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 are, and also just as much ‘out of the body’! The confusion is because our whole philosophy and psychology is based on the Cartesian duality of the physical body versus the abstract mind, so we don’t have a third place to ‘put’ feelings. Even popular psychologists who talk a lot about ‘the heart’ (as a metaphor for the emotions) tend to fall into the same dualistic trap, this time by making the mind equal to the brain and therefore just a part of the body: hence the neologism the ‘bodymind’, which they oppose to the heart. Even though we also have an actual heart in our chests…

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 existing in different and largely separate areas of our experience. Particular ‘feelings words’ may be used in relation to one or more of these bodies or areas of experience  – for example, ‘warm’ and ‘comfortable’ can be purely physical (‘in the body’), but they can also be used (in what is ultimately a metaphorical way) in an emotional sense, in which case they mean something entirely different, 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: for example, ‘anxious’, ‘delighted’ and ‘grateful’ seem to me purely emotional, while ‘curious’, ‘confident’ and ‘confused’ are essentially intellectual in nature, and ‘energetic’, ‘restless’ and ‘stiff’ are usually physical.

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 actually represent 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

ripped off

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”. It’s an idea, a thought I have, and it could easily become an accusation that someone did something ‘wrong’ to me: “They left me out”. 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.

If it’s appropriate and useful to communicate with the person we have been holding responsible for our distress,  which is never a given, it will be clearer and more connecting to say something like:

I’m disappointed because I expected to be invited and it was a shock 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 get 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 NbC / 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 list 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!