Distinguishing Between Layers of Experience & Expression: Noticing, Thinking, Feeling & Knowing
The nuance of human experience and expression has always been an infinitely fascinating exploration for me. To me, it’s the grand sum of what it means to be human, and teasing it apart creates deeper intimacy with ourselves, other people, and life as a whole. Distinguishing between the things we notice, think, feel, or sense is incredibly valuable in not just deepening our intimacy, but also with how we express and communicate our experience with those around us. This work is something I’ve been teaching for a long time, and although most people experience some level of resistance or challenge with it, eventually they tell me it’s very profound and impactful.
Why is creating distinctions important?
When we create distinctions, we tease apart experiences that are often all lumped together. Teasing these experiences apart allows us to have more clarity around each piece, as well as a richer experience of the whole. This is the difference between, say, me drinking a nice glass of red wine & a sommelier, who has spent countless hours distinguishing subtle nuances in flavor. The sommelier not only has a richer personal experience, but is also able to convey to another person with more nuance & subtlety about either wine or textiles.
When we learn the difference between what we’re noticing (i.e. what we can actually see), what we’re imagining (i.e. what we are thinking about what we notice), what we’re feeling (emotions) and what we’re sensing (internal & external bodily sensations), we can communicate in a more nuanced, powerful way. When we communicate our experiences in this more nuanced (and accurate) way, we reveal our experience in a deeper way to others – and this, in turn, deepens our intimacy & connection with them.
For example — I might care that you feel afraid, but disagree about whether our circumstances are dangerous – and when these two things get mashed together, it’s more likely we will misunderstand each other & fight over something useless, rather than be able to understand what’s actually going on for each of us, and come to a solution that allows us both to feel good.
How to begin to make these distinctions.
Before we begin to make these distinctions, a few caveats.
Firstly, even though they are distinct, they do all loop together in a very non-linear way, often at lightning speed. I could have an emotional feeling and then make up thoughts about it, or have a thought that causes an emotional feeling, or an emotional feeling that causes a bodily sensation, etc. But when we learn to distinguish them, we get to see the way they dance and influence each other.
Secondly, when we put any aspect of the human experience into boxes like this, it can be used in a harmful way that is gaslighting. When it comes to communication, to suggest that something someone is trying to say is not valid because it’s not communicated correctly within this framework is not something I support. I share this framework with the intention that it can open up and deepen communication, not stifle and freeze it, or be used to make other people wrong for the language they use. For the large majority of people, learning these distinctions has proven incredibly valuable for deepening their intimacy with self and others. It is important that we give both ourselves & others space to learn, fumble & grow inside these new distinctions, learnings, and ways of expressing.
The final thing I want to say is that I think our thoughts, feelings and sensations are equally valid. I don’t value one more than the other. All of our ways of experiencing life are there for a reason; they are all beautiful, important, and have value. We run into trouble when we overemphasize, or overvalue, one at the expense of the others.
For instance, in the current USA (and much of the world) culture, there is a tendency to overemphasize & overvalue thinking, at the expense of feeling & sensing. However, in some circles (personal growth, therapeutic, authentic relating, etc..), there has been a backlash against that in a way that can sometimes overemphasize & overvalue emotions, at the expense of honoring the value of our thoughts. This is actually one of the reasons I care about this distinction – it helps us to remember ALL of our ways of experiencing & expressing, so we can work towards including them, for a more holistic experience of life.
What can we notice tangible?
I notice that person walking towards me. I noticed that you looked away when I said hello. I noticed that I giggled when that person came into the room. I notice the door is open.
In a sense, the ‘notice’ piece is simplest, and we can often agree about things that we notice.
However, there are two places of nuance:
- Our attention may be drawn to different things. I might notice a person turning away when I walked in the room, while my friend did not. I might be more attuned to subtle nuances in human behavior. You might notice plants, animals & the more-than-human realm more. I might notice body language, while you notice voice tone. In this way, we can be experiencing the same moment very differently. Being able to share what we each notice with each other, in a way that the other persona can also see what we notice, is a way of creating intimacy through what I call shared reality.
- We will likely interpret what we notice differently. This is why distinguishing between pure noticing & our thoughts about what we notice (what I often call ‘imagining’) is so important. We might both see the person walking towards us, and, while I interpret it as a threat, you see a friendly gesture. Or, if you look away when I say hello, I might imagine you’re mad at me, when in reality you just felt shy.
Most of us are pretty familiar with our thoughts. What most of us aren’t in the habit of doing is being curious about our thoughts (or what I sometimes call Imaginings), without either dismissing them OR assuming they’re correct. What I find useful is to become more aware of our thoughts. If you were raised in a family or a culture that dismissed emotions, you may default to your thoughts & have a harder time accessing your emotions & sensations. However, if you’re like many of my clients, you have probably been judged for ‘thinking too much’ or being ‘too in your head’ at some point. I believe our thoughts have valuable information for us, just like our emotions & bodily sensations!
