Everyone has pet peeves. I have a menagerie of them. One of my favorites is the common (and fairly recent) tendency of English speakers and writers to confuse and conflate the words, “feel” and “think.”
But feelings are not thoughts and thoughts are not feelings. That might seem obvious and elementary, but it drives me nuts how often people miss or ignore the distinction.
Consider headlines and pronouncements like the following:
Three-quarters (75%) of Americans feel that America’s new emphasis on national security will create new job opportunities in science and technology (emphasis added).
More than 65 percent of Central Ohioans feel state and local governments should offer private businesses tax breaks to create or retain jobs (emphasis added).
Majority Feel State is Going in Wrong Direction (emphasis added).
It has become so commonplace that some of us don’t even notice it any more. But do Americans feel that America’s new emphasis on national security will create new job opportunities in science and technology…or do they think so? Do Ohioans truly feel that state and local governments should offer tax breaks to private businesses…or do they think so? Do people feel that their state is going in the wrong direction…or do they think so?
You get the point, I think (see what I did there?). The practice of substituting the term “I feel” for “I think” in phrases like “I feel that our schools are doing a good job” and “I feel what a person does in the privacy of his own home is nobody’s business but his own” accomplishes what Duke political scientist James David Barber calls “a detestation of reason in favor of emotion.” As feelings rule increasingly in place of ideas in journalism, public “opinion,” and governance, it becomes easier to believe utter nonsense (“If I feel it, how can it be wrong?”). It often takes investigation, examination, and deliberation in order to think through an issue, but a person usually needn’t do anything in order to feel something.
More dangerous still, in a culture where we treat thoughts as if they were feelings, disagreement and dissent must be disallowed (“How can you disagree with how I feel?”). Thus, disagreeing with someone constitutes an attack. Legitimate debate is stifled. Bridges to true understanding are blown to bits as soon as they’re begun.
There’s nothing wrong with feelings. And very often our opinions are based more on emotion than on reason. But feelings are not thoughts. And confusing the two—whether accidentally or strategically—is inaccurate and dangerous, particularly for writers who are called to traffic in the truth. Let’s not insult each other by implying that we’ve surrendered the ability to think as well as to feel. Or the intelligence to know the difference.
Well said, Bob. I sometimes long for the old debate team days when we had to make the best presentation of both sides of an issue; that is, we had to do research, think logically and not let our feelings get in the way.
Sometimes I’ll say to someone who disagrees with me, “That’s not how I see it, but maybe I’m wrong. Make your best case to convince me that you’re right.” After reading your post, Bob, I may change that to “Make your best case with facts, not feelings.”
Thanks for the comment, Shirlee. I also think it’s okay to give vent to feelings when making a case, but it is best not to confuse feelings and thoughts even then. Sometimes what I think is part and parcel of how I feel….and it probably even helps my case if I keep those lines clear.
Bob, outstanding post full of such insight and wisdom. I feel and think this is a necessary topic to shed light upon. Thank you for doing that!
I feel you’re absolutely right, Callie. As always.
Damon J. Gray
Oh, Bob, Bob, Bob…
This is something that has sandpapered my nerves for years. Any time someone begins a sentence with “I feel that…” I know we are headed down an icky road. We never feel “that.”
We feel frightened, or overjoyed, or encouraged, but we never feel “that.”
Years ago, I drove someone nuts by consistently responding to her “I feel that” statements by saying, “That’s not a feeling. That is a belief.”
I believe we got here because, technically, feelings are neither right nor wrong. They simply exist. So, we cannot apply any moral judgment to a feeling. Neither can we argue with a feeling. We can do so , however, with a belief.
Example: I can say, “I just feel that Peter was the silliest disciple.” That is not a feeling, but since you cannot attack my “feelings” I couch it that way as a self-protective measure. “Well, what are you attacking me for, Bob? I’m just telling you how I feel!” No. I am not. I am telling you something I believe, and you are attempting to correct my flawed belief.
Thanks for sharing. Now I need to go take a Valium and settle down.
Oh, Damon, Damon, Damon…
I THINK you get it.
I love your comment, Damon. Although, it is not easy to pin down the roots of our fuzzy thinking and corruption of the language.
