Thoughts and Feelings

Often, our thoughts, beliefs and feelings are connected, even when it doesn't seem obvious. Consider the diagram below:

Something happens


I feel something

Something happens and then I feel something. What goes in between?

Let's look at an example to make it clearer:

Suppose someone was alone in an old house one night and heard a creaking sound in the next room. If the person thinks, "There's a ghost in the room", how do you think they would feel? ... and how might they behave?

Now let's say the person heard the same noise and thought, "The wind is strong tonight and its natural for this old building to creak a bit" How would the person feel?.... And would their behaviour be different following this thought?

Okay, so this example shows that there are usually a number of ways you can interpret a situation. Also, what you think about situations influences how you feel and act".

So the picture can be described like this:

Something happens

I interpret it

I feel something

Let's take another example:

Suppose I'm at home and my wife comes in and slams the door. If I think "Oh hell, what've I done now", how do you think I would feel?

And if I think "Poor thing, she must have had a bad day today", how would I feel then?

Okay, let's take another example:

When I'm doing a training course and the teacher corrects me over something, if I think "Here she goes again. She's always picking on me", how do you think I would feel?

If I think "She's really trying hard to help me get things right", how would I feel?

Another example:

I'm trying to learn to operate a computer. I do the first exercise and make five mistakes. If I think "I'm such an idiot. I'll never get this right", how do you think I would feel?

If I think "I got a fair bit of it right. Practice makes perfect", how would I feel?

Let's try another example:

Suppose my spouse and I have a disagreement over what sort of breakfast cereal to buy and I think "Oh no, we can't agree on anything. Our marriage is finished. I'll be alone for the rest of my life!", how do you think I would feel?

If I think "It's not that important an issue. Maybe we can find a compromise", how would I feel?

Another example:

At the end of a busy day, if I think "I'm absolutely hopeless. I didn't get everything done that I planned.", how would I feel?

If I think "I didn't manage everything that I planned, but I got a hell of a lot done today", how would I feel?

Exercise (to help with understanding the next section):

Read the following two sentences aloud:

I live in a house.
We must house the poor.

Why did you say the word "house" differently in the two sentences?

You may or may not be able to explain it, but the reason is because you knew at some level that the word "house" was a noun in the first sentence and a verb in the second (even if you didn't know the words for it).

Non-conscious, automatic or procedural processing

So, interpretive activity can happen in your mind so fast, or so far outside awareness that you don't even know it's happening. Psychologists call that by various names, including automatic processing or more simply. automatic thinking. A lot of our thinking is automatic.

For example, when we're driving a car, riding a bike etc., we don't usually consciously think about all the actions we have to take to do the activity - it jsut happens, while we think about where we're going, or what we're going to do when we get there.

Automatic processing helps us get routine things done without having to waste too much attention on them. It's a really useful thing. Imagine how painful it would be if you always had to deliberately give your full attention to every step of every action you did.


We often call actions that involve automatic processing habits. Most of us have a lot of them, some good, some bad. It's not all that surprising then to find that habits have a lot to do with our feelings as well as our thoughts and actions.

As we go from one situation to another, one of the things we tend to do pretty automatically is make some sort of assessment of each situation. This assessment will usually involve categorising the situation in some way. We may categorise it as dangerous, safe, interesting, boring etc.

It will be clear to you by now that this usually happens automatically, almost like a reflex. We have a lot of readymade boxes that we can slip most situations into, and it's only the unusual ones that we really have to think much about.

It is important to realise that part of the way this automatic categorising process happens is by generating feelings, which tend to be quick, shorthand ways of getting our attention and impelling us to action.

So, for example, a situation that you class as dangerous makes you feel scared, which primes you to take action to avoid the danger. A situation that you class as unjust makes you feel annoyed, which primes you to take action to correct the injustice.


It is important to realise that it's not the situation itself that makes you feel something, but your classification of the situation.

Although it is very convenient and helpful to have a high speed, automatic classification system to help us navigate live, sometimes this system makes mistakes, especially when we're tired or stressed.

For example, you might walk around a corner and see a car heading straight at you. For a moment you feel panicky, but then you realise that it's only a reflection in a window, and you feel relieved. First you classified the situation as dangerous, then you reclassified it as safe. Classifying it as dangerous made you feel panic. Reclassifying it as safe made you feel relief. The whole thing happened in a split second, because the classification and emotional response happened in a way that was mainly automatic.

Furthermore, the classification systems we automatically use are generally not systems we were born with, but systems we developed early in life, in response to the world we found ourselves in. That means that they sometimes are built on misguided assumptions or inadequate foundations. One of the tasks of psychotherapy is to help us identify automatic systems that are unhelpful to us, and replace them with ones that are more useful.