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:

  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Anxious
  • Upset
  • Content
  • Angry
  • Overjoyed
  • Loving
  • Lonely

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.

25 Comments. Leave new

  • i am not able to wake up early in the morning. and sleeping more than 12 hours a day. i just cant able to control
    the negative thoughts while meditating also. i have just lost my selfconfidence also pls suggest me the duration of meditation

    • Hi Paresh,

      It sounds like you’re suffering from depression, although you could also have some physical illness. I would suggest that you don’t try to meditate at present and get yourself to a medical practitioner as soon as possible.

      May you be well. May you be free from suffering.

  • Hello Beautiful Souls,

    Yes, depression, thoughts emotions. I currently am in the, as Eckhart Tolle would say “pain body”, and often am. I’m pretty sure my depression is highly hormone related, but the suffering is what it is, regardless. Lately what happens when I get into these awful, almost manic slumps and highs, is that I feel sick about the pattern, selfish for my anxiety and envy and craziness. So the circle, the cycle of feeling/thinking negatively (and BELIEVING IT, WHICH IS THE KICKER/ I.E: “i’m a loser b/c i have no job, still live at home and at 30 still see my life stuck as it’s been for the last 6 years”) is accompanied by the guilt of knowing there are far more important things in the world and people with far more to be concerned and lamenting about, than little ol me, and my ridiculous neurotic tailspins. Nevertheless, this RATIONAL THOUGHT, rarely soothes my ache, and the crying spells have lasted particularly long this spell, (3 days or so), and the lashing out I do during these somewhat manic bouts, I feel guilty and embarrassed about afterward. I create these cycles, but generally am sure that I’ve dealt with depression, I had a terrible bout with it at the age of 13 and sometimes I feel close to slipping in again to that really dark place I cant seem to come out of. Thats the danger with the big D, so to speak. It can pull you in and then you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Takes so much more work to get back “out”. But bottom line here, I guess I am reaching out to see what any one would suggest when you really do KNOW that the things you’re down on yourself about are valid things to feel like crap over. B/c well, your life is not what you’d thought it’d be. You aren’t contributing, your path always feels unclear, and this, this lends to the catch 22. No confidence, no motivation, little joy. Its crazy how it slips away. Just a few days ago I felt so connected to all of life, and then (usually around menses), things go haywire, and literally, I lose my mind. Lose it, b/c it seems to fall out of place. I can’t mediate or do yoga or go out when it gets that way. It’s truly a “stuckness” that only allows for misery and anger to manifest.
    btw, I love this site. Buddhism is such a gift in it’s teachings of the mind, and how to treat ourselves. . . . just wish I could keep a disciplined practice going. There it is! That’s the real question: how do we foster discipline of these bouts of crazy sadness/anger/self loathing/depression when we simply can’t stop crying or raging? What to do in those moments of absolute misery? I feel i lose days in these states of being,and screw with everyones vibrations around me. Not to mention how exhausting it is for me, my loved ones and how it certainly does not help foster positivity my way.

  • i feel like i am going to die…don’t know how much i can take it….years i am doing this…..help i am getting suicidal..people i have around dont help me…..a boy somewhere in thai……

    • I’m so sorry to hear that you’re experiencing this pain. Posting messages on a website like this is good, because it means you’re reaching out. You need to take that desire to reach out for help and take it one step further. Find a therapist — someone who is better placed to help you understand what’s going on and who can help you work through these painful difficulties. Even talking to a medical doctor will help take you further along the path to finding the help you need. A doctor will know where to find a mental health professional who can help you.

