Separating Negative Emotions from Negative Thoughts

This is not the first time I feel cheated or abandoned. Melanie called and said she was coming late tonight, that I should just have dinner by myself. She said she has to work late.

I am trying to process stressful situations like this better, but I still feel the hit before I can even realize what’s happening. Before she is done telling me all this I am already feeling depressed. I feel a knot in my stomach and even my arms feel heavy. Only because I am doing CBT therapy now I ask myself why I am feeling this way. Before CBT, I would have simply assumed I was feeling cheated and abandoned as a direct consequence of the situation. She was not coming home for dinner because she no longer cares about me and she is probably sleeping with her boss or something.

Now I know that saying things like “I feel cheated” or “I feel abandoned” makes no sense. Of course those are not feelings. One feels the whole menu of possible emotions before learning to speak, so whatever takes too many words to describe is probably a thought, not an emotion. I am not saying she is not cheating on me. I am not saying she is not abandoning me, or planning to. All I am saying is that these are thoughts or ideas, not feelings. The mere idea that she might be cheating on me or that she is abandoning me makes me feel very painful stuff. Not nice feelings. Hard to put into words, but sadness and anger are surely part of it.

Distinguishing the negative thoughts from the negative emotions that follow has made a big difference. First of all, now that I clearly see that the thought “She is cheating on me” is the main reason why I feel so terrible, I know I have to challenge this thought. Is she really cheating? What evidence is there to support this belief? Is there evidence against the suspicion that she is cheating?

Now I can also ask myself “So What?” I’ve identified that the mere idea that she might be cheating on me makes me feel deeply depressed. But why? If she is cheating on me, what does it mean about me? What does it mean about my relationship with her? What does it mean about my future? And the more I dig into my mind the more I find out all the other automatic negative thoughts and assumptions that make a phone call feel like the end of the world.

I think she is cheating on me and that means I am a loser, not a real man (and other insults of a sexual nature I don’t dare write here). It also means she thinks I am worthless and she is staying with me temporarily because she has pity on me. I can already picture the break up, the divorce and how impossible it will be for me to find anybody else to ever love me and respect me.

Too much? Maybe. Let me just clarify that I don’t really think all those things. I mean, if I really think about it now I don’t believe that I am completely worthless or that my marriage is finished. I am just trying to describe the rather extreme negative thinking that happened to me when she called me. No wonder they are called automatic negative thoughts. I really felt I had little control over all that nasty stuff going through my mind. I wasn’t even aware I had it in me. Only after talking to my therapist and practicing Stress Log Exercises I realized that I had all those thoughts and assumptions in my mind at the moment.

Here’s a picture of this Stress Log:

Negative Thoughts and Negative Emotions

Tom has learned to differentiate between negative emotions and negative thoughts.