Many people use the concepts of “feelings” and “emotions” interchangeably, but they are fundamentally different in several significant ways. Understanding the difference—and the meaning thereof—is critical to developing one’s emotional wellness and mental health.
At the most basic level, feelings are a conscious experience. You are aware of your feelings; you can name and describe them. You may even actively create them. Emotions, on the other hand, are instinctive, and initially arise in the unconscious mind. Many people never truly understand their emotions, and this can cause a wide variety of challenges.
Feelings and emotions directly influence and interact with each other. They are intrinsically linked, but they are not the same. Understanding the difference is, in many ways, the first step towards understanding ourselves. Read on for much more information on the difference between the two, and ways you can use this knowledge to get in touch with yourself and elevate your emotional wellness.
The Difference Between Feelings and Emotions
What Are Emotions?
Emotions are profound phenomena that exist in the deepest parts of our mind. Emotions are latent experiences, and one can only feel them through the emotional feelings that arise from them. Some emotions, meanwhile, are never even felt at all—though they still affect us deeply.
Emotions can be direct responses to external stimuli, or they can arise seemingly from nowhere. Your emotional reactions to specific stimuli can even change as your life experience develops. An old song, for example, that once filled you with joy because you associated it with a partner may become bittersweet after a breakup.
That isn’t a choice on your part—the change happens automatically and unconsciously. Emotions can be unwieldy and difficult to comprehend. We often find ourselves experiencing a strong emotion without even understanding why. That can cause myriad challenges for us, many of which we’ll explore later on.
The fact is, we can’t control our unconscious emotions. But we can control the way we respond to them. That response—for better or for worse—can play a significant role in shaping our mental health and emotional wellness.
What Are Feelings?
Feelings, as we said above, are your conscious responses to your world. They can be as simple as physical sensations. If we stub our toe and experience physical pain, that’s a feeling. Likewise, hunger or thirst are feelings as well.
What we are going to focus on, though, are feelings derived from emotional experiences. We’ll call them “emotional feelings,” distinguished from emotions. These feelings can be our conscious interpretation of our emotions. Emotions form in our unconscious mind, and they naturally affect our state of mind.
Our feelings essentially serve as filters between our unconscious emotions and our conscious minds. We feel an emotional sensation in our unconscious, and they eventually manifest as conscious feelings. But these feelings can be affected by our experiences, our personalities, our traumas, or even simply the whims of our mood on a given day.
The same emotions in two different people, or even in the same people on two separate days, can manifest as entirely different feelings. Problems can occur when people identify these manifestations as their genuine emotions. It’s essential to recognize the process itself if we are going to be in touch with what we feel and why.
What Are Thoughts
If this has been confusing so far, one way to differentiate them is to reframe the discussion as thoughts relative to emotions. Thoughts are all conscious experiences, and significantly, they are experiences that you construct yourself.
Not all feelings are thoughts, of course. You don’t create your own hunger, or physical pain. But many conscious emotional feelings are thoughts (or exist because of them). When we feel an emotion, we construct a conscious interpretation, narrative, or meaning surrounding what we feel in our unconscious.
If we experience a painful emotion and explore its root cause, those are thoughts. If we experience that painful emotion and try to ignore it or tell ourselves that it’s invalid, those are thoughts too.
An important thing to remember about thoughts is that thoughts aren’t necessarily real. Just because we create them ourselves, we tend to listen to our thoughts unequivocally and give them undo weight. But thoughts can be and often are false and misleading, as we’ll hear more about now.
If our feelings and emotions are not in alignment, there is a wide variety of problems that can arise. The process of transforming emotions into feelings is fundamental to those feelings being healthy, productive, and honest.
The same emotion can produce thoughts and feelings that carry us in very divergent directions. Depending on our thoughts, negative emotions can, in fact, be incredibly healthy and productive. But under different circumstances, those same emotions can cause intense disturbances and self-reinforcing mental health issues. Some problems can even stem from positive emotions!
Here are some significant problems that can arise when our feelings and emotions are misaligned:
We begin with a classic problem that stems from people not being honestly in touch with their emotions: emotional repression. It’s something that everyone has done at some point in their lives, and many of us surely still do.