Now that you’ve brought “feel” and “think” to the forefront, I’ll be analyzing their use. I’m certain I’ll be found guilty, somewhere. Ha!
Loretta, it’s pervasive, and it’s been going on for decades. You’ll hear “I feel” ALL the time, much more often than “I think” or “she thinks,” etc.
So, Bob, in our culture must we pay
a meet adoration of How They Feel
when the worthies know not how to say,
whether their minds hold What Is Real?
If the feelings precious-held today
slip tomorrow on mental banana-peel
and invert – reverse! – the state of play
and make a new idol, compel us kneel?
It’s all too much, ‘twixt traps that stay
my grammatical hand, and I drunkenly reel
to the edge of the precipice, a word-torn brink
from which I must plunge, I feel…er, think?
This whole thing reminds me of parenting, where you can be honest with your kids. “I really don’t care how you feel, do that again and you won’t get the keys to the car.” That gets them thinking.
Twenty years ago, consultants presented “I” statements as a way to more collaboratively communicate in our business meetings. We were encouraged to replace “I think” with “I feel.” The next consultant came along and said if the person is presenting their own thoughts, it is not necessary to announce it with either phrase. This made the most sense to me, however, later I was ‘coached’ that I stated my thoughts as fact and to begin sentences with, “I feel” to avoid being overbearing. I may have rolled my eyes.
Thank you for the post and the reminder to be more conscious of how we use these phrases in the future.
I’m sharing this … all over social media.
I feel you should.
Wow! I think my brain is a bit overwhelmed sorting out thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Thank you, Bob, for the post and everyone else for your comments. I’ve noted this discussion in preparation for an adult discipleship class on forgiveness.
Cindy, what a powerful topic there!
Rebekah Love Dorris
All the feels.
Seriously! You’ve captured how I feel perfectly. Dismayed when people supplant logic with emotion.
Both are necessary and glorious gifts from a Creator who thinks and feels.
But switching them is as dangerous as Ben Carson transplanting a heart into the brain cavity.
My first book now begs me to finish it after reading your post. “Why wise women must learn to let good sense conquer wild emotions” is the elevator pitch. Thinking of it gets me emotional. 😀
A resounding amen to this one Bob. You touched on the root of many of our problems in society today. And as always you managed to do it with a fair degree of levity.
Joyce K. Ellis
I FEEL happy that you’re making the point that word choice is important. I THINK we, as Christian writers, need to be standard bearers in thinking and writing with excellence. 🙂
This post makes my heart smile! (Just letting you know how I feel.)
I just finished writing a piece last week that talked about losing our grasp of absolute truth when we allow feelings to become our compass. Feelings are real, and it’s okay to have them, but it is not okay to let them rule us. They are weak-willed and easily offended and easily led astray.
It’s a scary idea to be living in a world run by them. As writers, we can pave the way to allow thought and reason to play a greater role again with our word choices.
This is a great post, Bob!
As a whole could it be that psychologically today’s culture has made people less confident in expressing their true thinking … “I think”. “I feel” sounds less opinionated somehow, even though you are right, of course. They are not the same. On a side note, it is a good practice to sort thoughts from feelings. The truth of a matter is often different than how you feel about it. I’ve found this tool, to separate out thought vs feelings in a given situation, useful in lay counseling and in my own life. Then one can see it clearly.
Well, I think that I feel that this is a great blog post . . . Besides, those words shouldn’t come up in our writing anyway—such weasels *most* of the time, notice emphasis on *most*. 😉 Thanks for sharing your thoughts—or is it feelings? Aw, can it, as Ronald Reagan would say; let’s just say thanks for your blog post that helps us write stronger and use better descriptors for conveying emotions, inside and out.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Feelings….nothing more than feelings…. (i think I forgot the rest of that song. But it just loses something if it was written “thinking….nothing more than thinking….trying to forget my thinking of love….)
I feel your pain, Bob. At least, I think I do.
I know I love the truth in this post. Well said.
I feel like I should never again speak with you face to face. You probably shouldn’t read my fiction novel. I must absolutely grate your nerves. Your pet peeves and my bad habits perfectly align.
That said, I loved the serious tone of this blog. Very important message about confusing the two in our culture.
*i included as many pet peeves of yours as I could here. I hit at least three.
