There is a lot of confusion in the English language surrounding thoughts, feelings and behaviour. In counselling and psychotherapy it’s useful to be clear in communicating which we’re talking about.
Thoughts are cognitive. These are examples of thoughts:
- I think I’ll have chicken for tea.
- I think planes are scary.
- I think the world is a nice place to live.
You can take off the “I think” and they’d still be thoughts.
- I’ll have chicken for tea.
- Planes are scary.
- This world is a nice place to live.
Feelings are emotions. There is a model in Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy that stipulates there are only four primary feelings and that they all have distinct and useful functions:
- Anger. Anger tells us that we want something to change.
- Sadness. Sadness tells us that we are missing something or have suffered a loss.
- Fear. Fear tells us that we need to get away from something or prevent something from happening in the future.
- Happiness. Happiness tells us that we need or would like more of something.
Behaviours can be seen. They look like the following:
- A man giving a woman a bunch of flowers.
- A cat licking his paw.
- A child playing with a toy.
- A person telling another person a secret.
- A teenager having a tantrum.
- A woman having a panic attack.
- Someone shouting.
- Someone looking lovingly at another person.
Certain behaviours typically occur with certain thoughts and feelings.
For example, if a person feels sad (the emotion), they may cry (the behaviour). If someone is feeling happy (the emotion) they may smile (the behaviour).
However, just because someone is doing a behaviour typically associated with a particular feeling, this doesn’t mean that’s what they’re actually feeling.
For example, a number of people used to laugh on their way to the gallows. These people were actually terrified but they laughed, a behaviour usually associated with happiness. Some children and adults laugh when they are being told off because they are afraid. This is the same process. People cry because they are happy, sad, scared and angry (and a number of other feelings too).
Behaviour can be seen. Thoughts and feelings can not. When we say someone hides their feelings or thoughts, what we mean is that they do not share this information with other people. We have no access to anyone’s true thoughts and feelings other than through them telling us what they think and feel, either verbally or non-verbally.
People can tell us what they think and feel verbally or non-verbally (e.g. by crying to demonstrate sadness, or going red in the face and barring their teeth to demonstrate anger, or grinning at us to show they are happy). However, all these communications can be faked, or genuine, and we can never truly know what’s going on for someone else.
People get thoughts, feelings and behaviours mixed up. For example, clients have told me that anger is scary “because people get violent when they are angry”. Actually, anger is never scary. Anger is just a feeling. It’s a bodily reaction, contained within the body. You might as well be afraid of someone’s vitreous humour (the clear gel that fills the space between the lens and the retina of the eyeball). What people really mean when they say they are scared of anger, is that they are afraid of people who demonstrate anger (the feeling) by being aggressive (a behaviour).
Similarly, people often think thoughts and feelings are synonymous. They will say things like:
- I feel like that decision was unjust.
- I feel like I should have said something.
- I feel like there’s a better way of doing this.
Actually, none of the above examples are feelings. They are all thoughts:
- I think that decision was unjust.
- I think I should have said something.
- I think there’s a better way of doing this.
You might have a feeling accompanying the thought. For example, the thought:
“I think that decision was unjust.”
May be accompanied by anger (a feeling) or sadness (a feeling), but the cognitive component “I think that decision was unjust” remains a thought.
Another framework that people often find useful is the idea that thoughts generate feelings. So, if a person is feeling sad, it’s likely that there is a thought causing that emotion, such as:
“I’m missing the closeness I used to have with my mum,” or,
“I miss the loss of that ice-cream that I just dropped.”
If a person is angry, the following thoughts may be generating that:
“I want my brother to stop flicking my ear.”
“I want to do a job that I find fulfilling.”
Examples of thoughts that might generate fear:
“I need to get away from that aggressive drunk because he might hit me.”
“I really do not want the experience of my partner leaving me; I think, if they left, it would mean all sorts of bad things about me.”
“Gosh, I like winning at Scabble.”
“I get so much from the relationship I have with my best friend.”
This means that we can change our emotional experience by changing what we choose to think. We can also change how we interact socially with others when we are feeling something.
It can be really helpful to recognise that feelings, thoughts and behaviours are different things.