We feel a negative emotion arise within us, and we don’t like the experience. So instead of exploring the emotion further, we try to hide from it. We don’t acknowledge it as real; we actively fight against its existence. We believe that if we repress the emotion, we might not have to experience the negativity associated with it.
Of course, that’s not how it works. Our thought process in responding to our unconscious emotions can make us feel even worse. It’s natural to experience emotional pain, or anger, or fear. When we react by attempting to suppress them, we don’t make the negative emotions go away, and we make ourselves feel wrong, or weak, for experiencing them at all.
All of this is a result of emotional dishonesty, or emotions and feelings that aren’t in alignment. Your emotions are real, for better and for worse. Hiding from them can only serve to exacerbate the negativity. The first step to healthier emotions is acknowledging them directly with your thoughts and feelings.
Untrue or Unkind Self-Thought
We already touched on the fact that your thoughts aren’t always necessarily true. What does that mean exactly? A phenomenon that often happens in conjunction with repressed emotions, (but can also occur entirely independent of them) is unkind self-thought. We react poorly to our emotions, and it leads to catastrophizing or other hurtful self-talk.
We blow the negative emotions out of proportion and tell ourselves things are far worse than they are. And if we don’t know the difference between feelings and emotions, we believe that these thoughts are how we truly feel.
That can, in turn, cause a vicious cycle, wherein these untrue thoughts create more unconscious negative emotions, which is what fueled the hurtful thought in the first place. We feel a spiral of pain and suffering, all because we didn’t know how to feel our negative emotions, and believed the catastrophic thoughts and feelings that followed.
It’s natural to react poorly to negative emotions. But you mustn’t believe the first thoughts that come into your mind in these situations. Your thoughts and feelings are not your real emotions, and they are not always accurate representations of what you’re dealing with. Don’t fight these negative thoughts (as this can inadvertently lead to repression) but examine them critically.
A significant way to get in touch with your emotions is to identify the roots that are causing them. Unfortunately, the more trouble you have aligning your feelings with your emotions, the more difficult that can be to accomplish. In fact, it can often lead us in exactly the wrong direction.
We’ve talked about untrue thoughts that our response to negative emotions can cause. Sometimes, these thoughts can obfuscate the thing that is causing our negative emotions in the first place. When we catastrophize or spiral, and make things out to be worse than they are, we lose sight of the real problem.
Likewise, when we feel ashamed that we are experiencing these emotions in the first place, we shift the focus and blame onto ourselves, and away from whatever stimulus is genuinely responsible.
Understanding the roots of our pain is a significant first step on the path towards healing that pain. When we mistake our panicked thoughts for our real emotions, that precludes us from gaining true knowledge of those roots.
Tips to Cultivate Emotional Wellness
Feelings and emotions are not the same things. But they are inextricably intertwined with one another. And the relationship between them is one of the biggest keys to having a healthy emotional intelligence.
But keeping your feelings and emotions in alignment can be easier said than done. It is, unfortunately, far too easy to develop harmful and counterproductive habits. But never fear! We have several suggestions for improving emotional wellness:
- Practice Mindfulness
- Develop Healthier Physical Habits
- Learn to Say No
- Practice Resilience
- Reframe Your Perspective
- Learn Breathing Techniques
- Explore Therapy
For more detail on each technique, follow along below:
One of the most prominent threads running through all the potential problems we discussed above is an inability to be aware of how you’re feeling in the present moment. Another significant hindrance is a focus on what you want or expect your feelings to be, rather than an honest appraisal of what they are.
Mindfulness can take a lot of forms. But at its core, it is the process of focusing singularly on the present moment and observing your current state, calmly and without judgment. What does this have to do with emotional wellness? It actually directly relates to several of the most significant problems we’ve listed above.
For one, it has been shown to reduce stress. That can help break out of the vicious cycle of negative self-talk. But most importantly, it’s about taking the time to evaluate your current emotional status patiently. You observe what you’re feeling, and instead of hiding from it or overreacting to it, you acknowledge it simply and move forward.
