“Our senses are lanterns that illuminate the world.  Beauty is never simply in the mind alone.  Beauty awakens for us through what we hear, touch, taste, scent and see… the experience of beauty confirms the intricate harmony and creative tension of senses and thought.  Without the senses, we could never know beauty.  Without thought, beauty would seem transient and illusory.” 

John O’Donohue, Beauty

If our senses are the bridges between the body and the mind, as John O’Donohue suggests, then feelings are the bridges between the mind and the soul. They form the connection.  They carry us. They transform us and color in the empty spaces of our lives.

Emotions are information with purpose.

This is a difficult concept for many people. But it makes sense with a little explanation.

Understanding the language of emotion is so critical to our wellbeing. Hearing that language and the underlying message is an important skill to learn. We don’t always have to do exactly what the feeling is urging us to do, but we are obligated to respond. Failing to do so will almost always come back to bite us.

This Article Contains:

How do we separate feelings from thoughts?
How do we begin to understand our feelings?
Six steps to regaining control of our feelings
Feelings are organic living things
Feelings are energy
Feelings are a source of connection
Why feelings should not rule your life
Bookshelf: 3 books on emotional intelligence

How do we separate feelings from thoughts?

We all have times when our feelings overwhelm us.  They can confuse and scare us. Strong feelings can be troubling for a person going through a state of crisis.  We feel like we’re losing control. Our ability to function in society and in relationships can feel like they’re slipping.  We feel like we’re losing control. 

Understanding feelings can be difficult. The first step is to separate feelings from thoughts. Thoughts are language–words that we hear in our heads. There are many different types of thoughts: conclusions, judgments, assumptions, beliefs, associations, creative thoughts, curious thoughts, negative unwanted thoughts, and more. Some thoughts are within our control, and others are not. We cannot always choose to believe what we believe. Examples of this include believing in God or believing that you are in love. There are elements of these types of beliefs that are outside of the person’s conscious control. Neither can we entirely control the stream of conscious thoughts running through our heads.

In contrast, feelings don’t exist as language. Feelings exist in the more primitive centers of our brain. They can be translated (or mistranslated) into language. We feel hungry and then hear the thought, “I should go eat.” In this case, the impulse of hunger is a feeing from outside our conscious self. It is therefore outside our control.

Now just because a feeling’s existence is outside our control doesn’t mean that we can’t shape it. The easiest way to make the feeling go away is to give in. If we’re hungry, we can eat. But we don’t have to give in. We can fight the feeling, and it may go away for a while, but often it comes back worse than before. A person who puts off eating a slice of cake now may find themselves eating the whole thing later.

Our choices here aren’t as black-and-white as given-in or fight. We can do a lot of things to feelings. We can shape them. Through discipline, effort, and skill we can mold, shape or channel feelings to a healthy end. This is not always easy or straightforward. It often takes trial-and-error with considerable failure before we finally succeed. For example, we can start with a feeling of hunger. We translate that into “I need to eat.” A better translation would be, “I need to eat something healthy.” The end goal is to crave something healthy to eat. For some people, this is incredibly easy and natural to do. For others–people whose past traumas center around food insecurity–developing this craving can be the hardest thing they ever accomplish.

We can do many things to feelings. We can explore them and open them up through listening. We can pause them and return to them later when the timing is right. We can suppress them, much to our later detriment.

How do we begin to understand our feelings?

The most important thing we can do is try to understand feelings. Where do they come from? What do they really mean?

When a person goes to the doctor’s office, at least half the time they do not come out and say why they are really there. Much of the time, they leave it up to the medical staff to try and figure that out. Sometimes they don’t tell the doctor the real reason until the doctor’s hand is on the doorknob. Sometimes they make it out to the parking lot before realizing they’re upset at never having their needs addressed. I didn’t want to know what kind of illness I have, what I really wanted was an antibiotic. Very often, the patient has no idea why they are really there. They only know afterwards that they are upset. All doctors struggle with this. Some are more intuitive than others.

Feelings are a lot like this. They exist. And yet, it can require a great deal of detective work to figure out why they are there. For someone struggling with an eating disorder, understanding that person’s hunger can be the work of a lifetime. And yet, healing cannot occur without understanding.

Some feelings can be extremely scary.  The voices in our heads can tell us disturbing things.  They can urge us not to trust people we know.  They encourage us to cut corners.  They tell us to hurt ourselves or hurt others.  They shame us into believing that we’re not worthy. These are all difficult feelings. They can be overwhelming and seem impossible to escape. And yet, the only power they have over us is the power we grant them.

For difficult feelings like these, there is more than meets the eye. Much like the patient who comes in with a hidden agenda, these feelings won’t divulge their purpose easily. They will require curiosity and good listening before they will ever give it up.

