When I first started studying therapy, I learned that therapists talk about their clients’ experiences in terms of three basic categories: thoughts, feelings (also known as emotions), and behaviors. These categories are wholly and importantly distinct. Almost every situation a person lives through includes elements from all three, and they often coexist and correlate with one another, but they do not overlap—and after some instruction and practice the differences between these categories become more and more well-defined.
However, in my role as a therapist I routinely find myself redirecting clients who want to talk about one when I ask about the other. Specifically, thought tends to be the easiest of these categories to access—and, unfortunately, it is easy to get stuck there. Common parlance does not help much: for example, in English it is common to start a statement of opinion with “I feel”—understandably, therefore, when I ask someone what they are feeling, they often respond with a statement of opinion or an anecdote.
Similarly, when I ask someone what they are doing in a certain situation, they often respond with what they were thinking: they talk about was going on in their mind instead of what was going on with their body. Thoughts are valuable information for me. Thoughts are essential to the therapeutic process. But in order for therapy to be effective, the conversation cannot be restricted to my clients and myself stating, analyzing, or—least helpful of all—arguing with each other’s thoughts.
There are a lot of reasons why talking about emotion and behavior is difficult. People who are not used to distinguishing between these three categories may experience some semantic confusion when prompted to talk about feelings or behavior instead of thoughts. For example, one could argue that thinking itself is a behavior. It might be more helpful, admittedly, to qualify behavior as physical behavior: posture, activity, inertia—the movement or lack of movement that impacts the space around a person, and which allows space to impact them.
Speaking of semantics, one could also argue that the entire psychotherapy process takes place in the domain of thought: talking about emotions and behaviors, after all, requires thoughtful observation and reporting. It is a fair point. Due to a confluence of social and cultural factors, conversations that I observe and those that I participate in are often more about thoughts—usually of the narrative, opinion, or directive variety—than they are about feelings or behavior. When emotion or behavior do show up in conversation, they do not receive much of their own space or consideration: instead they are both used and understood as a rhetorical device in support of, or in opposition to, one thought or another.
Thus, we reduce a vast existence of feelings, behavior, and thoughts to only the latter. In doing so, we either ignore or misunderstand significant dimensions of ourselves and others. Arguing becomes the only way to make one’s self understood, and being agreed with is the only way to feel valued. Family members and intimate partners become understandably hurt and distressed when they fail to reach consensus of thought—a totally normal situation that a thoughts-only style of communication renders very dangerous. Unfortunately, that style of communication is as ineffective as it is common, and it contributes greatly to the experiences of powerlessness and emotional alienation that families, couples, and individuals often report when they first enter therapy.
It makes sense. After all, how can a person expect their child, or parent, or sibling, or partner, to validate and empathize with emotions they do not communicate? How can a person ask for validation or empathy for emotions they themselves are not aware of—that they themselves cannot access? The truth is that no one only thinks. Everyone also feels and behaves. So, if a person can only talk about their thoughts, the problem is not that they “don’t feel” (although I do get a kick out of that excuse). Instead, the problem is that they do not know enough about themselves to identify their feelings effectively.
Therapy is a great way to break free from the thoughts-only trap because, returning to an earlier semantic tangent, psychotherapy does not actually take place in the domain of thought. Thoughts are present and essential in the process, but psychotherapy—like all conversations—exists firmly in the domain of behavior. Talking is partly a vehicle for thought, but what a person says, as well as the tone, volume, speed, clarity, and cadence of their speech are often motivated as much by the expression of feelings as it is the transmission of thoughts; furthermore, while feelings and thoughts may motivate or be motivated by speech, neither of these define the decision to speak or the character of the speech. Talking is a behavior: a thing we do, that impacts the space and people around us.
The great advantage of therapy is that the clinician can observe all three domains—thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—in real time, and can educate their clients to start observing themselves the same way. They can identify how clients behave when they experience painful feelings. They can offer clients new ways to think about their painful feelings. They can teach or practice physical behaviors clients can use to cope with their painful feelings. They can interrupt problematic cycles of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that seem automatic, tease them apart, and offer different options. Simply, therapists help their clients see themselves as more than a series of thoughts; consequently, our clients can begin to challenge, mute, and put aside those thoughts which do not serve to them.
Janine Joly-DeMars provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call or email today to schedule your first session or a complimentary telephone consultation with Janine.