That means that you can identify your emotions and work on feeling them in a natural way. If you’re sad or angry, that’s okay. Just be mindful of that, and allow the emotion to come to the surface naturally. Emotional intelligence isn’t about never feeling negative emotions. Negative emotions are a reality of everyone’s existence. Instead, it’s about feeling them in a healthy way that doesn’t disrupt your life.
Develop Healthier Physical Habits
We are talking about mental and emotional health. That leads many to focus solely on mental and emotional solutions. But the connection between our body and our mind is stronger than many people tend to realize. By working to improve our physical health, our mental health can naturally follow.
One of the most important (and often overlooked) habits is sleep. Our brains heal and grow during sleep, cleaning out built-up toxins and recharging for a new day. Without sufficient rest, we simply do not have enough cognitive ability to understand our emotions and healthily respond to them.
Aerobic exercise promotes mental health as well. Cognitive abilities like memory, processing speed, multitasking, and more are all strengthened by regular aerobic exercise. It makes you sharper mentally and less prone to get flooded and overwhelmed when you experience a strong emotion. If you’re dealing with an emotional spiral, one of the best things you can do is go for a run.
It’s not just a matter of feeling healthier, and therefore feeling better about yourself. These are real, tangible links, demonstrated by research. If you’re looking to develop and improve your emotional wellness, one of the first places you should start is a renewed emphasis on your physical health and fitness.
Learn to Say No
Being accommodating towards others is certainly an admirable trait. We would never tell you to abandon this quality altogether; the world needs more people who are willing to go the extra mile for others. But sometimes we can overextend ourselves and wind up suffering for it emotionally.
When you feel the need to take care of everyone around you and say yes to every request, you can become overwhelmed in a hurry. That prevents you from getting the necessary sleep we discussed above and leads to intense stress, both internal and external. When you are spread so thin, it can be nearly impossible to understand your negative emotions—in no small part because they have a multitude of causes.
If you’re that type of person, saying no can be a tremendously difficult skill to learn. To bridge that gap, you can start by asking for help. You don’t need to take everything on your own shoulders. But eventually, you’ll have to go a step further and flat out say no to someone’s request.
Doing so will probably make you feel selfish or ashamed. But it’s not selfish at all. You can’t take care of others if you don’t first take care of yourself. If you prioritize self care and develop increased emotional wellness, you will be able to do a much better job of supporting the people you care about in the long run.
Do you know those resilient people who always seem to be able to get back up no matter how many times they get knocked down? Guess what: many of them weren’t always like that. Resilience is a learnable skill. It’s something that you can improve upon, or lose, depending on the effort you put in and the degree to which you practice it.
Being resilient is all about mindset and awareness. When you experience adversity, it’s okay to feel discouraged. Don’t fight it. But be aware that it’s happening. Give yourself a set amount of time to feel down and overwhelmed—and then take action. By being mindful and aware of your experiences, you gain greater control over the way you choose to respond.
Over time, make an effort to shorten the amount of time you need before bouncing back and taking action. But don’t ever try to eliminate it fully. Honestly experiencing discouragement following adversity is a natural part of the resiliency process. Avoiding that part of the process can lead to bottled up emotions, and that’s not sustainable over the long term.
Aligning one’s feelings and emotions is about experiencing your emotions openly, and about breaking the spiral of negativity that may follow that. Practicing resilience is one of the most effective tools in accomplishing both of these goals.
Reframe Your Perspective
As we briefly touched on earlier, the same emotion can produce radically different thoughts and feelings depending on our response. One thing that governs this reaction is the perspective we take regarding our situation.
A powerful tool is the ability to reframe the way you look at a situation. Doing so doesn’t invalidate your initial reaction; it simply provides you with some additional perspective. Is it possible to find a silver lining in a bad situation? Your initial impression might have been that you failed at something; can you reframe that to look at it as an opportunity for growth?
There are multiple ways to view every single situation. When you’re experiencing adversity, it can be a challenge to see past your initial struggle. All you see is that first perspective, and that can spark feelings out of alignment with your emotion. But there is always another way to look at things.
The more often you are able to reframe your perspective, the easier it will become. And, in turn, the more readily you’ll be able to elude negativity spirals and feel your emotions in a truthful, healthy way.
