What are feelings?

What are feelings?

As a counselor, I talk about emotions with people a lot. But what are they? It’s a tough question. On the surface, it seems self-explanatory. Emotions are feelings. But what is it really? Well, a feeling is something you feel. But feel how? How do you know the difference between feeling happy, sad, scared, angry, confused, embarrassed?

Let’s break it down.

Feelings are internal responses to external stimuli—fancy way of saying a sense of something happening inside us in response to sometime outside us. According to Robert Augustus Masters, author of Emotional Intimacy (2013), feelings are “noncongnitive,” meaning you don’t have to think about a feeling for it to happen. Feelings are reflexive, you can’t help having them. Like a reflex test at the consultant’s office when he taps your knee to see if your foot will bounce up. Feelings work the same way. Your body responds to its environment, and your brain tries to put language and meaning to it. It is visceral, instinctual, automatic. When you’re sad, you might feel a tightness is your throat, stinging or watering in your eyes, a plummeting sensation in your stomach. When you’re embarrassed, you might feel your face get hot, shakiness in your legs, sweat on the back of your neck, your heart race.

How are feelings and emotions different? Masters makes a few important distinctions between the two. Yes, emotions are feelings, but “emotion is all about how we handle that feeling” (Masters, 2013). Emotions gather all kinds of context together—like thinking, past experiences, social input, body sensations, and personal viewpoint—making them reflective. Emotions make connections between all of this information in the blink of an eye.

Now that we have a deeper understanding of what feelings and emotions are, what do we do with them? Feelings and emotions are often treated like an archaic nuisance. You may have heard that it isn’t lady-like to be angry, or it isn’t manly to be sad. We brush our feelings and emotions under the rug and pretend that they never existed. If you haven’t heard this yet, or need a reminder, IT’S OK TO HAVE FEELINGS! It doesn’t make you weak or less-than in any way. Masters paints a picture of us ‘fighting or wrestling with our emotions like an opponent,’ however, by denying ourselves these completely natural responses, we actually do ourselves more harm than good.

Our feelings and emotions can give us a lot of insight into how we are experiencing the world around us. In counseling, we frequently talk about how our feelings impact our actions. This is typically paired with an approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Through this model, we can investigate how our thoughts, feelings, and behavior feed into one another.

If we have negative thoughts, like “everyone at school thinks I’m stupid,” we will might feel hopeless and unmotivated, so we will likely avoid our homework or put off studying for a big test. With the help of the CBT model, we can try adjusting some part of that thought-feeling-behaving cycle. By changing the thought, “everyone at school thinks I’m stupid” to “some subjects in school are challenging to me, but I know that I’m smart,” our hopelessness may subside, we feel a little more motivated to try, and begin taking action to improve our grades. Our feelings and emotions don’t have to be a setback. Instead, they can be useful tools in our belt as we work toward health and wholeness. Once we identify what we’re feeling, why we’re feeling that way, and how it’s effecting our behavior, we can make major changes!

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