Distinguishing thoughts and emotions
One characteristic that’s commonly found in people who get depressed is a tendency to confuse thoughts and feelings, and this is another area where meditation can be helpful.
You might here someone say things like the following:
- I feel unappreciated
- I feel fat
- I feel like a failure
- I feel she doesn’t like me
There are a couple of problems here. One is that thoughts are easier to change than feelings, and in fact changing our thoughts changes how we feel.
Another problem is that feelings are uncontestable. They’re not open to dispute. If you say you “feel fat” and I point out that you’re well within the normal range for your height you can just come back as say “Yes, but I feel fat” and you may even be upset that your “feelings” are being invalidated.
Yet another problem is that if we confuse thoughts and feelings, thinking that our thoughts are feelings, then we are actually in some sense out of touch with our feelings.
So let’s try teasing apart thoughts and emotions.
“I feel unappreciated” is a thought, not an emotion. Emotions are things like:
When someone is “feeling unappreciated” they usually mean something like “I’m feeling sad” or “I’m feeling angry.” Those emotions are associated with thoughts which interpret the events in our lives. So we interpret someone’s actions to mean that they don’t appreciate us.
Often the thoughts and feelings, when teased out, can be seen to have a cause-effect relationship. so “I feel fat” becomes “I think I’m fat / I feel despondent” and this in turn becomes “I feel despondent because I think I’m fat.”
It’s much easier to work with our experience when we distinguish thoughts and feelings.
Meditation helps us to do this. In mindfulness practice we notice more clearly the distinction between thoughts (verbalizations in the mind) and emotions (sensations that take place in the body). We also learn to see more clearly the way in which emotions give rise to thoughts, and thoughts give rise to emotions. Once we have started to see this, we realize that we can change our thoughts and therefore change our emotions.
But even before this has happened, we simply start to place less reliance on our thoughts. A thought like “Nobody loves me” comes up, and we can realize that it’s just a thought and not a fact. The thought is still there, but we’re standing back from it, not caught up in it, and less inclined to believe that it reflects reality.