Whether you often become overwhelmed with emotions or keep those emotions at a distance by “staying in your head,” you may end up feeling unhappy. Instead, by learning to balance emotions and thoughts, you can feel better about yourself and be better able to maintain healthy relationships.
Moving flexibly between your thoughts and emotions allows for a fuller understanding of yourself and other people. This can help you to really “get” and relate to what motivates people, yourself included—an ability called mentalizing (For more on what mentalizing is, click here). Although focusing on thoughts and emotions is only one dimension of mentalizing, it is an area where many people struggle. When they are excessively focused on one or the other in their efforts to understand people, it impedes that understanding and creates problems.
Many people feel more in control by focusing solely on cognitive mentalizing, but this creates emotional distance within themselves and their relationships. They have less awareness of their own emotions and less empathy for others. While they might reflect on their inner experiences or try to understand underlying motivations, these are purely intellectual exercises. So, even the most brilliant insights often leave them feeling empty and alone.
If you recognize yourself in this description, try fully acknowledging that you are emotionally distressed. Many people in this situation are helped by giving themselves some quiet time alone to pay attention to their emotional experiences. Given that you are probably not used to doing this, try observing what you sense in your body and stay with that for a little while. You might begin to be aware of emotions related to those sensations. With practice, you may find that you can connect your thoughts and feelings. Even if you feel uncomfortable or distressed, it may feel “right” or like you are more connected to your true self. Keep in mind that it is a skill that must be developed with practice and over time.
By contrast, there are many people who are highly attuned to their emotions, but less able to consciously reflect on situations (affective mentalizing). As a result, they often react emotionally to experiences. In addition, they are at risk for getting caught up in others’ emotions, which estranges them from their own reactions. They might express this by attending to others instead of themselves and/or by being troubled by a sense of having lost themselves. Too often, they are overcome by tidal waves of emotion, which leave them feeling helplessly tossed around.
If this describes you, it may help to consciously calm yourself down when you are upset. Perhaps take a few slow breaths, or go for a walk. Then approach yourself with curiosity. Pay attention to your observations and what you think about your situation. You may notice that your emotions don’t align with your thoughts. For instance, you may have intense anxiety about getting together with new friends despite knowing that you got along well when you first met. This mismatch is common and okay to accept for the moment. Simply reflect more on what you know about your situation. Consider all the facts and what past or present circumstances might be driving your anxiety. When emotions arise, accept them, and get more curious. Because emotions can take on a life of their own, it is important to continue bringing yourself back to the current situation. As you do this, your feelings may persist, but they will probably change, perhaps lessening in intensity. (You may find it easier to talk this through with a supportive friend or to do this in writing.)
The more you are able to allow for both thoughts and feelings as you reflect on yourself and others, the more emotionally stable you will feel. That is, you will feel your genuine emotions but not be overwhelmed by them. You will feel greater peace within yourself and greater harmony in your relationships.
(If you find this discussion of cognitive/affective mentalizing to be helpful, you may want to read my article Feel Like a Repeating Train Wreck? Learn to See It Coming, which reviews another dimension, automatic and controlled mentalizing.)
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships Message Board.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Personal change through compassionate awareness.