Separating feelings and thoughts

White isolated zipperOne of the participants in our current 28 Day meditation challenge reported that she was experiencing stress because of a new job.

New jobs can be very challenging and bring up a lot of self doubt. I remember that well.

She talked about “feelings of inadequacy and uselessness,” and I could instantly see a practice that would help her deal with the challenges of her new job. The practice is to distinguish between feelings and thoughts.

From the perspective of Buddhist psychology, inadequacy and uselessness are not feelings. Actual feelings that we might experience in a challenging new job include anxiety, or fear, or confusion. “I am inadequate” and “I am useless” are thoughts. They are interpretations based on our feelings. “Inadequacy” and “uselessness” are stories that we develop in order to make sense of the feelings of anxiety, confusion, etc. that we’re experiencing. Buddhism calls this prapañca, or “proliferation,”

We’re always trying to come up with stories that “explain” what’s going on in our lives. Stories like “I am inadequate” or “I am useless” serve to intensify our fear and confusion because we’ve “explained” our feelings by creating a story in which there’s something wrong with us that makes us incapable of dealing with the job. But these so-called explanations of why the job’s stressful just make us feel even worse.

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The practice here is to separate our feelings from our stories. So we can feel anxiety or confusion but not create stories around them. Or if stories arise automatically (“I can’t do this, I’m useless”) we can acknowledge them and recognize that they’re just stories, and not facts. We let go of the stories, and just return our attention to our present-moment experience.

And having chosen to let go of our stories, we’re free to have other responses to our feelings, like regarding our discomfort with compassion. We can acknowledge our difficult feelings and accept them as a normal part of the learning process; if you’re stretching yourself to take on new capabilities, then of course you’re going to be confused at times, and of course you’re going to feel uncomfortable. We can share with other people how we’re feeling so that we don’t feel ashamed and don’t have to pretend that we understand when in fact we don’t. (Honesty is less stress-inducing than dishonesty, in most cases.)

Separating feelings and thoughts in this way is a key part of Buddhist practice, and it’s a very powerful tool.

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3 Comments. Leave new

Jose Caballero
July 7, 2014 10:16 pm

I just recently came to this realization and am happy to find this article. In my personal experience, just being aware of the feeling and acknowledging where it comes from , helps to see the tasks at hand with a clear and logical mind. Feelings are inevitable and they alter reality, but if one is able to separate them or simply acknowledge the difference intentionally , we can attack each challenge and avoid stress and anxiety.


This is a helpful article. My only question is how can we make this a “practice,” as you say? Does the development of awareness through meditation help? For me, while the article explains the issue, those thoughts come so automatically that it’s hard to recognize I’m doing it.


Hi, Jay.

At the risk of sounding a bit obvious, “practice” means “repeatedly doing something so that we get better at it.” So practicing what’s described in this post means, for example, noticing our language, so that we don’t say “I feel abandoned” (“abandoned” being a thought) and instead say something like “I feel lonely” (loneliness is a feeling). Feelings happen in the body, so we can practice being mindful of the actual physical sensations that constitute feelings like hurt, sadness, joy, or love. Thoughts happen in the head, usually in response to our feelings: we can notice the stories we generate, and how they relate to the feelings that are arising.

Thoughts also generate feelings, however, so as we practice making these distinctions we’ll find that we don’t have so many spells of feeling intensely down: if you feel lonely and tell yourself you’re “abandoned,” then you’ll add other feelings like grief, etc., to the mix. Separate thoughts and feelings and you’ll have a simpler experience, and you’ll be able to respond more creatively.

Thought are closely connected to our volitions, although those weren’t part of the topic of this post. Feelings indicate potential threats and benefits and are embodies sensations. Thoughts interpret and create stories and take place in the mind. Volitions create our responses and tell us how to act, and involve our whole being.

Is that helpful?

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