Home All I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?

I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?

written by Dave Shearon 17 June 2008

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

Country Music Guitar

Country Music Guitar

Maybe it’s because I live in Nashville (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!), but I keep finding great expressions of positive psychology principles in country music.  One recent example is Dierks Bentley’s What Was I Thinking.  The song features a young man reflecting on a night out with a wild and crazy young woman and the things his emotions got him to do — a fight in a biker bar among them!  The refrain is a rueful “Well, I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?”  (As I write this, you can see the music video and hear the song here, but the link likely will not be valid for long.


Often, it is our emotions that help us realize, “Hey! Something’s going on here.”  One of the key resilience skills is the ability to do ABC analysis.  The “A” is an activating event (good or bad), though often we focus on “adversities” because how we explain such negative events seems to be very important.  The “B” stands for beliefs, or how we think about and explain the situation.  The “C” are the emotions and actions that come from those beliefs.  Recently, Sherri Fisher, John Yeager, and I have been working with TEACH(tm), especially as we work in the education field.  This acronym stands for Thoughts – Emotions – Actions – Consequences – Here we go again!  Thoughts lead to Emotions which power Actions which cause Consequences which start either an upward or downward spiral.  Some folks seem to work more easily with this representation than with with ABC.

Either way, the insight from the song is that our emotional reactions often are the clue that something important has happened — the “activating event.”  As in the song, we can often work backwards from our emotions to the thoughts that preceded and facilitated them.  The insight of cognitive behavioral therapy that’s captured and put to work in resilience training is that by working with out thoughts about a situation, we can also change our emotions.  Changing our emotions helps change our actions, thus consequences, and makes upward spirals more likely!

Enjoy the song, and hopefully now it will have a hidden message for you, and you don’t even have to play it backward!



 For more on resilience:

Reivich, K, & Shatt?, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1995, 2007). The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and BuildLifelong Resilience. New York: Mariner Books

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

Gottman, J. & Gottman, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. New York: Simon & Schuster.

365 x5 Strumming this old guitar courtesy of David Masters

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Jeff Dustin 17 June 2008 - 10:42 am

I like TEACH(tm) and not just because I am a teacher. It is more like the actual sequence of a bad mood or loss of resilience.

For me, the Belief part is always the hardest to identify in ABCDE. Besides, because I can rarely “hear” the B’s because emotions appear and blur the B’s so quickly I have to make up a B that fits.

A usually ends up being trivial, so I usually leave out A and keep C fairly short. Its B and C that are the areas that need work.

The basic maxim is “change your thoughts and your emotions will follow”.

I really find Senia’s APE useful, but I can’t ever remember the questions I’m supposed to ask. I ought to write them on a wallet-sized card & laminate it.

I do have a question. Becoming more resilient/optimistic is very helpful. Are there ways to short-circuit the low moods before they arise? I use gratitude and savoring and they are palliative; they work until they don’t.

If you had to recommend a principle that was not gratitude-based or savoring to prevent bad moods, what principle would you suggest?

Jeff Dustin 17 June 2008 - 10:54 am

Are there reliable ways to create lasting purpose or meaning? I know that it means connecting to something larger than yourself from reading Authentic Happiness. I’d enjoy reading the authors’ perspectives on creating meaning despite circumstances like poverty, disease, grief, etc.

The meaning-over-adversity theme is important. When I stop and think about those who suffer from terminal and permanent disease, grief, etc. there must be something that keeps them getting out of bed in the morning.

A broad palette of meaning-generation strategies would prove very useful, more than “connect yourself to something bigger”.

Kathryn Britton 17 June 2008 - 11:17 am

Dave and Jeff,

I sometimes wonder about the order of thoughts and feelings.

Haidt describes the rational mind coming into action after the intuitive mind has “made a decision” — to make a rational explanation for what already is.

I think thought doesn’t necessarily precede feeling, but it can certainly play an important role in whether the spiral following an event is up or down.


Kathryn Britton 17 June 2008 - 11:28 am


Susan Nolen-Hoeksema and Christopher Davis have a relevant article in the Positive Psychology Handbook: Positive Responses to Loss: Perceiving Benefit and Growth. Here are a few quotations — things that I highlighted (in pink) when I first read it:

Loss events, especially those that are sudden or unexpected, often appear to initiate a personal evaluation or stocktaking of the meaning of one’s life. (p. 598).

In our research with recently bereaved people, we have found that 70% to 80% report finding some positive aspect in their experience with loss. (p. 598).

Perceiving some benefit to loss, such as reporting a change in one’s life perspective, can help to mitigate feelings of helplessness and grief and preserve the sense that one’s own life has purpose, value and worth. (p. 600).

Sometimes the growth in character that they detected in themselves was in the form of an increased empathy for and understanding of others. (p. 602).

The particular benefit respondents found in their loss — whether it was through a gain in perspective, growth in their character, or a strengthening of relationships — did not influence their adjustment… Rather it was finding a benefit of any kind that was associated with better adjustment. (p. 604).

{Don’t try to force this on someone else!} –> Indeed, some of the comments from family members and friends that bereaved people find most unhelpful are thos that try to put a positive spin on the loss. (P. 605).

I haven’t listed any of the references they give for these points — most of them do have some references.

Dave Shearon 17 June 2008 - 12:53 pm

Hi, Jeff! I’ve recently worked with Chuck Wolfe of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso stream of Emotional Intelligence research and application. He distinguished between emotions and moods by noting that emotions have identifiable causes (“activating event”) but moods are more like background states not tied to a particular experience.

Tal Ben Shahar highlights the research on exercise as a component of positive psychology. Not heavy exercise, it can be as little as 30 minutes of walking three times a week. Exercise affects mood.

