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The Important Difference Between Emotions and Feelings

Understanding this distinction is crucial to healthy coping.

Key points

  • Emotions and feelings are not the same thing, despite people using the words interchangeably.
  • Emotions are real-time data sparked by sensations in the body. Feelings can be more biased, altered by mental misconceptions.
  • Developing emotional awareness can help prevent reactivity and false beliefs.
Engin Akyurt / Pixabay
Source: Engin Akyurt / Pixabay

Many people agree that it’s healthy to be in touch with your feelings. Whether they regularly do so is a different matter. But what about being in touch with emotions?

Despite the words being used interchangeably, emotions and feelings are actually two different but connected phenomena. Emotions originate as sensations in the body. Feelings are influenced by our emotions but are generated from our mental thoughts.

Let’s look at a couple of examples: You notice the emotion of discomfort while at a party as your stomach clenches and your breathing gets constricted. Then your mind labels that as feeling awkward because perhaps you don’t know many people there, or you just saw an ex-boyfriend. Yet another person with those same emotional bodily sensations, however, might label the experience as exciting because they get to meet new people or see their ex again.

Take a different example of emotional threat: A bully might respond with the feeling of anger because it feels empowering, whereas labeling the threat “fear” would be too vulnerable for them. In contrast, the non-bully might respond with feeling intimidated. This is why feelings can be so different from person to person in the same scenario.

Why does the difference between emotions and feelings matter?

Our emotions are like the engine of the car; our feelings are the frame. You wouldn’t tune up your car and skip over the engine, right? The same goes for our emotions, which can give us a more accurate diagnosis of how we’re doing in the moment.

Emotions are the raw data, a reaction to the present reality, whereas feelings can be diluted by stories we’ve created in our head based on events of the past or fears of the future—not necessarily the truth of the situation. Listening to our bodily emotions, informed by our sense perception, helps us connect to the reality of our present experience rather than to stories made of potentially inaccurate beliefs. From our truth, we can make decisions that are right for us.

If you get stuck in these mental stories (as most people do from time to time), you can get a more truthful assessment of your feelings by first identifying your emotions. If it’s hard for you to be in your body, you can also work in the opposite direction: Name your mental feeling and then ask, “How do I know this to be true based on the signals in my body?” If you’re confused by how emotions manifest inside of you, explore your sensations during different nervous system states, comparing ease to fight, flight, or freeze mode.

Recognizing and responding to your emotions is a beautiful way to practice self-agency. Once you’re familiar with what your emotions are telling you, you can go straight to the source in your body to stay balanced. This might include self-soothing practices like breathing exercises, releasing with movement, giving yourself a hug or getting one from someone else, finding a quiet space, and so forth.

How to develop emotional awareness

First, connect to the visceral messengers in your body. Then bring your hands to that area of the body, perhaps the heart or the abdomen, and release any muscular constriction by softening and exhaling. Ask what your emotions are trying to tell you. In what way could they be a useful signal to you?

Then name the feeling you associate with your bodily emotion. Breathe in and out this acknowledgment as both an act of kindness and a way to regulate your nervous system. Next, notice if you would feel better by shaking, stretching, or sighing out the energy of that emotion. Explore this subtle but powerful practice regularly.

People who have experienced trauma can be more emotionally numb. By slowly connecting to their raw emotions, they can begin to “name it so they can tame it.” There is so much power in self-acknowledgment to calm us, especially when it’s gentle and warmhearted. For people who are scared of big feelings, working first with their sensations means they can intervene before they become too overwhelming.

Emotional intelligence helps you come back into the present moment by grounding yourself in your body, assessing your needs, managing reactivity with self-agency, and engaging in more thoughtful decision-making. Emotions are a wise language within you, always trying to give you useful information to stay regulated, resilient, and show up as your best self.

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