Remember that a negative thought remains just that–a thought. Thoughts are partially within our control. For instance, a thought of suicide can be a voice inside our heads telling us to do harm to ourselves. It may be very specific and it may be very loud. We may not be able to wish that voice away. But we can affect its behavior. We can talk to it. By talking to the voice, we can discover the feelings driving the voice along with the underlying motive and purpose. For more on how to have difficult conversations like these, please check out No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model  by Richard Schwartz, PhD.

The first step to regaining control is recognizing that feelings have purpose.  If this is a new concept, these steps with a few less intense feelings that you might have. Imagine that you are the doctor now and the feeling is your patient. The feeling has an agenda that may not be straightforward. The feeling will only relax its intensity when it feels understood. You have some detective work to do here. Take comfort in knowing that you don’t have to give in to the feeling’s demands. In fact, that is very often the wrong thing to do. The feeling only needs to be understood. Then it will relax its intensity.

Six steps to regaining control of our feelings

While feelings are not under our direct control, we do control how we respond to them. Thus, we can keep them from overwhelming us. This is analogous to an obnoxious child. We cannot stop the child from being obnoxious if he truly wants to be. But we can keep the obnoxious child from ruining our day. And if we stop feeding his negative energy, he will settle down eventually.

Try these six steps to start regaining control:

1. Recognize and label feelings

If you’ve never done this type of work before, it will take some time to learn to do this. Consider reading Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett, Ph.D. for a primer on emotional intelligence. Keep in mind a few principles here:

  • There are countless types of emotions and labels that we might give them.
  • Feelings must be separated from thoughts. Feelings are outside our control whereas thoughts are partially in our control.
  • Feelings and thoughts are often confused. “I feel angry at my spouse” is a feeling. “I feel that my spouse should communicate better” is not actually a feeling, it is a thought. A good rule of thumb is that anytime you say feel that you are probably about to voice a thought. To avoid confusion, it’s best to keep things simple and say, “I feel angry” or even, “I am angry.”
  • Often we will experience multiple feelings at once. This causes internal confusion, conflict, or ambivalence. Try your best to separate out the feelings. For instance: “I am angry at my spouse because… I am sad because… I am also appreciative of the way he…”
  • Here are some common feelings that people often fail to recognize: appreciation, trust/distrusting, connection/disconnection, flexibility/inflexibility, belief/doubt, motivated/unmotivated, fatigue/energized, stressed/overwhelmed/relaxed, abandoned/betrayed, forgiveness, hatred, contempt, disgust, resentment, wonder/awe, and feeling needy. We can feel dismissed and neglected or we can feel validated, heard and understood. Even our identity contains elements of feeling beyond our control. Rene Brown offers a list of 87 common emotions. See here for her book on the subject of mapping out emotions.
  • Remember that by labeling an emotion, you are shaping it. You are defining it through language, which does in fact change the emotion itself. You are taking a ball of clay and molding it. It is still clay afterwards, but it looks different. Our minds have access to a full spectrum of emotions that go beyond what our language can fully define. Paradoxically though, we cannot understand our emotions without labeling them just like a person cannot fully understand the ball of clay without working it in their hands.
  • Emotions and sensations from the body (touch, pleasure, pain) share a strong connection. Before we consciously recognize a sensation from the body, we feel that sensation emotionally. Long before we can formulate a thought regarding that sensation, we have already felt something reflexively. This is because the emotional centers of our brain reside in the more primitive limbic system. The limbic system stands between the body and the higher areas of the brain. We feel before we think. Due to this strong connection between the body and emotions, expect that your feelings reside, at least in part, somewhere in the body. Find out where they like to hang out. People are often surprised to discover where their negative emotions are hiding, such as in their stomach (irritable bowel syndrome), chest (chest tightness), head (migraines), or back (back pain).

2. Recognize internal conflict (conflicting feelings)

If you are having trouble separating conflicting feelings, start first by recognizing the conflict and what that conflict is doing to you internally. Is that conflict causing you additional feelings of confusion, ambivalence, anxiety, or excitement? Then work your way backwards through refection. “When my spouse did this, I felt… When my spouse said…, I felt…” Then hold the feelings up, side-by-side, and allow them to coexist for a moment. It is ok if they are completely at odds with one another.

3. Examine each feeling separately

Each one will need to be examined separately to understand its own unique purpose. Pick one and shine a spotlight on it. For this to work, you may need to pause or distance yourself from the others. If you must, learn how to temporarily dissociate from certain distressing feelings if they will not make space so that you may explore other feelings.

4. Feelings are like weather

Feelings change often. Even strong feelings can change quickly. People can feel like they’ve fallen in love after a few short conversations or one intimate encounter.

