As human beings we are continually subjected to thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and feelings can provide us with useful guidance as we go about daily living. Sometimes our feelings can be difficult to make sense of, especially for those of us with an avoidant attachment style. Not all of what we think is necessarily true and this can lead us to make ‘thinking errors’, acting on thoughts ‘as if’ they were true, even though they might not be. For example, those of us with an anxious attachment style might be prone to mis-interpret the actions of a loved one (a thinking error) as meaning we are being rejected by them (high rejection sensitivity) and for us to then act out some unhelpful feelings with them in our couple relationship.

Mastering our thoughts and feelings, or Being Oneself, can be a lifelong endeavour of ever increasing psychological maturity and personal development.

Part of learning to better manage oneself can be recognising thinking errors and making sense of our feelings, there are different parts of the human brain associated with these activities. Following are some examples of thinking errors and some examples of making sense of feelings.

Thinking errors

Some common thinking errors include (After: Willson, R and Branch, R (2006) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies. West Sussex: Wiley):

‘All or nothing thinking’ or ‘Black and white thinking’ – not seeing a range of possibilities.

‘Catastrophising’ – a vicious circle we can get ourselves into wherein we imagine increasingly awful catastrophic outcomes.

‘Disqualifying the positive’ – ignoring or diminishing positive aspects of a person or situation in favour of a search for negative aspects.

‘Fortune-telling’ – imaging oneself to ‘know’ the future, none of us know the future.

‘Mind reading’ – imaging the motivations of others without asking them.

‘Personalising’ – taking things personally when maybe they are not meant in a personal way, common with high rejection sensitivity.

In addition to these relatively straight-forward thinking errors, Kahneman and Tversky, have written extensively on difficult to appreciate thinking errors (see Kahneman, D (2012) Thinking fast and slow. London: Penguin).

Making sense of feelings

Oftentimes in counselling clients are engaged in trying to make sense of their feelings and Dr Tony Weston wrote the following guidance notes for clients trying to make sense of their feelings (After:  Greenberg, L S (2002) ‘Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings’ and Johnson, S (2008) ‘Hold me tight’. Definitions and origins from various online dictionaries). These are socially defined and enable us to communicate with one another about what we are experiencing and what we need to feel better, contrary to popular belief these are not biologically defined (see for example the book by psychologist and neuroscientist Professor Lisa Feldman-Barrett ‘How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain’):

Anger at value violation

  • Tells you you are being violated, a boundary has been violated and/or important values and standards of yours have been contravened, e.g. anger at neglect, mistreatment, injustice, abuse, etc.
  • Motivates you to protect a boundary (blood flows to the hands), approach and ‘fight’
  • Acts as a protection against an offence

Sadness at loss

  • Tells you you lost something and are experiencing a sense of ‘missing’ (loss)
  • Motivates you to cry or withdraw, grieve, let go and reflect upon what meaning life has for us now
  • Acts as a signal for contact and comfort to help you assimilate loss, let go and move on, with a renewed sense of what meaning life has for us now

Fear/Afraid/Anxiety at danger signal

  • Tells you you are in danger
  • Motivates you to flee (blood flows to the legs) or freeze (or in real extremes to attack back)
  • Acts to keep you safe, escape or be soothed

Disgust/Distaste at bad experience

  • Tells you you are experiencing something bad for you
  • Motivates you to expel the badness
  • Acts to get rid of something bad for you

Contempt at despising someone or something

  • Tells you you believe a person or thing to be inferior/worthless or beneath consideration (Latin: contemptus, to despise)
  • Motivates you to disregard the person or thing
  • Acts to enable you to move on, irrespective of the person or thing

Surprise at the unexpected

  • Tells you you are experiencing something unexpected (Latin: prehendre, to seize)
  • Motivates you to recognise something unexpected and process/ make sense of the unexpected
  • Acts to enable you to amend your expectations/ beliefs about the nature of self/ others/ life

Happiness contentment with what happens

  • Tells you you are content with what happens
  • Motivates you to a) accept how it is or b) change how it is until you are content with it
  • Acts to enable you to seek ever greater contentment through acceptance and/ or change

Shame at overexposure

  • Tells you you are overexposed
  • Motivates you to withdraw and hide, take appropriate responsibility to rectify the situation and or apologise
  • Acts to give you privacy or validation of self through a process of apology, forgiveness and recommitment in order to reconnect with self and others

Pride at accomplishment

  • Tells you, rightly or wrongly, that have/ are accomplished (Latin: prodesse, to be useful)
  • Motivates you to feel good at what you have achieved and to achieve more NB hubristic pride can serve as a warning at misplaced pride e.g. claiming credit where credit is not due
  • Acts to energise you to accomplish more or as a warning that ‘pride comes before a fall’

