Your thoughts are an inner dialogue. You have an average of about six thousand thoughts a day, most of which you habitually repeat to yourself. In many cases, you learned to think these thoughts from experiences with your primary caregivers in childhood, and have been repeating them from that time.
Considering that cognitive abilities do not fully develop until the mid-20s, you can imagine how many of these thoughts no longer serve you.
Why develop your awareness of this inner dialogue? Your ability to choose how you think about your self and lie around you allows you to regulate, or choose, your response to any triggering events.
Very simply, you want to become aware of what you tell yourself inside so that you—rather than your emotions—direct your choices. Your happiness depends on it. This is critical because your thoughts activate emotion-driven processes within you. That’s right, even painful ones. Your thoughts, and the underlying beliefs that drive them, automatically trigger emotions.
While events and some people’s actions may trigger unpleasant feelings and reactions, they do not cause them. The real activating agents are what you tell yourself. And most of what you tell yourself operates subconsciously. It stems from the beliefs you hold at any given time, most of which operate subconsciously.
When you, rather than your emotions, are in charge of what you think, you are in charge of your behaviors, and thus, have more say as to how events in your life unfold. Developing self-awareness is the first step to transforming your thoughts.
It is also essential to understand the power of your emotions.
Emotions are chemical molecules that act as command circuits to your body. They are no less than powerful energies that organize and shape your beliefs, thoughts and behaviors.
The reason your thoughts are energies to contend with, for the most part, is because a key way to have the best leverage over your emotions. In this sense, your emotions are your “action signals” or “indicators.”
Like a compass, your feelings indicate when you are on or off track in relation to where you want to be, your goals, or vision! Your success in overcoming problems is directly related to your ability to experience your full range of emotions, allowing them to inform your moment to moment decisions.
Pleasant or “feel good” emotions, for example, such as joy, confidence, happiness, tell you that you are getting some of your inner drives met; however, these feelings can be misleading. Not all things that create happy feelings are healthy or in your highest interest, i.e., addictive foods, substances or activities.
In the case of unpleasant emotions, they are signals that something is activating stress hormones inside. Many events that cause stress, however, such as dealing with an important issue or taking an exam, are healthy emotionally, mentally and physically. They help you learn, grow, perform, excel, create and do some extraordinary things!
It is especially vital, therefore, to learn to connect empathically to any painful, unpleasant or “feel bad” emotions such as anger, guilt, shame, hurt and anxiety. They provide a lot of essential information to you that pleasant emotions cannot. They tell you where you are in relation to where you want, aspire or yearn to be. As fear-based emotions, they invite you to understand what possible actions, or changes, would better support your vision or goals. More often, it can be “actions” as minor as replacing a limiting belief with a life energizing one. Or perhaps a more challenging action, such as making a request or expressing your feelings to a loved one (authentically, without blame or stipulation).
Seven Steps to Develop Awareness of Emotions and Thoughts
Here are seven steps to develop your awareness of your feelings and their connection to your thoughts.
1. Select a triggering situation to process.
Make a list of events that trigger upsetting feelings or anger for you. Then select the least challenging one to work on for starters. (With practice, one at a time, you can take on more challenging triggers, working your way gradually to the most challenging. This may take days or weeks, and requires patience. You want to stretch yourself past your comfort zones, yet also want to avoid getting overwhelmed by the process.) At any time, if this becomes too emotionally intense, refrain from working on your own. In this case, you may wish to seek professional help from a counselor or therapist.
2. Center yourself in the present with slow, deep breaths.
Once you’ve selected the trigger you want to reflect on, before you begin, pause for a moment to take 3 to 5 slow, deep breaths from the belly, and allow yourself to relax. Focusing on your breath, with eyes closed, scan your entire body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, noticing and releasing any tension or tightness.
Imagine yourself in a safe place. Remind yourself you are not your emotions or thoughts. You are the observer, creator and choice maker of your emotions and thoughts. Tell yourself this is good news. It means you are in charge of your responses, and no one can “make you” feel a certain way without your permission. You are the observer of your emotions. Make a mental note to yourself that any emotions you experience are merely old pockets of energy, wounds from childhood, from a time when you did not have the cognitive ability to know and to see yourself and life from many different perspectives. Now, as an intelligent and capable adult, you are always in charge of these processes. You can also choose to stop this exercise at any time, if necessary.
3. Identify and feel your emotions and feelings.
Feeling relaxed and centered in your breathing, bring the selected trigger to mind, perhaps recalling its most recent occurrence. Without judging, pause to become aware of your feelings and sensations. Notice any emotions and feelings you feel inside, as you take slow, deep breaths. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?”