Learn Breathing Techniques
Here’s a tool that feels like it may be too simple to be effective. After all, we’re naturally breathing all the time. But your breath is one of the most significant regulators of our response to stress.
Pay attention to your breathing next time you’re in a stressful situation. You will notice that your breathing automatically becomes faster and more shallow. But this is a two-way street. Stress affects your breathing, but by taking control of your breath, you can work to eliminate that stress.
We breathe without thinking about it. But it is still under our control. There are many advanced breathing techniques available for you to learn if you are so inclined. But merely taking the time to breathe slower and deeper can promote significant relaxing effects.
Controlling your breathing is all about breaking out of the spiral associated with your natural physiological stress response. When you are experiencing a negative emotion, take a moment to breathe deeply and relax. That will allow you to observe the emotion for what it truly is and where it comes from, rather than giving in to panic-stricken, catastrophizing thoughts.
These can all be very useful tools, and it’s admirable to do what you can to increase your emotional wellness on your own. But you don’t need to do it all by yourself. The most powerful tool for developing one’s emotional wellness is pursuing therapy.
We understand this might feel like an enormous undertaking. Despite some progress in recent years, there is still a heavy stigma surrounding therapy. It may feel like getting therapy means you’re too weak to get better on your own. Or it may feel like an admission that your problems are uniquely difficult to overcome. Either of these things could make anyone feel ashamed.
But neither of them are true. What therapy really means is that you’re willing to do everything within your power to make yourself as healthy and happy as possible. And that’s not something that should make you feel shame; it’s something to be proud of.
When you typically think of therapy, the first thing that comes to mind is probably exploring a person’s past. And this can indeed be a significant part of therapy. Our emotions—and the feelings with which we respond to them—are both shaped by our experiences and traumas. Working through these with a therapist can help you understand why you feel the things you do, and help you develop healthier responses to your emotions.
That takes work, though. We’ve all seen a movie or TV show where a person has a breakthrough, understands the source of their emotional pain, and become cured, just like that. In real life, it’s not nearly so simple. Understanding the cause of your emotions is just the beginning. You’ll need to come to understand the meaning you assign to these experiences, and ways you can reframe them to create a healthier response.
All of that is far too much for any person to do on their own. Even a great therapist may struggle to work through their traumas by themselves. Not only is it a lot of work, it’s your life. You’re too close to it. An outside perspective can make all the difference.
While this type of past-oriented approach may be the first thing many people think of when they think of therapy, it does not represent everything therapy has to offer.
In addition to the stigmas surrounding therapy as a whole, there is also a misconception that it is only for people with heavy baggage or severe emotional trauma. But this isn’t the case. Therapy can provide anyone with useful insights into their lives and productive tools to make them even healthier.
Proactive therapy may seem completely unnecessary to you. But there’s no need to wait for problems to arise before you take steps to get healthier. Think about a car, for example. You don’t wait for it to break down before you take care of it. If you do, it probably won’t last very long. Responsible car owners take their vehicles in for regular upkeep, to make sure it performs to the best possible degree.
It is the same thing with mental health. Just because there’s nothing wrong now doesn’t mean you have nothing to gain by working to get better. Therapy can help you get in deeper touch with your emotions no matter your current situation.
If you have the means to afford it, we highly endorse your use of proactive therapy as a tool to pursue emotional wellness.
The Final Word
Feelings and emotions, terms that are often used interchangeably, are actually two distinct concepts. Emotions are profound, unconscious experiences that are beyond our control. Feelings are conscious experiences, many of which we can influence. The way we experience our emotions consciously is through our feelings.
When our feelings are not accurate representations of our emotions, though, several problems can arise. Our emotions can be obscured or even repressed. And we may come to believe harmful, untrue things about ourselves. All of these phenomena can become self-reinforcing loops; the more trouble we have with emotional honesty, the farther away we get.
Fortunately, there are many learnable skills we can use to develop our emotional wellness and get our feelings and emotions in alignment. By developing these tools, we can learn to experience our emotions honestly, and live a healthier, more fulfilling life.