Despair at absence of hope

  • Tells you you have lost or are without hope at someone or something (Latin: to be without hope)
  • Motivates you to experience this absence or loss of hope and to grieve this absence/loss
  • Acts to alert you to this lack of hope and the need to grieve this absence or loss, perhaps seeking comfort from other(s). For the experience of absence of hope to provide an opportunity to re-energise and either to address the particular issue that is the source of the absence of hope or to let this go and the need to move on to something else that does present hope for the future

Disappointment at expectation un-fulfilment

  • Tells you your hopes or expectations haven’t been fulfilled (loss – see ‘sadness’)
  • Motivates you to a) grieve your loss – acts as a signal for contact and comfort, to help you assimilate your loss and let go, and b) choose again, acts as a signal for decision-making, whether to further pursue your hope/expectation, or to let this objective go

Embarrassment at social norm violation

  • Tells you you violated a social norm
  • Motivates you to repair social relationships and elicit forgiveness
  • Acts to repair social relationships and advertise positive character traits e.g. Prosocial, kind, generous, trustworthy, friendly, etc.

Excitement at opportunity 

  • Tells you, in response to a stimulus, you are experiencing a state of arousal/ agitation (mental, emotional, behavioural)
  • Motivates you to utilise your energy
  • Acts to mobilise your inner resources (mental, emotional, behavioural) to deal with the situation/ utilise this opportunity

Jealousy/Envy at wanting something someone else has

  • Tells you someone has something that you may want
  • Motivates you to choose, either to pursue that which you desire or to let go of that desire and maybe choose something else instead
  • Acts to help you make choices in life and may help to motivate you to pursue your choices

Frustration at lack of wish fulfilment

  • Considered a compound feeling with elements of anger and sadness/disappointment
  • Tells you a wish you have is not being fulfilled
  • Motivates you to a) let go of your wish and grieve your loss – acts as a signal for contact and comfort, to help you assimilate your loss and let go, and b) choose again, acts as a signal for decision-making, whether to redouble your efforts to further pursue your wish, perhaps using a different approach, or to let this wish go

Joy at living

  • Tells you you are enjoying something
  • Motivates you to seek similar events/ feelings
  • Acts to give you a desire to live

Interest/ Curiosity/ Novelty at possibilities

  • Tells you you are interested in something
  • Motivates you to explore further, enhance your understanding
  • Acts to help you understand, develop, invent and brings about progress for self and others, including mastery of self and environment

Overwhelm at too much going on

  • Tells you you have more going on than you comfortably assimilate at present (Middle English: over+whelmen, to turn over, cover up)
  • Motivates you to recognise a lot is going on and you need to take this in and make sense of it
  • Acts to help you recognise when too much is happening and you need time and space to process what has and/ or is happening

Pain/Hurt at injury to self

  • Tells you your sense of yourself is being shattered/broken
  • Motivates you to heal, repair your sense of self and to not repeat the painful event
  • Acts to maintain sense of yourself and to seek nurturing and/or healing

Regret at an act, fault, disappointment, dissatisfaction or loss

  • Tells you you are feeling sorrow or remorse for an act, fault, disappointment, dissatisfaction or loss (Middle English: regretten, to lament; Old Norse: grata, to weep)
  • Motivates you to review your part in what happened and to resolve to act differently in future or grieve past misdeeds
  • Acts to help you grieve what happened in the past and/ or to learn from the past (reflect) and choose how to act in future

Remorse at misdeed(s)

  • Tells you you feel a gnawing distress from guilt for past wrongs (Latin: remordere, to bite again, a gnawing distress)
  • Motivates you to recognise and mourn misdeed(s), resolve to change and remediate where possible
  • Acts to help you move on through a process of recognition, remediation, mourning, resolution and change

Relief at release from a previous stressor

  • Tells you a previously held stressor, load or burden has been lifted (Latin: reduce the load of)
  • Motivates you to relax and feel reassurance at the ending of this stress
  • Acts to 1) point out how weighed down you previously felt, perhaps to an unnoticed stressor, and how much attention/energy carrying this stressor was consuming, 2) invites you to experience comfort in the passing of this stress, 3) consider recovering the energy depleted by carrying this previously held stressor, and 4) perhaps to reflect upon the experience of carrying this stressor and to learn something important for the future from this experience

Shock at the unexpected

  • Tells you something happened you were not expecting (Middle Dutch: to jolt)
  • Motivates you to pay attention to the unexpected and to integrate and make sense of this new information, to create new meaning(s)
  • Acts to alert you to 1) the newness of this information, 2) your need to make sense of/create new meaning(s) based upon this new information, and 3) your need to take time to consider the broader implications of this new and unexpected information and to take any corrective actions

Pity at suffering, distress or misfortune of another 

  • Tells you another is suffering and to respect them for this (Latin, piety, reverence for God, being pious, respectful)
  • Motivates you to respect the suffering of another and can lead to the offer of relief, aid or mercy
  • Acts to bind people together through kindness to one another (Latin, pius = kind)

NB Self-pity, pity for oneself, can be considered a self-indulgence regarding one’s own difficulties and hardships, although at the right level this can also be considered an appropriate expression of compassion for oneself…