Thoughts, feelings and the missing link

What comes first, the emotion or the thought?

Are your emotions triggered by your thoughts?

Are your thoughts born of your emotions?

Is it all of the above and then some?

I’m far from being a psychologist but here’s my theory:

thought.emotion flow chart

Basically thoughts and emotions trigger and feed each other, allowing for small changes until eventually the initial responses have merged into rational responses, which are kept in your long-term memory. There’s a lot of back and forth, rethinking/analysis and memory replay in this process. The overall length of the process will depend on the event itself. A happy event will take less analysis than a upsetting event will. An expected event will also take less time as your mind will have prepared for it and essentially done half the work already, whereas a completely unexpected event will take a lot of processing while your mind makes sense of it and works out where it fits into your life and other memories. People who hate surprises will take even longer to process their emotions and decide how they really feel. I never cease to be amazed at how complex our minds are; we go through this process with every single thing that happens – a hug from your kid, a chat with your friend, a spilled cup of tea, everything provokes a thought and emotional response that needs to be processed and made sense of before it can be filed away properly – your mind really is one hell of a computer!

Now imagine this – the connections between your thoughts and emotions aren’t there. How do you go through the process then? Look at that flow chart and take away the arrows – doesn’t really flow anymore does it? How do you get from initial emotional response down to hindsight emotions and ‘processed’ thoughts? You can’t,  you’re stuck with the initial emotions. Put it like this, if you spill a cup of tea the first thing you feel is surprise, the hot tea may burn you causing pain. If you could follow the chart with this scenario you would quickly get past the surprise, realise it was an accident that is easily cleaned up and your burn can be soothed with some cold water. Your hindsight emotions may be slight frustration at your own clumsiness and your thoughts rationally acknowledging that these things easily happen and no real harm done. You’ll have forgotten it within a day. Take away the connections and you literally stuck with the initial surprise and pain of hot spilled tea, unable to get passed it, think logically or forget. What do you do then?

If you have thoughts and emotions just floating around in your mind, unprocessed and unrationalised and unconnected then how can you function with new information constantly coming at you from day-to-day life? Easy answer – you can’t.

I have thoughts about certain events in my life, and I have emotions from those same events, but the two are not connected. When I do manage to connect a thought with an emotion it’s like a sudden avalanche! That flow chart kick starts into overdrive as if my mind is trying to make up for years of being static. It is a highly painful process because in order for it to work you have to start from the beginning, which means experiencing the initial emotional response and the first thoughts it provoked, and then analysis it all and then going through it again and again until it’s “processed” and I can look at with hindsight emotions and store it away safely in the back of my mind.

The biggest obstacle I’ve had in opening up to people and building relationships etc. is explaining this absence of connection between emotion and thought. I’ve often been accused of lying and keeping secrets, when the truth is I really don’t know what I’m thinking because there are no thoughts! Yes I feel depressed/anxious/angry/paranoid today – why? No idea! When did it start? Not sure. What started it? Nothing. I’m not lying, I honestly don’t know why I have these feelings. I don’t know what they relate to or where they come from or who they’re directed at because there is NO link between these feelings any thoughts. In other words – I have no words. Whats more, I don’t know what the external event is that triggered it all off because that link was broken too. All I have is seemingly endless and very powerful emotions (initial emotional responses) that make no sense. Some days I feel like a scared child, some days I’m an angry teenager, some days I’m a broken worn down adult. And then some days I’m virtually a robot, because the flip side of this is whilst there are emotions with no thoughts, there are thoughts with no emotions. There are observations of painful events that seem almost meaningless, there are clinical cold heartless truths with no empathy. Which side will show itself today? It’s a flip of a coin.

Is it any wonder that I hate surprises? I’m living with emotions from every stage of my life that have nowhere to go, every surprise especially bad surprises adds to the pile. Every time something happens I’m immediately trying to adjust thinking “what am I supposed to be thinking now?” “how am I supposed to feel?”. I like the familiar and the predictable, it’s been done before and I’m safe because I know I can cope.

Of course all of this is invisible. You never can tell what a person is thinking or feeling – but in my case it’s almost never both.



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