Why Do You Need to Know the Difference Between Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors?

One Heart Counseling Center, thoughts, feelings, behaviors

When I ask: “How do you feel about that?”

Most often, I get a response that starts with: “Well, I think…”

Why is it hard to figure out the difference between what you feel and what you think?

Why does it matter? It matters because thoughts, feelings and behaviors are the three channels your Human Emotional System (your internal GPS) uses to communicate with you.

Let’s start with a short cut for how to figure out the difference between thoughts and feelings.


  • Thoughts usually formulate a sentence.
  • They are a few words or more.
  • Thoughts are easy the easiest of the three (thoughts, feelings, behaviors) to report because they can be communicated exactly as they occur to you in your stream of consciousness.


  • Feelings are usually one word.  Maybe two.
  • If you are not sure whether the word that comes to mind is a feeling, try it out in a sentence:  “I feel _____”.  Does it work?  Meaning: would you answer with that sentence if someone asked you how you feel?  If not, it’s probably a thought.
  • Feelings are usually the most accurate guide to what is going on with you (as long as your thinking is accurate).


  • Behaviors are your actions.  That means if you are using action words to describe how you feel, you are probably describing the behavior the feeling makes you want to enact.
  • Behaviors are the easiest of the three channels (thoughts, feelings, behaviors) to identify because they are observable.

The reason you might not be able to discern the difference readily is because identifying thoughts, feelings and behaviors is not widely taught.  And, most people are not thinking about whether you are reporting a thought or a feeling (unless the person listening is your therapist).

So, why does it even matter?

It matters because each one of these channels works differently.  If they are all working separately and outside your awareness, it is like trying to walk three strong, energetic dogs.  Chances are high that you are getting pulled in different directions.

The goal is to align your thoughts, feelings and behaviors so they are working in concert.

That way you are not managing opposing forces and all our attention, energy and effort are streamlined.

Here is an example of how everything working together can make life easier:

Today I was sitting in a short meditation (I was doing a Headspace guided meditation on balance) and as it was ending, I felt pressure in my chest.

Feeling: I know that sensation in my body means sadness.  I wasn’t aware of anything I would be sad about, but I just let it be there for a second to see what might show up.

Thought: I had the thought that I was sad about not having connected with myself in meditation for the last couple of days.  I have been busy and focused outward and hadn’t made it a priority to sit.  I realized that I missed being connected, that was the sadness.  As I got up from the meditation, the threads of this post came together.

Behavior: And, here I am writing this post.  With ease.  As opposed to sitting here thinking I need to get a snack, answer an email or do something else that requires less mental effort.

There is an ease and efficiency with this experience.  The feeling led.  And, then I used the rest of the channels to create what was important to me so that all forces were working together…in less time, with more ease.

What examples do you have about when the channels working together or working against each other?

Wouldn’t it be nice to get some support in getting clear on your own thoughts/feelings/behaviors so you can do this for yourself?

Having a professional be able to reflect back what they see can make a world of difference. So contact us!  We’d love to help you get on track. We offer Telehealth appointments to anyone in the State of California.


  1. […] And that you can most effectively manage your stress through one of these channels? […]

  2. Margaret
    August 21, 2019

    I’m just starting to understand all this better because I’m pissed that my parents didn’t do their job and teach me how to do all this or act as effective role models so I could learn it from them. Sure, they were limited by their parents, but they should’ve made the buck stop with them, get professional help as needed, and been better role models….if not, then why decide to be parents?

    1. adrianwhall
      August 22, 2019

      Margaret, I can absolutely relate to and understand your feelings about this. I love that you are putting in the effort to understand how we work as human beings so you can be the one who breaks the generational chains. Despite being willing to make the effort, I know part of that process does sometimes entail processing anger and grief about our parents not doing this work. I just wanted to honor and make space for that because it is so real and relatable.


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