Feelings or thoughts?

To avoid the trap of naming as a feeling something which is actually a thought, many NVCers like to ask where in our body our supposed feeling sits or is felt. The idea is that feelings are in the body and so if we can’t find a suggested feeling, it must be in the mind, and therefore it’s a thought. However, I am not convinced that all feelings can be located in this way. When this technique works, I believe it does so simply by drawing our focus away from our thoughts. Thoughts are actually just as much ‘in the body’ as feelings, and just as much ‘out of the body’! The confusion is because our philosophy and psychology is based on the Cartesian duality of the physical body versus the abstract mind, so we don’t have a place to ‘put’ feelings unless we somehow tack on the New Age ‘heart’, and then claim that this obviously metaphorical usage entitles us to pretend that we’re talking about something solidly corporeal, and therefore somehow better! I prefer to press reset on this whole conceptual morass and start again with a ‘physical body’, an ’emotional body’ and a ‘mental body’, all equally real and necessary to our being in the world but acting on different planes of our experience. Different ‘feelings words’ appear to me to belong to one or more of these bodies or planes – for example, ‘warm’ and ‘comfortable’ can be physical (‘in the body’!), but they can also be emotional, which are then entirely different feelings, though using the same word. They can even be intellectual: ‘warm’ as in getting close to a solution or ‘comfortable’ as in satisfied with the logic of a scientific proof. Other feelings words are more restricted, though: ‘anxious’, ‘delighted’, ‘grateful’ for example seem to me purely emotional, while ‘curious’, ‘confident’ and ‘confused’ are more intellectual in nature.

In the end it seems to be easier to say what a feeling is not! Below for example is a selection of words commonly used to describe feelings, which are definitely ‘in the head’: they’re actually thoughts, and judgmental thoughts at that! Notice that they are all adjectives derived from past participles of verbs: something which we think someone else has done to us. I sometimes call them ‘false feelings’ because they really can sound like feelings until you stop to think about it.


left out

put down


Suppose, for example, I hear I am not invited to a party, while other people I know are. If I try to notice what feelings and needs are up for me, I may begin by saying to myself, for example, “I feel left out”. This in itself is not a feeling, rather it means something like, “I believe I have been left out”, or “You left me out”. It’s an idea, a thought I have, and it could easily become an accusation that someone did something ‘wrong’ to me. However, if we slow down and check what happens inside us when we think the thought “I feel left out”, we may find any emotion from anger to confusion to sadness. The actual feeling behind ‘left out’ will be different for different people and in different situations. Noticing what it is will guide us to our need. Instead of dwelling on what someone else is supposed to have done, we can now connect with what really matters to us, and if we choose to communicate with the person we have been holding responsible for our distress, it will be clearer and more connecting to say something like:

I’m angry because I expected to be invited and it was a surprise when I wasn’t” (need for inclusion) or
I feel sad that I wasn’t invited because all my friends will be there and I want to be part of the group” (need for belonging) or
I’m confused because I really don’t understand why I wasn’t invited” (need for understanding).

Whether or not to include the need explicitly depends on your relationship with the other person – what we do in NVC practice groups is not the same as in real life! If you would enjoy some ‘homework’, make a note of any words on this list which you commonly use to describe your feelings. Identify the actual feelings and the needs which these relate to (using a needs lists if that helps). These are key unmet needs in your life which you will be glad to get in touch with and learn how to fulfil!