Thoughts and emotions are an endlessly fascinating area to me, because they’re both so closely connected that they can often also be confused with one another, and the challenge of disentangling yourself from intense emotional experiences or ruminative thoughts can be very difficult but also extremely rewarding. One thing that people don’t seem to recognize though is that while your immediate thoughts are definitely what you think, what you believe though lies in your emotional response. It’s what you really think so to speak, hence my slightly playful title!
So what does that all mean? Let’s break it down with useful examples. Say you want to ask a girl out on a date but you feel intense fear, doubt and worry, yet consciously you believe yourself to be confident, assertive and charming. You may think that you are the three aforementioned things, but what you really believe about yourself is the fear, doubt and worry. At some point, you integrated the idea that you embody those things – and women are either to be feared, or you are not worthy of love. There’s a conflict in you – a contradiction. On one hand, you consciously see yourself as a strong and worthy person, but there’s deep insecurity flowing through your veins. The reality is, your emotions are telling you what you really think about yourself, but what is vital to understand is that they can be changed and emotions are not tools of cognition.
I’ll repeat that again, and in capitals: EMOTIONS ARE NOT TOOLS OF COGNITION. Emotions are motivators to action, but emotions can often be wrong, because the belief you hold subconsciously can be wrong. This requires examination and proof of it being wrong, however – and that requires active challenging of such emotions when they arise.
So let’s say you feel intense doubt, worry and fear when in a relationship. Your job here is to ask “why?”, but more importantly, ask yourself “Is this really true?”. You need to interrogate your own responses and question them. Don’t attack yourself, but challenge – there’s a difference. Chastising yourself for feeling things is a recipe for repressive disaster and a very common problem, particularly among men.
Through this process, it’s critical that you refer back to the arbiter of all truth – reality ie. what’s in front of you. Existence exists, and with it, evidence. Look at the evidence. Are you really unlovable? Where is the evidence for it? Are you really incapable and not worth looking at? Evidence, please. Being objective about what you think and feel is absolutely vital in order to overcome false beliefs and ingrained emotional responses. It’s what ultimately helps you overcome the contradiction and create a mental state that is consonant with the facts of the reality.
Keep in mind that distorting what’s true even in the slightest sense will not help you – it will hinder you, in fact. Lies, especially to yourself, compound and very quickly. It’s constructing a web of contradictions that will burn you in the long term. Be honest!
Once you’ve actively challenged and refuted your false emotional responses and beliefs, you can then take actions that are in line with the new evidence – although this does not mean the beliefs you have are immediately going to switch around. Emotions and your self-concept take time to change, and can also take a very long time with very deeply ingrained beliefs; whether it be from early childhood, trauma, etc. But if you keep at it, they will change, especially when you take actions that are proper to your happiness. During the process though, you need to carry those emotions with you and consistently challenge them. Remember, they’re not tools of cognition, and much of the time the beliefs you hold aren’t even your beliefs – they’re beliefs given to you at some point that you didn’t have a chance to accept or reject, whether through education, experiences, etc.
Emotions are essentially the “juicier” side of thought – they have a much more intense taste, but changing those tastes can take a little time. Eventually, with consistent effort and work towards actively challenging old belief patterns, they will follow through with your conscious thought and you’ll be feeling in sync with both thought and emotion again.
But always remember – never lie to yourself. If what you feel is telling you the truth after thorough examination, you must confront that, regardless of its discomfort (and it can often be harrowing realizations). The truth WILL set you free, but truth is not always pain-free.
Finally, a quick note on fear, an emotion that many people are quite adversarial towards. Fear is not a negative emotion (no emotion is negative) – it’s a valid response to the unknown in many cases; a survival mechanism. So keep in mind that being “afraid” isn’t always a bad thing – it’s natural. Challenge your fears and use it as a means to grow, but most certainly accept the fact that being afraid is part of being human. I’m afraid of a lot of things, but I don’t allow that discomfort to distort my decisions, I use it as a guide to understand what I’m afraid of and take the necessary actions to resolve the problem. Challenge yourself and growth will come about, guaranteed.
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