“Thoughts are Not Feelings” is Shitty Psychological Advice
It’s time to stop spreading unscientific, unhelpful mind-body dualism.
If you have been in therapy before, or have ever picked up a cognitive behavioral or dialectical behavioral therapy book, you have likely encountered the adage that “thoughts are not feelings.”
This observation is often intended to help a therapy client distinguish between their interpretation of a situation (and what their thoughts are telling them about that situation) and the emotional reality of how that situation affected them. Take for example this passage from the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Workbook for Bipolar Disorder by Sheri Van Dijk:
One difficulty that people often encounter when they begin to examine their emotions is determining the difference between an emotion and a thought.
For example, when I ask a person how she felt in a situation, she may respond by saying, “I felt that I was being criticized” or “I felt that he should have understood how I was feeling.”
If you look closely, you’ll see that she didn’t actually describe an emotion, but instead stated what she was thinking about the situation.
Van Dijk does on to explain that this patient is actually feeling angry or disappointed by how she was treated. But as Van Dijk acknowledges in her own text, determining the difference between a thought and a feeling is really quite difficult. Our emotions shape how we perceive the world, what we think about, how we evaluate information, and how easily we can “break away” from repeating an upsetting idea to ourselves over and over again.
Conversely, the content of our thoughts impacts our emotions. When we dwell on unhappy subjects, we make ourselves physiologically and psychologically more sad. When we are used to interpreting others’ behavior in the most negative possible light, we move through life routinely feeling belittled, judged, and alone. The relationship between affect and cognition is a two-way street that is never shut down. So why do we even bother trying to cleave thinking from feeling in the first place? They don’t operate separately. They bleed into one another, shift and intertwine and progress in parallel, always.