSE, BREATHE, and SEE WHAT ELSE IS HERE besides your self-protective interpretations of the situation.  It makes all the difference in the world.

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