If you feel anger, look also for one or more emotions beneath it. Anger is always a secondary emotion that steps in to protect you from feeling emotions of vulnerability, such as hurt, shame, or fear, which can feel overwhelming. Ask yourself “What underlies this anger?”
What feelings and emotions do you feel? Write these down on a sheet of paper or, better yet, a journal.
4. Feel and notice the location of any sensations in your body.
Pause and feel each emotion, and note what physical sensations you feel. For each of the emotions triggered, ask yourself, what sensations in your body do you feel, when you picture the triggering event? Observe the location of these physical sensations. Feeling the sensations, breathe deeply into them, and gently place one or both of your hands on where you feel them in your body. As you do, once again, consciously let go of any impulse to fix, stop, repress or judge any of your emotions and sensations. Continue to probe, noticing the sensations may lessen in intensity. If anger “seems” primary, continue asking, “What else am I feeling?”
Describe the felt sensations in your body. Record the sensations you feel, and where you feel them, in a column next to each emotion you listed in step 3.
5. Accept your feelings, and be confident that you can handle the emotion(s) and sensations.
Remind yourself you are not your emotions. You are the observer of your emotions. Emotions are energy, and what you are feeling are pockets of intensely charged energy, linked to past wounds. As the choice maker of your life, you may choose, if you wish, to breathe into any painful energy, notice it shift, move, release. You can choose to affirm the power you have as a choice maker to accept your painful feelings, as natural based on the circumstances of what you may be telling yourself. Calmly and confidently affirm, “I accept that I am feeling … at this moment.”
Say this to yourself, silently or (when possible) aloud: “I can handle this emotion…I am strong and able to handle this wisely, easily, calmly.”
A powerful way to get leverage on negative emotions is to remember a time when you experienced a similar emotion and successfully handled it. Since you have handled it successfully in the past, you can handle it again in the present—and in the future, for that matter. Say to yourself, “I have in the past, I can now, and I can in the future.” Repeat the affirmations as many times, as necessary, to where you experience a shift in your emotional state and intensity. Allow yourself to take slow deep breaths throughout your body in between each repetition. Know that each time you handle the emotion, you add it to your repertoire of successes. This will grow and strengthen your confidence and future ability to handle, learn from and turn fear-based emotions into assets.
6. Identify what you tell yourself in your mind that is triggering any painful emotions.
Next, notice what thoughts you are thinking to yourself when you picture the triggering event, in particular, any toxic thinking patterns. Your thoughts automatically trigger emotions and physical sensations in your body. That’s how the brain works.
Watch these thoughts from a safe distance, in which you are the objective observer, noticing yet not judging. Use the following visual. When a disturbing thought surfaces, imagine yourself on a luxurious speeding train, looking out the window, and observe any upsetting thoughts quickly zip by outside the window, while you sit comfortably in your seat in a safe place.
Record what you tell yourself in your self-talk in another column, next to the emotions and physical sensations you listed in steps 3 and 4 above.
7. Connect empathically to understand and validate your experience.
Remind yourself that, though other persons or situations may trigger painful feelings in you, they are never the cause. Your “self-talk” is the cause of all of painful emotions may feel, such as guilt or frustration, resentment or anger. What you tell yourself also causes the accompanying physical sensations in your body. This is good news. If how you “explain” your triggers to yourself (the specific situations or actions) is what causes upsetting emotions inside you, you can choose to change what you tell yourself. You can choose to think thoughts that calm, and empower your confidence and ability to make informed choices.
Make a mental note that: this is really, really good news! It means you are the only person in charge of your emotional responses, thoughts, and actions. You have the ability to protect your happiness and peace of mind regardless what situation you find yourself in. No one else can “make you” feel a certain way, unless you allow it.
Understanding this, create statements that affirm and validate your experience, such as the following: “It makes sense that I feel overwhelmed because I’m telling myself, ‘I’ll never get his done…this is too much for me…I cannot handle it.’”
In summary, thoughts trigger feelings, and feelings communicate vital information on how to best live your life to survive—and thrive. As you grow your awareness of what emotions and sensations you experience in response to certain thoughts, you will more and more understand the strong connection between your words or thoughts (self-talk) and your emotions and physical sensations.
When you do, you realize you have a lot more power than you thought you had to regulate your emotional states. You come to find out that, simply by making a few changes in your thoughts, you can improve the course of your life by consciously choosing how you will experience events, in a manner that allows you stay on the life-enriching course you have chosen. Your emotions, especially painful ones, let you know whether you are on a path to the emotionally fulfilling life you aspire. Once you understand the life shaping power of your emotions, and how they work with your thoughts, it will be easier to choose to stop avoiding, minimizing—or looking down on them.
In the sea of life, feelings are your navigation system.