5. Not me

We are not defined by our feelings. Knowing this can help make them not be so scary. Feelings are an important part of what makes us human, but one set of difficult feelings do not make us the whole of who we are. Understanding this is an important part of sidestepping, or dissociating, from feelings when the time calls for it.

6. Listen to your feelings

Listening to your feelings will probably be strange at first. Take the feeling you have chosen to explore. The rest of your feelings and involuntary thoughts must be set aside. Once isolated, approach the feeling with intent to understand it. This requires putting aside ones fears. Instead, we must exercise genuine curiosity, caring and patience.

Learning how to listen to a feeling is not unlike listening to another person. Listening is one of the most important skills a person can learn in their lifetime. It can be a difficult skill to learn. This is usually the place where people get tripped up. When done well, when we begin to listen to our feelings, we come to see them as being like whole people. They take on a shape and identity of their own that is similar but separate from the rest of us as a whole. The movie Inside Out is an excellent depiction of how this works. Each feeling has wants, needs, desires, and an agenda of its own. Each feeling has its own place of safety that it desires to call its home.

Much of what people accomplish in counseling is learning how to simply listen to their own bodies. It is through the power of truly effective listening that the feeling reveals its purpose. We will go over some basics of effective listening next.

Feelings are organic living things

Isolated feelings share many similarities to people as a whole. They are organic living things produced from living tissue. And yet, they occupy a special place–a doorway. They sit at the threshold between the mind, body, and spirit. Feelings also connect us to the unfamiliar–that which is beyond our control. This contrasts with the familiar Self–that part of us that we have direct control over, the part of us that makes choices. There are many types of unfamiliar: other people, the living breathing environment with which we live, and the unfamiliar parts of our own inner Self. It is the complex interactions of these unfamiliar entities together with our familiar Self which produces our many feelings.

Feelings are energy

All of this may sound crazy and abstract. But there is an easier way to understand feelings. Feelings are energy. As energy, feelings flow through these invisible doorways that separate one person from the next. Feelings are alive with motion. Imagine other forms of energy, like the sun, the wind, and the energy that exists when we split atoms. We do not truly control this energy. We cannot tell the wind or the sun what to do. We do not govern the laws of physics. However, we can harness these forms of energy for useful purposes. Feelings are the same way. When they enter the domain of our conscious, we can harness them. We can use them for healthy purposes or for ill. Like other forms of energy, feelings can be misused. How we use them determines whether they make us sick or heal us, whether they deepen rifts or make us whole.

Feelings are a source of connection

As a type of energy, feelings also serve as the primary source of connection between people. Feelings form the bonds that hold people together. Without feelings, there can be no social bond.

Imagine that feelings are like the forces that hold atoms together. In physics, when two particles connect, there is typically more than one force holding them together. There are both attractive forces and repulsive forces at play. There is a balance between these differing forces. This balance tends to hold different particles at a certain, predefined distance from each other. The distance becomes stable, meaning it doesn’t change much over time.

Feelings operate much the same way. When two people connect, there is typically more than one feeling holding people together. It is the balance of these feelings that creates a stable bond, or attachment between people. Some feelings attract, while others push away. This tends to hold people at a certain distance from each other–not too close and not too far. If someone gets too close, we feel smothered, and our feelings push us towards wanting more freedom. If someone gets too far away, we feel lonely and reel them back in.

Our full spectrum of our feelings is involved in this process. This includes feelings like fear, anger, loneliness, anxiety, disgust, surprise, joy, sadness, etc. All of these feelings can participate to create stable bonds of connection. It may be surprising to learn that feelings like anxiety, anger, disgust, and fear participate in connection. But these repulsive, negative feelings are as important as the attractive feelings like joy and loneliness. The two types of feelings work together. They cannot exist without each other. And so, we see here the importance of negative feelings. Feelings that cause us distress–fear, anger, anxiety, sadness–are as important as positive feelings like joy or happiness.

How do positive and negative feeling work together?

Feelings tend to pair up together to create a stable bond. Often a feeling of attraction will pair together with a feeling of repulsion in effort to keep a person at the distance that feels best. That distance is what we refer to as fit. We say that two people fit together when the distance they want to keep each other at is relatively similar. All this means is that they want similar things out of the relationship. They don’t fit if they want different things from the relationship. For instance, one person wants a romantic relationship while the other wants to remain friends. See Do We Fit Together? for more on this topic.

As different feelings pair up to create a bond, there exists a give-and-take between them. There is a yin-and-yang of attraction and repulsion. Even though the distance between people may not appear to change much over time, there is always a push-and-pull at work to maintain that distance. A relationship dynamic between people is always in flux as people bounce back-and-forth between feeling attraction and feeling repulsion. This constant movement creates a rhythm. We push, then we pull, then we push again. This dynamic repeats itself through the life cycle of the relationship.