      I wish you well,

  • Hello! I just came to this conclusion quite recently. That emotions derive from thoughts.
    There are many things you can think that will cause different emotions… when you think about how you love something you will feel joy, as when you remember something bad, you will feel sad.
    Mostly, the emotions attached to some thoughts correspond to some kind of “absolute values”… but even these values can be deconstructed… they are an interpretation one makes of this or that.
    When someone thinks too much of things that bring negative emotions, it seens that this person develops a predisposition to feeling that emotion.
    A person with such disposition will feel that emotion in any circunstance. Be it sadness, will feel sad even with countless reasons to feel happy.
    What explains how sick and poor people can feel a lot happy, in oposition to some rich and successfull people who feel depressive.
    I wonder if this continuous process of causing an specific emotion makes your predisposition have a phisycal effect… say a psicosomatic consequence.
    This is quite complex to talk about as english is not my language. But as emotions have manifestations in chemical substances…. hormones and stuff, maybe the brain get do develop the very “cells” or whatever makes them in a big and unbalanced number.
    In the same way, as happines are related to some specific substances, serotonine? Maybe the constant deficit of serotonine, caused by the constant depressive state of mind is a physical manifestation…
    Like when we dont use our muscles and they… atrofiate?
    I dont know if I could express myself but… well, I think this makes a lot of sense.
    What do you think?

      March 12, 2018 4:48 pm

      I totally agree with what you have written. It makes total sense to me and I am sure to others as well.

  • Ruth Tidemann
    June 9, 2013 6:48 pm

    You’re right that pain coming from depression coming from the thought that noone loves me and I’m useless and so on,is an emotion arising directly from that thought. What about changing the thought? Those times when you are full of rage and helplessness and cannot meditate, then why not do some form of wild exercise to wild music for example to release the energy of all that pain? Or play squash or walk fast or do anything physical you like doing. Then you willl be able to meditate once again and get back to your peaceful, grateful state. Thanks to Buddhism for providing us all with much inspiration.

  • Thiago, keep with your flow. A flash of brilliance here, “…when you remember something bad, you will feel sad.
    Mostly, the emotions attached to some thoughts correspond to some kind of “absolute values”… but even these values can be deconstructed… they are an interpretation…”

    Maybe, free style rhyme rap.

    Typing fast may be an asset till the editor cometh.

  • The persons of intuitive-feeling personalities (one of the 16 personality types proposed by Jung and implemented in Mayers Brigg Type Indicator) always receive outside signals emotionally and driven by emotional thoughts. For them it’s very difficult to distinguish thoughts from emotions.

  • This has been a critical transformation for me. My dark cloud flowed me everywhere. I have made significant progress. What has worked for me is this.

    Watch your thoughts and emotions like passing clouds. Most likely the feelings and thoughts have nothing to do with reality just a self protective fearful outcome that if you believe and allow to attach to yourself will drain your being. These are multidimensional beings which feed off your fear. First know you are in control. Not of what appears but what you invest in. It’s proven we pretty much don’t know the reality we experience outside of observation. Like a resting cat. Watch the leaves, feel your breath and fall into the beauty of the moment. Don’t fight the thoughts just don’t allow them to be the focus. They are not helpful. Next, appreciate. We are surrounded by gifts. All of us. Right now. Depressive states don’t account for the gifts around us. It focuses on what we are not getting like a spoiled child. Finally, this is profound and actually simple yet our selfishness can get in the way. Peace and compassion can be in a constant state when we see all creatures as one body. Everyone’s struggles as our own. We can all do that right now and get it out of the way. The true power comes in believing we can control our focus. Go get em.

  • Hello,

    You say that “unappreciated” is not a feeling. What about “disrespected”?
    Some of the feeling words in your previous post (https://www.wildmind.org/applied/depression/feelings-vocabulary), such as unglued, unsteady etc., suggest that unappreciated also could be a feeling word.
    I’m confused…

    • “Disrespected” would also be a thought or story, and not a feeling. When someone does show us respect (or we think that they don’t) we might feel hurt, for example. Hurt is a feeling. It’s a sensation experienced in the body (although with a mental component as well). But “disrespected” is a mental interpretation of the event, not something felt.

      The NVC feelings vocabulary is a useful place to start exploring our understanding of various kinds of feelings, but I wouldn’t take it as definitive! At a glance, I’d say that most of the terms are fine and refer primarily to patterns of sensations felt in the body. Some of them (including the two you mention) are a bit more interpretive, but I think they’re still pointing to felt experiences rather than to interpretations.

