Feelings, Thoughts: is There a Difference?

Are you really feeling, or are you just thinking? Most of us think we’re feeling, but we’re actually thinking and calling it feeling. Confused yet? Most of us are!

The way we verbally express our feelings is one of the most confusing parts of communication. For example, we often hear statements like these: I feel like I’m being judged. I feel that you don’t understand. I feel like he shouldn’t have done that. I feel unwanted. I feel abused.

And yet, these aren’t feelings at all. In his critically acclaimed book, Non-Violent Communication, Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg writes, “It is helpful to differentiate between words that describe what we think others are doing around us, and words that describe actual feelings… the (former) reveal more how we think others are behaving than what we are actually feeling ourselves,” (Rosenberg, 2003).

To illustrate: if I say, “I’m feeling judged right now.” Judged isn’t a feeling at all, but rather the way I fear you are treating me. A more appropriate way to say it would be, “I feel frustrated when you make negative statements about the situation without asking why I made my decision.” Believe it or not, it’s not the same thing. In the latter statement your focus is on communicating how you feel in response to someone’s specific behavior, rather than making a judgment about what you think they’re doing.

Another practical example married couples will relate to:

If my husband speaks to me harshly my knee-jerk response is a desire to respond with something like, “Why are you being so mean?” or “What’s your problem?” or even, “What crawled up your butt today?” Any of those, however, is a judgment against him that will inevitably lead to defensiveness, and it does not foster any form of connection between us. So what’s the alternative?

After finishing his sermon on the mount Jesus spoke to his disciples about judging one another (Matthew 7:1-5). First take the plank out of your own eye, he said. THEN you’ll see clearly to remove the speck from your brothers. That plank can be judgment, fear, or the simple lack of awareness of our own sinfulness! We all sin! My husband’s speck is the harsh way he spoke to me. Well, we all speak harshly! Recognizing how easily it is for me to sin makes room for grace when responding to my husband’s sinful actions. It doesn’t dismiss his sin, but gives room for grace while acknowledging the sinful action. With this grace, however thinly grasped, I can provide a more Christ-centered response by seeking to understand what it is that’s caused my husbands aggravation in the first place. It makes room for Real Talk. For example:

“When you speak to me in that tone (or with those words) I feel anxious and hurt. You seem upset about something. Do you want to tell me about it?” I address his sin by telling him how it affects me, and then I seek to understand him. It strips him of any need to defend himself against me. I know he loves me, or at least wants to show loving behavior, so voicing my hurt shows him what exact behavior is preventing that love from being expressed. My question then opens a door for him to tell me about the boss who embarrassed him in the morning meeting, rather than feel the need to rationalize or guard his sinful behavior with the one person he should feel secure enough to confess his sins to and ask for forgiveness.

It’s important to understand how crucial it is to communicate your feelings about a specific behavior observed, rather than judging what you think might be going on. Taking responsibility for your feelings while acknowledging the behavior that initiated those feelings is a good first step in providing a non-violent atmosphere to discuss real issue on the table. Often the negative behavior you see is just the tip of the iceberg.

Check out next week’s post to learn more about taking responsibility for our actions and feelings – even when provoked. Real Life. Real Talk.

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