Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors
I constantly encourage people to imagine looking at their thoughts as if from a distance,a 20,000 foot view. You’re looking down and there’s lots of space between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It doesn’t seem like it when you’re in the midst of some strong emotion, but it’s true. We often feel that our behavior is directly tied to our feelings. In reality, we’ve all had a situation where we felt one way and we had to behave in another. For instance, if you ever had a boss that made you really angry, you might have held your tongue. You were probably able to control the impulse to act on that feeling.
We have to think about those three areas: thoughts, feelings, and behavior as separate areas that we can explore and use to influence each other. By mastering this, we have control over improving our experience. We can prevent mindless acting out of feelings which damages relationships.
In my opinion, our feeling world is difficult to control. Emotions are instinctual and they’re there to inform us. They are a kind of warning system. The word emotion actually means “to cause to move”. They want to move us away from an uncomfortable or dangerous situation and move us towards a place of comfort. So, when we’re happy, our feeling world communicates with the thinking world and we think, “Wow! How lucky I am,” or “How much fun I’m having”. Those thoughts lead to behaviors of smiling or singing. The thoughts, the feelings, and the behaviors are all acting congruently. The same is true if we have a negative feeling. If we feel hurt, the same process ensues. Our FEELINGS are hurt; we may THINK, “This person doesn’t really love me”. Then we BEHAVE by ignoring them. I’m sure none of you would ever do such a thing.
Both the good and the bad of emotions is they are instinctual. That also means they’re not rational or logical. So, the message they send to our thoughts and behaviors can be flawed. You have to know feelings are just feelings. They don’t necessarily speak the truth. Their meaning comes from us. A patient told me once that her feelings lied to her all the time. There is so much truth in that statement. I can be really angry and upset one day and the next day, it really doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve also really not been bothered at all by something until I started thinking about it! Feelings are the most changeable of these areas. Not a very reliable basis for making decisions.
While it is difficult to control the feeling world, it’s much easier to control the thoughts and behavior worlds. Our thoughts are sometimes irrational as well, but we can choose our focus and to add fuel to the feelings fire or squelch it. We can think thoughts to increase our feelings, whether bad or good, or we can shift our thoughts to ones that decrease those feelings. To use my earlier example of my partner hurting my feelings, I can think, “He doesn’t really love me,” or “He’s always trying to hurt my feelings in some way.” Those kinds of thoughts are going to increase my negative feeling, aren’t they? If my partner hurts my feelings and I think, “Well, he’s probably having a bad day and it’s nothing to do with me” or “You know, overall my partner is a pretty good guy, he’s just acting crabby today.” Those types of thoughts are going to make me feel more positively about the situation. I have control over that. It’s a lot easier to say that than to do, I understand, but when you recognize we have control of making ourselves feel better or worse, it’s really powerful.
All right, so what about those behaviors? Behaviors are exciting because thinking and feeling just happen a lot of times, but your behaviors are what wins the game! They are also 100% under your control! Your behavior world directly impacts these thoughts and feelings too. In the above scenario, I can behave in ways that are going to increase my discomfort. I can give him the silent treatment; I can do something to get him back; or I can act out in an angry way (yell and scream). Those behaviors all reinforce that negative feeling. On the other hand, I can decide to do something kind for my partner and this will lead my thoughts and feelings in that positive direction.
Have you ever heard that saying “fake it till you make it”? It refers to choosing behaviors that are good for you and, many times, just acting in a certain way will lead to the thoughts and the feelings coming along in that direction. As a matter of fact, I don’t think they have any choice; they absolutely have to come along. I think that as one of these areas moves in a certain direction, the other two areas move that direction also.
Many times my prescriptions are for behavior change because while thoughts and feelings are important, behaviors really do win or lose the game. When you consistently do loving behaviors, your thoughts and your feelings will eventually follow along.
I want to know resisting behavior change because you just didn’t FEEL like it is irrational. What if you chose to do the winning behavior, no matter how you felt? You’ll probably surprise your partner and you might even surprise yourself, too. So, focus on a behavior change that you’ve been avoiding. Can you make an effort to do it? You can just pick one; we don’t have to go hog wild here. Pick one and do it consistently and persistently, no matter how you feel as an experiment. See if it impacts your feelings and thoughts.
Let me know how it goes. Comment or email me at Allison@allisonvelez.com . It’d be great to hear from you!