Emotions Are Not Thoughts

I spent a lot of my life miserable until my dad told me to stop mistaking my emotions for thinking. 10 years later I had no difficultly accepting Des’ claim that spontaneous emotions exist to let us know that something significant is happening, that we’ve picked up on something important or that our conscious attention is needed on something. Emotions are a window into our the unconscious mind and what they bring forth in our awareness is the immediate representation of the quality of dissonance between the world we are perceiving and the world we are predicting.

The human brain is very effective at processing and storing information. This processing capacity allows it to compare present sensory and perceptive input against years of stored experience. Any input that matches a stored memory can trigger an emotional release and what that release is depends on your emotional state when the initial memory was encoded and stored – matching on a negative experience will mostly likely trigger a negative emotional response. It is very effective at bringing forward distant memories and aiding in our survival; given we are still alive, doing what we did last time will likely result in the same thing.

This useful system that has one major draw back, it is also triggered by the perception of something not just the sensation of it – those with a fear of clowns can trigger an anxiety attack by just thinking about clowns. This characteristic of emotions makes it very easy to create a feedback loop and when paired with the belief that emotions are thinking, led to a lot of my misery. Imagine you think about a clown and start to get a little anxious. If you tend to mistake emotions as thoughts, you will believe that there is an actual physical reason to feel anxious. As you look for the reason why, you will undoubtedly think about clowns which will cause more anxiety. The cycle will continue until the anxiety dissipates.

The realization that feelings are not thoughts stops this cycle because it gives us a chance to engage or talk back to the emotion. Once we are able to figure out where the emotion came from we are then able to determine the true value of the information that it is giving us. In the case of the clown loop, we’d be able to say I feel anxious because I am thinking about a clown instead of believing that I feel anxious because there is a good reason to feel anxious.

Emotions are not thoughts, they are real and they contain valuable information but they are not the same thing as thinking.