My Therapist Says That’s a Thought, Not a Feeling
How the Feeling Wheel has helped me navigate my emotions during a pandemic
“How does that make you feel?” is probably the question most associated with therapy. It’s meant to help people connect with their feelings, but sometimes it can be hard to adequately express emotions. I should know — my therapist calls me out on this on a regular basis. We were discussing my relationship with close family members when my therapist asked how a particular situation made me feel.
“Well, I think…” and I rattled on.
“That’s a thought,” she said gently. “Not a feeling.”
“Oh, umm… okay,” I stammered. “Ugh, I wish there was a list of feelings I could just pick and choose from.”
Lo and behold, there is. My therapist mentioned the Feeling Wheel during our session and a quick Google search returned a colorful wheel with a spectrum of emotions. First developed by psychotherapist Gloria Willcox in the 1980s, the Feeling Wheel is composed of six core emotions at the center of the wheel: happy, sad, disgusted, angry, fearful, bad, and surprised. Notice that “fine”—a common response to the question “How are you?”—isn’t one of them. That’s because “fine,” my friends, isn’t a feeling.
“Expressing what you’re feeling, such as hurt, disappointment, and shame is extremely vulnerable — we’re allowing another person to see us.”
Beyond the six core feelings, the wheel goes more in-depth with a middle ring naming feelings associated with one of the six core emotions. For example, fearful includes scared, anxious, insecure, weak, rejected, and threatened.
Name it to tame it
“It’s really hard for us to identify what we are feeling instead of explaining it. I find that when I ask my clients what they’re feeling, they often discuss what they’re thinking,” explains Tatyana Rameau, a Chicago-based therapist. “Expressing what you’re feeling, such as hurt, disappointment, and shame is extremely vulnerable — we’re allowing another person to see us. Yet once we are able to say [what we feel], we are then able to take ownership of it and decide how we want to proceed. It allows us to feel then release rather than react.”
At the beginning of my practice with the Feeling Wheel, I’d keep a running list in the Notes app on my phone of my emotions that day and what circumstances or situations could be tied to them. This isn’t to say every emotion necessarily means something, but this habit helped me 1) name my emotions; and 2) see if there was any correlation between the emotion and current circumstances. For example, when a friend announced her pregnancy this summer, I felt jealous, angry, and anxious as I wondered if a successful pregnancy would ever happen for me and my husband, given our failed IVF cycle earlier this year.
Living through a global pandemic during racial unrest as a Black woman in America has led to a plethora of emotions. Over the course of the last few months, I’ve felt anxious, furious, stressed, scared, overwhelmed, annoyed, and critical, just to name a few. So often it’s not just one emotion we’re feeling at any given time, but multiple emotions all at once.
I’ve found the act of referencing the Feeling Wheel to first identify what I’m feeling and then writing down my emotions helps to remove some of the power they hold over me. It’s as if instead of reclaiming my time (shout-out to Rep. Maxine Waters), I’m reclaiming my power and, within that, my peace.
Feel the feelings
In his talk about toxic habits, author, transformational speaker, and recording artist Justin Michael Thomas says that thoughts and feelings aren’t inherently toxic. It’s how people respond to them that makes a difference.
Thomas encourages people to embrace their thoughts and emotions with compassion and curiosity, asking “where did this even come from?” and “what is it here to teach me or show me?” As Thomas suggests, a meditation or mindfulness practice can help disrupt negative thoughts.
If you’re a doer, like me, it can be hard to sit still and allow yourself to feel the feelings. And there have certainly been a lot of feelings to contend with since the beginning of this year. As my pastor, Jeanne Stevens, has said: “Feelings are looking for space, not solutions.”
“What if our feelings are not looking to be fixed… what if they are just looking for some healthy space to feel?” she wrote.
Sometimes you just have to make room for your feelings and give them permission to take up space. Emotions are nuanced — you can’t plan for them and you certainly can’t avoid them forever. At the very least, it’s worth knowing that there are better options out there to describe how you’re feeling than just “fine.”