“I think” versus “I feel”

untitledI’ve noticed my students using “I feel” when expressing an opinion–they always used to say “I think.”

I’m a big fan of discussion in my classes–the kind where students read and annotate an article or paper, one that is difficult, but accessible with effort.  Then they discuss the article, from the structure of its argument to its implications for living.

Since I don’t participate in these discussions, we hear a lot of student voices.

It was three years ago that I first heard a student say, “I feel” when expressing their opinion.  I found it jarring–I still do and I don’t like it.

When researching this topic, I found several articles that make the distinction between “I think” and “I feel.” They say the determining factor for which you use is its persuasiveness.  Use “I feel” when speaking to people who are more emotionally oriented and “I think” with those who are more cognitive.  They claim that if your audience is primarily male, go with “I think”; “I feel” resonates more with women.

Perhaps I am naïve, but I am horrified by this instrumental approach to language.

“I think” expresses something different than “I feel.”  And neither is the same as “I believe.”

“I think” means that you are expressing an opinion for which you think there are rational grounds.

  • I think “Arrival” is a profound and beautiful film.
  • I think that “I feel” is over-used.
  • I think ones Facebook feed is a very bad place to get ones news.

“I feel” doesn’t really have anything to do with opinions–you don’t feel opinions.  “I feel” is about senses or emotions, intuitions or perceptions.

  • I feel cold.
  • You said “Fine,” but I feel like there is something wrong.
  • I feel uncomfortable being alone in the elevator with that man.
  • I feel good about the Seahawks’ chances in game against Philadelphia this afternoon.

“I believe” has to do with convictions–“I believe” often involves a great deal of rational thought, but there is acknowledgement that support for your position cannot be reduced to logic.

  • I believe that gratitude ought to be in the list of heavenly virtues.
  • I believe everyone ought to plant daffodils and tulips in November as a ritual of hope.
  • I believe zombies narratives have a prophetic role in our culture.

Feelings are a lot more important than they used to be.

Trust your feelings, Luke.

This sentiment is axiomatic in our culture.  People believe that if they have strong feelings about something then it must be true or valid.

I don’t think they believe it yet, but the primacy of feelings is seeping into the way my students express themselves in classroom discussions.

Feelings are important, but they aren’t the same thing as thoughts.

I think when you think something you should say, “I think” whether or not it’s more persuasive.

10 Comments

  1. Jim Williams

    Trent this is good analysis. Currently feeling is king. My students, like yours, used to say “I think…” which is essentially an “um” or an “ah” to create a pause while they formulated and organized their ideas. I chastised them for this as I pointed out, who else is thinking what you are saying? It is understood that when a person speaks, it is that person’s thoughts. The phrase allows a relativistic thought of “you may think it, but I don’t” response when what the student wanted was a strong, factual statement like “Trump is unsupported by the majority of Americans.” “I believe” doesn’t solve the issue either. Beliefs are also considered flexible by our students.

    The decline in the value of truth and reason, and the rise of feelings, which is jarring to me as well, will be a challenge for us in the classroom.

    Blessings to you as you try to challenge your students.

  2. Wade Harris

    I didn’t read everything you wrote in detail, but I’ve been doing something that’s odd, and a google search led to this page…
    Lately I’ve been writing: “I feel/think that…”
    I’ve been trying to communicate that I’ve connected both cognition and emotion to my evaluation when relaying my feelings/thoughts.
    Weird. But it means something to me.

    • Trent

      I like how doing odd things, brings you to my site 🙂 I like the idea that underlies your practice–that a person is an integrated whole. My practice has been to align the term with whether we are dealing with cognition or emotion, but you are correct that it’s not always distinctly one or the other. How do people react? Thanks for reading (the bits that you did 🙂

  3. Yuli

    I’ve also noticed this trend among myself and my classmates this semester. Personally, I think that this has to do with my insecurities or something. For me, it is difficult to express or even word out my opinions. But I do not know why. My words usually get jumbled up and I don’t seem to make sense. I’m working on improving the way I speak and express myself by becoming more aware of my actions and expressions. Which is how I found this site. As a teacher, do you have any advice? Asking as an insecure write and speaker, soon to change *crossing my fingers*.

    • Trent

      See, I should have taken a crack at rewriting the 23rd Psalm. It would have been a good edition to the video. You did it very well. And I love your observation that we like to think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, yet resist our identification with the flock. Thanks for viewing.

    • Trent

      I think you are right. Sometimes it comes from insecurity, or not wanting to sound too certain.

      I was a teacher for a long time, and was very relaxed communicating in that context, but when I had to teach teach teachers and other adults, I found it a lot more difficult to get the words out, like you. I was so focused on what I was trying to say that I said it in a jumbled up way. The thing I did, was I kept presenting to adults. After a while, I got a lot more used to it and could be myself in front of an adult crowd. So, my advice is, continue to put yourself “out there.” Do it in safe places, but try to do it regularly. Hopefully you can get a better handle on communicating your ideas, because your focus will move from your own insecurity, to the conversation itself. Thanks for reading. Trent

  4. ORyan

    Thank you for posting your thoughts. And experiences. A DuckDuckGo search brought me to your page As I search “I feel that versus I think that”.