Weeps, thinking I must return to my original MS and hit find/replace. Too many psychologists have rammed ‘feel’ into our brains. ‘How does that make you feel?’ OK, motivational speakers, as well. Jesus didn’t parse words or use the word ‘feel.’
We all have pet peeves. My biggest pet peeve is dumbing down our words/sentences and concepts for poor readers (6th grade level or less). I think writers can help people out of ‘stupid’ reading. For example, I don’t use BIG words but just ordinary and slightly more interesting words/phrases… and have been called on it. ‘Cops don’t use those kind of words.’ Trust me, the words used are not beyond the comprehension of even 6th graders. Saying cops ‘don’t use those kind of words’ is degrading to police officers. One of my favorite authors writes words to savor. Those are the memorable novels.
I have a few others but I think I should stop there…
I’m guilty of saying this for certain, and now I will be editing myself when I speak, LOL. Funny how common things can proliferate without question. The distinction you made in the realm of news and social media is a serious societal flaw. One I’ve been bothered by (the “don’t judge my feelings propaganda”) though I have never pondered the shift in word choice until now. Thank you for opening my eyes a little wider!
Thank you for addressing this issue. It dovetails into the whole relativism. If I believe it or feel it then it must be true. If feel like I’m really an Asian woman, who are you to tell me I’m not? If I believe bigfoot is real, then he is.
All that to say, now I need to go back over my manuscript and see if I subconsciously used “feel” instead of think. when giving my point of view. I feel like I might have. Ha!
Thanks again Bob. I “think” I like your thinking. This needs to be published as an editorial in a nation-wide newspaper to help American’s wake up.
I feel I think too much about how I feel about my thinking…………and my feelings.
I loved your post. I think we’re all guilty of this to a varying degree. Maybe it’s our language getting corrupted, but here’s something else to consider. In the Myers Briggs test, better known as the MBTI, there’s the third letter is either F for feeling or T for thinking. It’s the realm in which we tend to operate more comfortably (not where we always operate, though some people think that). Personally, I probably use “feel” a lot more than I should, but I do think that’s a reflection more on where I operate more comfortably (feeling) than a lack of understanding.
That being said, we as writers do need to traffic in the truth and be careful in our editing (oh, the joys of it!). As for the rest of society, I think (notice!) that the mix-up of words shows a distinct deterioration in the ability of society as a whole to think critically.
I appriciate your true statement…..”the mix-up of words shows a distinct deterioration in the ability of society as a whole to think critically”
It is by the means of “feeling” most are deceived. Adam and Eve were not deceived because they were thinking critically but were feeling.
An example of this that irked me (feelings, yes!) was a commercial for some sort of yogurt. I forget what value they were ascribing it, nutritional, or recycled packaging, but the tag line was “It feels good to do good.” So THAT was that determining factor for morality and nutrition? It FEELS good. Yummy.
Hi, Bob! Your post reminded me of an experience in grad school for my MBA. I stood in front of the class, presenting conclusions for a business case study, when I made the mistake of saying, “I feel that…”
The professor interrupted me by literally shouting, “Nobody cares what you feel. I want to know what you THINK based on logical conclusions!”
That was more than 30 years ago. I still react when someone says “I feel” during a factual discussion.
I’m reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s comment, “One of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.”
L K Simonds
I’m late to the party and I’m sure everyone has gone…
I hope you feel better after getting those thoughts off your chest. I would’ve.
“The practice of substituting the term “I feel” for “I think”…accomplishes what Duke political scientist James David Barber calls “a detestation of reason in favor of emotion.” As feelings rule increasingly in place of ideas in journalism, public “opinion,” and governance, it becomes easier to believe utter nonsense (“If I feel it, how can it be wrong?”).
When I dwell on the facts, the facts you’ve articulated in this blog, I worry about America because so many citizens don’t think; they feel, and they come out with some harebrained ideas as a result. Then they stick by those notions doggedly. And then they vote.
When I’m finished dwelling on all of that, I remind myself that the Lord keeps America. Her success is spiritual, and praying is a lot more important than voting. Plus, I truly believe that we writers can influence people’s thoughts and feelings in that intimate exchange between reader and page, maybe even in ways a conversation can’t.
Thank you for articulating this opinion.
Good word! God we lift our culture to you.