The Difference Between Feelings and Emotions

To quote Kenny Rogers in his song "The Gambler":

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em.
Know when to fold ‘em.
Know when to walk away.
And know when to run.”

Many people think that feelings and emotions are the same thing – but they're not! Emotions are what trigger feelings. For example, an emotional response to new love can bring on the feelings of butterflies in the stomach and sweaty palms. Feelings are like symptoms, and we often group them together into words like excitement, fear, anxiety, and so on.

We often make the mistake of focusing on the feelings rather than the root emotion. Misinterpreting our feelings can lead to acting prematurely. And that can get us into trouble.

The Kenny Rogers lyrics are great advice when it comes to playing cards – and even better advice when it comes to knowing when and how to act on your feelings. Especially if the disclosure might cause some conflict in your life. And "if you're gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right":

Knowing When to Hold 'Em

Not everything we think or feel needs to be shared right away. In fact, learning discernment is one of the key ingredients for happiness. Sometimes, we have a very quick emotional reaction and need to hold our tongues. Otherwise, we're prone to say something we'll regret later. If you find yourself having a strong physical reaction to a trigger, it’s always best to pause before saying what’s on your mind. Hold those feelings—even for just a moment longer—to test the urgency of your statement.

When to Fold 'Em

After you’ve taken a moment or two to assess your initial reaction, you may realize that you don’t need to express the thought or feeling to someone else at all. Getting it off your chest might be as simple as making a journal entry or taking a walk around the block. But always ask yourself: "If I share this, does it take me a step closer or a step further from my ultimate goal?"

When to Walk Away

If you notice you have an emotional response to the same trigger, you may realize that it's time to walk away. This doesn’t mean you're giving up. It means you've done all you can to put your self-care first. It is totally okay to set boundaries and say that something isn’t good for your well-being. In those cases, the smartest thing is to move on.

When to Run

This is where trusting your gut instinct comes into play. If your body tells you to run, it’s likely best to act on that now and apologize later (if you need to). Our gut instinct is nature’s red flag indicator, and we often don’t pay close enough attention for fear of making a mistake and hurting someone’s feelings. Just think from a survival standpoint for a moment: isn’t it better to read someone wrong and ask for forgiveness rather than being naïve and getting really damaged? (Yes.)

Like Gambling, Practice Makes Better

This process takes a lot of self-awareness and willingness to process in real-time. It’s not the easiest to have that level of understanding in every moment, especially when you're feeling triggered and seeking relief.

Ultimately, it's always important to say what you need to say. But there are certainly ways to make that experience a more positive one for everyone involved. Self-reflection is the key to this successful sharing of your feelings and helps to ease others into the process as well.