sneaky thoughts

January 27, 2010 at 9:26 pm 4 comments

One idea is that feelings come from thoughts. At times thoughts flash so quickly that it feels like the feeling is alone, that it bubbled up from the well of your heart all by itself. But, theoretically, if you slowed down time, or photographed your emotional state with high-tech stop motion photography, a tiny flash of a thought would be caught passing through right before that feeling. So sneaky.

I’d like to stress the word theoretically, because if someone is actually in a difficult emotional state it isn’t always possible for them to see the thoughts that are causing their feelings, nor do they particularly care about this theory while feeling upset. In other words, I haven’t found it helpful for anyone to say to me: Just change your thoughts and then you won’t feel so sad/mad/scared!, while I lay in a heap, bawling my eyes out.

I consider empathy the only effective first aid technique when I am experiencing emotional trauma. Don’t try to fix me or the problem – no advice, no helpful suggestions, and no oh-that-happened-to-my-roommate-once kind of stories, just hear me being upset. That’s it. Or if I’m by myself, I can do this for myself. Man am I feeling scared. I am so scared. Without any further effort the feeling usually shifts to something more comfortable.

I believe that only from this more comfortable emotional state is it possible to look at this thought/feeling connection. I bring this up because, (again in theory), you can feel better by changing your thoughts about an issue, or if that isn’t possible, you can think about something else entirely. If the thought brings you good feelings then reach for it like an aspirin.

If you don’t believe it works in this way, look at it from the opposite end. I have noticed that sometimes I like crying. So at these times, I look for something to add to my thoughts, something even more upsetting that will get the juices flowing even more. If I tell myself a really good (meaning bad) story I can invite an entire family of heart wrenching feelings.

Another example might be:

Your husband is late getting home from work. At first you imagine he has stopped for a couple errands on his way home. (You feel irritated). He didn’t mention any errands when he left in the morning. As the minutes tick by you wonder if perhaps he is having an affair. That jerk! You figure it’s probably the new intern at his office that he claimed he wasn’t attracted to. The liar! (You’re spitting mad now). You imagine you’ll probably take the kids over to your parents tonight because you certainly aren’t sharing a bed with him! But you hate your parents house and you cannot believe he has forced you to move back in with your parents. (You are livid at this point). Your husband walks through the door a moment later, you realize he is only five minutes late, nevertheless you give him  a chilly hello.

Sure, this is just a made up story, but actually all thoughts are stories. Conjecture similar to this can occur to any of us without our even realizing it. We notice the intense anger but not the path by which it arrived. I do think there are feelings that are simply feelings, not preceded by a thought. But I know there are these other feelings too, that are literally created by sneaky little thoughts that flash by without our knowing it.

This happens for our children as well. They feel panicked, scared, or mad and they get to that place really fast. I suggest that, as a parent, before you do anything else, break out the empathy and watch the emotion shift, even if it takes longer than you’d like. Then, after they feel completely heard and understood, you can ask them about their thoughts. It looks like this:

Are you mad?


Yes, you are so mad.

I’m mad and I just want to hit her!

Yeah you’re so mad that you feel like hitting her. You just want to punch her.




Did you think she was taking that toy away? Were you afraid you weren’t going to get a turn?

Yeah and I was playing with it first! And I don’t want her to take it from me!!

No, you don’t want that. I did notice though, that she didn’t take it away. She pushed it to the side to pass by.


You were really worried about that.


I would say that eighty-nine percent of the time empathy alone does the trick. But misinformation, or miscontrued actions can get a child more upset than anything else, so, if after giving pounds of empathy and letting enough time pass, the child still needs a little help, look for the thoughts that got them to that point.

I know I could use that kind of help at times.

Entry filed under: life lessons, parenting principles. Tags: .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Penny  |  January 28, 2010 at 7:25 am

    I have been reading – and LOVING – this blog and the NPC blog for a few months now. I am leaving a comment this morning for a super selfish reason. I am in need of empathy and there is none forthcoming…

    My daughter is a happy vibrant very verbal 6 year old. Two days ago, she had a seizure at school. This has come out of left field. She has never (we thought) had one before. But as it turns out – after hours and hours in ER – she has been having these tiny things called absence seizures and we didn’t know. I mean, we had noticed her kind of “being absent” but hadn’t given it much attention. And now, in front of her class, she “went away” and shook and drooled…and thank god I didn’t see it and the whole point of this rant is that I am scared. I am very scared for my little girl. And I don’t need to hear that everything is going to be all right.

    Thank you. Thank you so much for having this safe space.

    • 2. nataliechristensen  |  January 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm

      Oh Penny,
      How are you now?
      That is so scary. You sound afraid, worried, and also ravaged by both the visual you imagine of your little girl at school shaking and drooling, and by the fact that this has perhaps been happening a long time and you didn’t know it. Torturous I’m sure. And hours in the ER… that alone must have been terrifying. You want your little girl to be well and safe and right now it feels like neither of those things are happening.
      I’m thinking of you and your sweet girl.

  • 3. kris  |  January 28, 2010 at 11:16 am

    dear penny….
    you are SO scared. how terrifying to think about something going on inside your daughter’s brain that seems out of control. just the word ‘seizure’ could make you want to throw up with the awfulness of it. so so scary. so unknown. and the whole future suddenly seems different. you don’t know if it’s going to be ok and that is the scariest thing in the world.
    i am full of love for you, dear one.
    we are here for you…thank you for sharing this big thing that is happening for your family right now.

  • 4. Ivy  |  January 28, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Penny you must be so scared. I hope you find the answers you need. Hugs to you and your family.


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