One way to bring more awareness to your thoughts is to notice anytime you say ‘I feel like…’ & try on ‘I think…’ instead. This might look like, “I think you’re mad at me & I feel scared” or “I think I made a mistake & I feel anxious” or “I think everyone is judging me & I feel overwhelmed”.
Pretty much anything that’s connected to what you notice that isn’t either a pure emotion or a bodily sensation is a thought.
Feeling — Emotions & Sensations
The concept of feeling can be a convoluted one.
This is partly because there are two ways the word ‘feeling’ is used, that are often used interchangeably: emotional feelings, and our bodily sensation feelings. For the purpose of clarity I’m going to distinguish these, by calling them emotions & sensations, rather than feelings. Sensations are coolness, heat, pulsing, tightness, pressure, etc. — what we sense with our five senses. Emotions are angry, sad, happy, afraid, grief, overwhelmed, etc.
As a counter to past generations that valued thoughts over emotions, many of us have been taught that all emotions are valid, and when we say we ‘feel’ something, no one can disagree with us. Especially in the personal growth world, there’s been an emphasis on emotional feeling as more important than thoughts, ie, you’re too in your head -or- you’re overthinking (again). Because of this, I often hear people use the word feel to describe things they actually think – as in, “I feel like we’re going the wrong way” or “I feel like you’re mad at me.”
Distinguishing between emotions & sensations, rather than just calling them all ‘feelings’, is incredibly transformative for many people. For instance, a person may have always associated the butterfly sensation in their belly with fear, and defaulted to, “I feel afraid” anytime anything like that sensation arises. But, once they slow down & distinguish what’s actually sensation & what is emotion, they might discover that sometimes flutters in their belly are fear, while other times they point to excitement, or even turn-on!
Typically pure emotions won’t be followed by the word ‘like’: ‘I feel hurt’ vs ‘I feel like you don’t care about me’. Feeling sensations are actual sensations arising from our bodily senses. These can be internal sensations or external sensations: tightness in my belly, warmth around my heart, tingling in my fingers, softening behind my eyes, a lightness in my body, heat on my skin….
Putting It All Together
I teach extensively about how to communicate using these distinctions in programs like Relationship By Design Fundamentals, Fierce Grace & with The Collective. This is a brief primer to get you started!
If, for instance, you arrive at a party, and, as soon as you walk in the room, your ex looks up & then leaves the room. A typical thought process & communication might be: “Why are you avoiding me?” A little more nuanced might sound like: “I saw you leave the room when I arrived, and it just feels like you’re still avoiding me.”
If we break the moment down using Notice/Imagine/Feel, what we see is:
I Noticed: When I walked in the room, they walked out of the room.
I Imagined (thought): They’re avoiding me (or, I wonder if they’re avoiding me?)
I Felt: Hurt (or disappointed)
If we choose to communicate with them, having done the work to distinguish these internally ahead of time is helpful, because we can be more curious. For example: “When I arrived, I noticed you left the room. It seemed like it might have been because of me, and I imagined (or made up a story that) you might be avoiding me. When I thought that, I felt sad. But I wanted to check if there’s any truth to that story, or not?”
In this way, we neither invalidate our own experiences & emotions, nor do we assume they are correct, without checking them out with the other person.
(Non-rational) Knowing truly deserves its own piece of writing, and I have written extensively about Radical Self-Trust and Intuition, which are both forms of this kind of Knowing. But I would be remiss to not at least mention it here as well.
We live in a culture that demands all that all knowing be rational – or backed up by objective data. But the idea that anything which is not rational is irrational dismisses everything that exists & is true in the non-rational realm. Let me be very clear: Rational logic has a place & I believe in facts & objective reality -AND- non-rational knowing also exists, carries deep wisdom, and our capacity to pay attention to what we know, in a visceral & non-rational way, is an essential part of our lives – especially for women.
However, most of us have internalized this fear & distrust of non-rational knowing, so we will attempt to fit what we simply know into the language of ‘feeling’ rather than owning it as our knowing. It is the deeply intuitive ‘knowers’ who most often hate on me for teachings like this one distinguishing between Noticing, Thinking & Feeling – because it is assumed that in the distinguishing there will inherently be a denigration, or judgement of, the wisdom of emotions, bodily sensations & non-rational knowing. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is through distinguishing each for what it truly is, that we can fully honor the wisdom of each.
Want more? Watch the full video below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFKJrmixEqg&t=3s