The title of this post may seem counter-intuitive. It often doesn’t seem like thoughts create feelings at all. We usually experience feelings as “just happening” to us. But if we take the time to step back and reflect on what’s going on within us, we can usually see that yes – there is indeed a thought or belief underlying everything we feel. Feelings don’t just happen to us – they’re the result of thoughts that we think. Emotions are sources of information that let us know what we’re really thinking.
This is good news. It means that by changing the way we think, we can change the way we feel.
In order to explore this idea, let’s give some thought to a life situation that many of us have encountered: being left by a romantic partner. We’ll consider the situation through the adventures of a fictional couple, Sally and John. Sally and John have been dating for about two years. They’ve had happy times and also difficulties. They’re both cool people.
Here’s scenario #1: Sally breaks up with John. John thinks, “Wow, this sucks. I’ll never meet another person as wonderful as Sally. I’ll be alone and unwanted for the rest of my life.” John keeps thinking these thoughts. He starts to feel hopeless and depressed. He spirals into a despair that lasts for months until his friends finally goad him into going to therapy and working on his perceptions.
Here’s scenario #2: Sally breaks up with John. John thinks, “Oh, okay. I guess it wasn’t meant to last, but I sure am grateful for all the fun and love we shared. I wonder what amazing person I’ll meet next?” John feels a little sad for a few weeks as he adjusts to the change of not having Sally in his life, but soon he’s also energized and excited by all the fresh possibility that’s opened up for him.
Do these examples strike you as overly simplistic? If so, I might argue that’s because the thoughts that John thinks in scenario #1 and in scenario #2 obviously aren’t just isolated thoughts. They each represent a whole mode of seeing the world, a whole attitude towards life. In other words, if John generally believes that life is constantly screwing him over, he’s unlikely to be able to have any positive or grateful thoughts about Sally leaving him. Meanwhile, if John generally thinks that the universe is a friendly place that’s always offering him opportunities for growth, he’s unlikely to be able to believe that Sally leaving him is the end of all his happiness on earth.
This means that it’s not really single thoughts in isolation that create our feelings – it’s our whole belief system about who we are and how the world works that does this. However, our belief systems are made up of thoughts: memories, perceptions, stories, details. If you really want to change the way you feel, it’s a great idea to start changing your moment-to-moment thoughts about the world. And it’s also a great idea to set time aside, sit down, and dig in for a deep examination and overhaul of everything you believe about yourself and life.
Deep examination and overhaul of everything you believe about yourself and the universe – wow, that doesn’t sound too easy or fun, does it? Yet it can be fascinating and empowering work. If you don’t like the way you feel most of the time, consider adopting the thought that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with you or with the world – just with your beliefs about both. From that premise, examine the ways in which you tell yourself that you’re not enough, that life isn’t enough, that you’ve been hurt or deprived. You might end up discovering that you’re actually far more wondrous and that life is far more generous than you ever previously imagined.
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