A couple can be in-sync or out-of-sync. Their separate, individual rhythms may line up together or they may fight each other. For instance, in-sync partners may feel the need for intimacy at similar times, or they may feel responsive to each other’s needs. Out-of-sync partners have difficulty communicating and responding to each other. This leads to conflicting behavior. One may be pushing while the other is pulling–one may be chasing while the other is running away.

When a rhythm is out-of-sync, this creates conflict. Resolving the conflict can be done in healthy or unhealthy ways. A power struggle between partners is one pattern of unhealthy conflict resolution where one person attempts to have their rhythm supplant the rhythm of their partner. In a power struggle, one partner believes their needs are more important than the needs of their partner. Active listening is one strategy for healthy conflict resolution and getting people back in-sync.

The emotional rhythms of relationships lead to a lot of repetitive behavioral patterns. These repetitive behavioral patterns become a type of habit over time. Individuals tend to respond to similar circumstances in predictable ways using their past experiences and abilities as a guide. These types of repetitive patterns become stable over time. We call this stable habit a cycle. A cycle basically means that people tend to do the same thing over and over again in their relationships.

Cycles are a normal part of relationships. We all have our routines. Partners become locked into their cycles. Even though, at any one point in time, they may be at a different place in the cycle, they are destined to return to that same place after a given period of time. That is ok. Being in a similar place is familiar and feels safe, which is why people enjoy the safety of a relationship’s routine.

There are many different types of relationship cycles that involve different types of emotions and behaviors. Cycles can be healthy or unhealthy. A healthy relationship is one where partners are generally in-sync, share similar values, and are responsive to each other’s needs. An unhealthy relationship has a deficiency in one or all of these three aspects.

When a relationship is working towards a healthier cycle, we call this positive cycling. When a relationship becomes stagnant in unhealthy behavior patterns, this is co-dependency. When a relationship becomes unhealthier over time, this is negative cycling, which is like a vicious cycle.

The purpose of this website and Identity-Values-Reflection (IVR) is to understand different types of relationship cycles. How do they work? What feelings are involved. We can determine which cycles are healthy and which are unhealthy. IVR can help people break out of unhealthy cycles and move towards healthier ones.

Take home points:

  • Feelings are connection. Without feelings, connection does not exist.
  • Different feelings group together in effort to create a stable connection so that people are not too close and not too far. Attractive feelings (i.e. joy) tend to pair up with repulsive feelings (i.e. anger).
  • We attempt to keep people in our lives at a certain distance based upon how much we value their connection. If each person values the other person to the same degree, then they fit well together.
  • There is a constant flux, or rhythm, in all relationships. This rhythm is defined by the balance between attractive and repulsive feelings. Both types of feelings are critical to establish this balance.
  • The habitual, repetitive rhythm becomes a stable cycle over time. Behaviors and feelings repeat themselves.
  • Cycles can be healthy or unhealthy depending on whether partners are in-sync, share similar values, and are responsive to each other’s needs. Relationships may progress towards greater health and connection (positive cycling), they may regress (negative cycling), or they may stagnate in unhealthy behaviors (co-dependency).
  • Identity-Values-Reflection (IVR) can help people understand their relationship cycles and work to make them healthier over time.

Feelings should not rule your life

Just like in the section “Not Me” above, feelings shouldn’t run your life. They provide you with energy. But they do not define you. Feelings aren’t Facts.

A person who is ruled by their feelings will surely run into peril. Feelings must be balanced by logic and reason. Feelings and logic form their own special cycle.

What is logic? In this case, we are not talking about a mathematical logic. Instead, we refer to the logic of values. Logic/reason consists of the values we use to channel and direct feelings towards a particular action or purpose. These values form guardrails to keep our feelings from driving us off a cliff.

Without feelings, a logical person becomes flat, robotic and disconnected. They become judgmental and lose the ability to truly listen to others or inspire through passion. Without true connection, trust cannot exist. This leads to negative cycling and a destruction of important relationships.

Without logic, the feeling person becomes dysregulated. They exist as a different person, moment-to-moment. Without the grounding of emotions, they make critical decisions on a whim. This also leads to negative cycling. The feeling person will eventually give in to their impulses. Important values like integrity, honesty, loyalty, respect and identity will erode. The feeling person will always follow their “happiness,” not realizing how they are cutting corners in their lives. They will cheat and steal from others. This also leads to loss of trust.

List of core values

Feelings aren’t Facts.


Permission to Fee: The Power of Emotional Intelligence to Achieve Well-being and Success
No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model
Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

Next: active listening