      • The confusion persists but that answer helps; thanks.
        The interpretation (or the story that one tells themselves) is different from what one feels or experiences. Thanks.

        • Yes, that’s it, exactly.

          • Thanks. I’m trying to take up meditation but I struggle. I’m constantly distracted and very disorganised. A classic ESFP.
            What are your thoughts on Headspace?

          • I’m afraid I don’t have any experience of Headspace, so I’ve no basis for commenting!

  • “I feel unappreciated” is a thought, not an emotion.
    Um.. We just learned in our marriage classes.. Retrouvaille…. that if you can replace I feel with i think the information that you are expressing is a thought not a feeling…
    i feel unappreciated……
    I think unappreciated…..?
    That does not work therefor unappreciated is a felling…???


    • In this case you’d want to change “I feel unappreciated” to something like “I think I am not appreciated.”

  • correct.. but using no change in sentence structure I feel can not be exactly replaced with I think… so to me its a feeling driven sentence…
    now i will concede in our feeling word list from retrouvaille there are several words that are astrict’d that according to them stating…..

    *These words, often used to describe feelings, can contain an element of judgment. As such, be careful when using them to describe emotions. Some things to remember include: 1) Use “I statements” 2) Avoid saying “you” and “because”
    3) Be sure to stick to the “feelings” aspect of these words, not the “judgmental” aspect.
    1. I FEEL – I AM = A FEELING

    • I’m not sure what you’re trying to achieve here. I said that “I feel unappreciated” expresses a thought, not a feeling. Unless I’m misunderstanding you, you’re saying the same thing.

  • ok … if that is so your statement “I feel unappreciated” = a thought
    does “I think unappreciated” make sense?

    the marriage counseling people are trying to get us to express feelings vs thoughts
    and the test that tests the sentence conveyance is to replace “I feel” with “I think”
    if replacing exactly those 2 words with the other set and the sentence makes sense then the information that is expressed is a thought and not a feeling.

    i feel happy. vs i think happy.
    i feel sad. vs i think sad.

    i feel this is unfair. vs i think this is unfair.. this is a thought.

    what am i missing..??
    maybe im messing up the replacement test..
    i am trying to get grip on this so i can get my marriage back on track…
    maybe i need to step back and see what next weekend brings..


    • If you’re missing something it may be that you’re being overly literal about the process — simply trying to replace “I feel” with “I think” in a sentence, when grammatically that can’t always be done — rather than going with the spirit of the process, which is to recognize when thoughts are masquerading as feelings.

      No, “I think unappreciated” doesn’t make sense, but that’s because the rule “replace I feel with I think” doesn’t necessarily work with every sentence in English. I’m not a grammarian, but “I feel unappreciated” seems to be a kind of shorthand for “I feel I am unappreciated.” And the replacement works there: “I think I am unappreciated.”

      A lot of men have a tendency to try to escape into logic rather than deal with the messiness of feelings. It may be that that’s what you’re doing here — finding flaws with the process rather than trying to learn from it. When we retreat into logical nit-picking it tends to drive women crazy, because we’re not engaging with the emotional realities they’re discussing, and so we’re negating them. Our minds tell us that this misapplication of logic should make things better, but it almost always makes things worse.

  • John Baptist
    April 6, 2021 1:08 pm

    Through mindfulness, does this mean we can essentially choose who/what we love? If one can change thoughts and therefore emotions then self image/identity is a choice.

    • That’s a verse packed question, John. You’d need to define what you meant by love. If you mean something like kindness and goodwill, then yes: we can essentially choose to have those attitudes toward anyone.

      As we change how we see the world (and ourselves) and how we relate to those things, our self-image/self-identity/self-view changes.

      Ultimately though the aim is to drop having a self-image or self-view at all. We give up trying to define ourselves: we give up identifying our thoughts, feelings, and volitions as being ours or as constituting who we are.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.