    My wife is an English second language speaker. She is fluent but often misses nuance. Over the last 10 years she has said “I feel that/like…“ followed by a declaration about my behavior. Ex. I feel that you are not listening. I feel that you are judging me. I feel like you are badgering me. I feel like I can’t do anything right. Etc. We have worked through most of these but I have found it difficult to clearly understand what she is trying to tell me. These claims feel fundamentally different from: I feel unheard. I feel shamed/indignant. I feel defensive/combative. I feel hopeless.

    I grew up Enmeshed with a narcissist And have been working to build a life with my wife. Your differentiation of think/feel/believe helps. Any suggestions how to differentiate further or at least help us to speak clearer about thoughts, feelings and beliefs?

    • Trent

      I’m afraid I’m not much of a marriage counselor. Sometimes it’s legitimate to say “I feel” because you are actually describing a feeling. My argument in this post is that we use it all the time, even when describing ideas. I think what you are talking about is removing the “you” from the “I feel” statements so that they sound less accusing and helping the other party from getting defensive. That’s a whole other pond into which I am hesitant to wade. Thanks for reading!

      • Tatiana Sodovsky

        I know the origins of “I feel” vs “I think”.

        The propaganda and indoctrination started in 1997/1998 when I was in highschool. We had a Guest Speaker “women’s studies” [today they’re called ‘gender studies’] professor come to our school. She told the class “STOP using I THINK, use I FEEL”.

        This is where my political affiliation started and was seeded to question everything. I questioned her “why are you trying to push this I FEEL, it makes no grammatical sense why you would feel a logical thought that was processed by brainwaves?” [to paraphrase]. Well just like in today’s era, she had no good response other than “you boys need to stop using I THINK”. To her defense, the social justice warrior movement was in its infancy and she did not have the arsenal today’s marxist professors have like you are ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘privileged’ and ‘mansplaining’ to provide a good reply. And so I continued to use “I think” for another decade and a half.

        The 2000’s came and went and society was still not overly politically correct.

        Then the 2010s came and then an influx of new words spawned. Safe spaces, trigger warnings, offended, toxic, mansplaining, privileged, cis white male, etc. And I remember around 2015 I thought “why is everyone saying I FEEL”? That even I started using it, but then I caught myself remembering the origins of this propaganda word when I was a kid in the late 90s. That even back then in the late 90s they started this ‘movement’ of changing speech.

        I wish I could turn back time and ask that professor: “Who put you up to this?” “What school taught you this”, “what agenda are you from”. Because she was a young lady I recall likely in her 20s – and yet even she didn’t really know why she needed to tell us “use I FEEL” other than she was probably instructed to .

        When you dig down this rabbit hole. You realize this agenda goes back way before the 2010’s, way before the 1960s hippy era [although very much to blame], goes back before WW2 [but is related as to who funded both sides], it goes back to the early 1900s at the Frankfurt school of Germany. WikiPedia describes it as “Frankfurt School (German: Frankfurter Schule) was a school of social theory and critical philosophy associated with the Institute for Social Research”. Notice how many times they use “SOCIAL”. That’s the warning sign and its association with Karl Marx. Which means this goes back even further in the 1890s and early 1800s in its infancy to change how society views the world.

        Want to go down an even deeper rabbit hole that gets you canceled? Investigate who’s behind the origins of communism and their end goal objective.

        So you see, a simple “I feel” vs “I think” – we can debate for days on what do modern people think it means or doesn’t. Who cares what modern people think, we’ve all already been brainwashed. What you really want to look into is the origins of a “word” then dig to see how it all started.

        My example of how as early as the 1990s they were pushings this “i feel”, yet it never caught on until the 2010s. Is just one example of many other words used today. Like the list I mentioned above, I’m sure there’s students that went through the same experience in the 2000’s who were in school. And god knows what they’re pushing students in the 2020’s.

        And yet, few ever ask like you have “Why are people using I FEEL instead of I THINK”, and even fewer investigate the origins as to WHY because doing so means you are rebelling against the mainstream norm to even dare question it.

        • Trent

          It’s very interesting that you had someone explicitly tell you to use “I feel” instead of “I think.” I don’t the shift is directly related to SJWs or Marxism. I don’t think we need to overcomplicate this since such a clear connection can be drawn between mistrust of objective Modern reason and using the phrase “I feel,” because it’s so nicely subjective. There might be an indirect connection between the shift and our culture at large starts attending to non-white, non-western, non-capitalist, non-Christian voices–we might as well use non-rational language to express our thoughts :). The point of my article is to suggest that we might differentiate thoughts from feelings. It’s just as bad to say “I feel” when you mean “I think,” as it is to use “I think” when you mean “I feel.” I think the people who want to scrap all things Rational, Western, Male, White, Capitalist and Christian, are not better than those who wish to retain them at the cost of everything else. So, I’m all for the middle ground, where I believe truth is hid. Thanks for reading!

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