Barb Fredrickson’s work suggests that frequent experiences of positive emotion may form the basis for our moods. Thus, varying efforts to incorporate pleasure and engagement into daily living should affect the ratio of “good” to “bad” moods.

Finally, I sometimes use music to change a mood. I don’t listen to music constantly, so perhaps it has more effect on me because of its novelty. But if I’m a little “down”, some time spent listening to (and singing along with — but you do NOT want to go there) can really help me enter a more positive, energetic mood. Since I tend to be a bit on the “let’s think about this some more” side, I even have a suite of songs that help me move to action!

Wayne Jencke 17 June 2008 - 5:09 pm

Dave, There is some interesting research that suggests that emotions come first and then we appraise them (think about them) which in-turn can amplify (or diminish)the emotion. So perhaps the model should be E-TEACH – the modern day version of teaching??????????

The book Descartes error provides a good summary of the research

Wayne Jencke 17 June 2008 - 5:17 pm


I suggest you play around with some breathing, meditation, mantras or exercise. Research shows that all increase mood and emotional regulation

david 18 June 2008 - 11:22 am

i think you might find interesting daniel goleman’s new dialogue series ‘Wired to Connect’ where he discusses applications of emotional/social intelligence with some interesting thinkers. there’s one with george lucas (star wars, edutopia) called rethinking education which is about how to integrate technology into the the classroom in an emotionally intelligent manner, which is really relevant to your discussion,

Wayne Jencke 18 June 2008 - 3:07 pm


Read Descartes error – research shows emotion comes first. It makes sense because emotion drives thinking and behaviour (remember broaden and build).

Dave Shearon 19 June 2008 - 8:02 am

Wayne, the relationship between rider and elephant is much closer and more bi-directional than that metaphor suggests. I still find it a very useful metaphor. Moods and whatever passing emotional state we may be in do influence our thinking — that’s Barb Fredrickson’s work. However, cognitivie behavioral therapy, the foundational science under much of positive psychology, is also right — thoughts influence behavior. Learning to think differently about situations, many of which are ambiguous from an emotional situation, changes our emotions. On the other hand, practicing activities designed to change the pattern of our emotions — Three Good Things, for example — changes our moods and most common emotional reactions. Those changes make more positive, optimistic thoughts easier to entertain. That said, I appreciate the recommendation. I’ll read Descartes Error.

Wayne Jencke 19 June 2008 - 5:09 pm


There is some interesting new research that suggests the B in CBT is all important – not the thinking.

This fits in with strengths work where getting people to work on their strengths (behaviour) has a powerful impact on wellbeing. Similarly those strengths that involve doing (zest & hope) have a bigger impact on wellbeing than the passive strengths (eg love of beauty)

Also if you have a look at Sonja L’s work the happiest people don’t spend a lot of time thinking – they are too busy doing.

Perhaps thinking is overrated?

Kathryn Britton 20 June 2008 - 10:33 am


I think what Sonja Lyubomirsky says is that the happiest people don’t spend a lot of time ruminating — which is not triple-bar equal to thinking. She also says that happiness can be increased through intentional activity. It’s hard for me to imagine embarking on intentional activity without thought.

I like Jon Haidt’s Rider and Elephant metaphor — because it expresses the relative power of the cognitive and instinctive minds and because it illuminates what can happen when the rider and elephant are working together in concert. The conscious mind is important for building habits, but it can’t get there by main force. It can look for ways to get the elephant to practice practice practice until the intentional actions become habitual. The will to search for and exert ways to get the elephant to practice is the self-regulation that Jeff Dustin often asks about.


PS. Thanks for your answer, Dave. It helped get me unstuck in my thoughts about Wayne’s comments.

Wayne Jencke 20 June 2008 - 12:31 pm

Kathryn – you can’t think your way to happiness – think of engagement, flow, working on strengths, intentional activity – they are all activity based.

Perhaps the emphasis on thinking is due to the values of the academics – their currency is thinking. The irony is that love of learning correlates poorly with life satisfaction.

Kathryn Britton 20 June 2008 - 5:22 pm


All of these intentional activities that you list have thought components — e.g., observing and understanding strengths, establishing the conditions that make flow likely, figuring out which of Sonja’s activities are the best fit for your personality / circumstances. For me, thinking is an important part of activities where I experience flow.

Emotion, thought, and behavior form a system of mutually affecting parts. Thought is just one entry point for affecting the way the system works overall. It’s most accessible one for many people, though perhaps not the one with the greatest impact.

Love of learning has a lower relative correlation with life satisfaction than love, optimism, and curiosity. But I don’t think that necessarily means a poor correlation.

Thanks for keeping the discussion going.


Dave Shearon 20 June 2008 - 7:57 pm

Wayne, I agree with much of what you say. Get up and get moving is a good start toward greater well-being for many. But, especially when we are stuck or facing an adversity, thinking can play a role if we know the tools. The trick, of course, is that it is exactly when we are facing an adversity or stuck that thinking, especially in fruitful ways, becomes most difficult. That’s where the science, approaches, and interventions positive psychology is developing can be most helpful. The research is pretty clear — mastering these cognitive components (and acting on them, yes) can lead to greater resilience, less depression, more hope, optimism, and happiness. Would I do these to the exclusion of exercise, mindfulness, exercising strengths, gratitude, and forgiveness. No. But I sure do think they should be in the each person’s skill set.

Wayne Jencke 21 June 2008 - 2:38 am

Dave, check out the following article that questions the C in CBT. You might see where I’m coming from

Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy?

Clinical Psychology Review 27 (2007) 173–187


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com