Thoughts are often what cause us to feel specific emotions, but thoughts are not emotions. Thoughts exist purely in your mind; they do exist throughout you. Emotions do not exist in your mind; they exist throughout you. When you are afraid, you feel fear throughout your entire body. You are not thinking, “FEAR, FEAR FEAR…” you are just feeling it. This all sounds basic enough, but nevertheless, one thing many people with depression share in common is that they tend to confuse thoughts for feelings.
When you say or think, “I feel ugly,” that is not an emotion; that is a thought being triggered by an emotion, and when you say it or think it, you are feeding into the cause and effect loop. “Ugly” is not an emotionally state; it is an adjective we use to subjectively describe the quality of a particular thing. It is quite literally impossible to feel ugly, yet we hear ourselves saying it, and other phrases like it, all the time.
You might be thinking, “Well, to say, ‘I feel ugly’ is simply a figure of speech.” Yes, more often than not, when someone says, “I feel ugly,” or “I feel like a jerk,” they mean it figuratively, but that’s not to say there still isn’t a connection worth noting. For example, it’s not often you hear someone say, “I feel ugly,” while they have a smile on their face and a skip in their step. Instead, they are taking a negative emotion and attaching it to an idea, an abstraction. Conversely, an idea can occur in someone’s mind, and then cause him or her to feel a certain emotion that they then associate with that concept.
The problem is, that when you associate a thought with a feeling, then whenever you think that thought, you trigger the feeling. So, if you think, “I’m stupid,” and you associate that thought with feelings of self-hatred, then whenever you think it, you feel that way, and that’s how you get from, “I feel hatred towards myself because I think I’m stupid,” to “I feel stupid.”
Another important distinction to make between thoughts and emotions is that thoughts can change, but emotions are absolute. You can literally think about anything you want to, anytime you want to. If you want to think about rabbits, just think about rabbits. If you want to think about politics, or news, or football, or music, or love… anything, just think about it. Likewise, if you don’t want to think about something in particular, just stop thinking about it.
You cannot, however, change the way you feel at the drop of a hat. If you suddenly feel filled with hatred, you can’t just immediately say, “Well, I’m not going feel this anymore,” and change the channel in your body to a happier mood. It’s just like if I pricked you with a needle: it either hurts or it doesn’t. You can’t just decide that it’s not going to be painful. You can ignore the pain, but that won’t make it pleasant. You have to change the way you think before you can change the way you feel. That is why it is so important to recognize the difference between your thoughts and your emotions. When you let them get muddled up, you lose your ability to control the way you feel.
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