January 9, 2022

This 3-Step Process Will Help You Feel Your Feelings

As a clinical social worker and therapist, I spend a lot of time speaking with individuals, couples, and groups about feelings. They are a critical piece of how we make positive change and move through life’s challenges. Feelings also offer us critical information about our needs, boundaries, relationships, and the world around us–that is, when we are able to notice and be in them without minimizing, pushing them away or distracting ourselves.


Below, I’ll explain how you can build your capacity to identify and really feel your feelings (rather than just thinking about them or “intellectualizing them”) to better understand yourself and move through the world with more ease. 

What are feelings and why do we have them?

First things first, let’s explore what we mean when we say feelings. There are many definitions for feelings, ranging from a consciousness of a bodily sensation like hot/cold, to an unreasoned belief (“I have a feeling this is all going to fall apart”). For our purposes, we’ll be exploring feelings as an emotional state or reaction


There are many theories on why humans have such developed emotional systems. Some evolutionary theorists like Charles Darwin believe that our emotions helped us survive: with emotions like love and tenderness bringing us toward mates, and other reactions like anger and fear help us respond quickly to threats in our environment. Other theorists posit that brain activity generates emotions, and still others argue that our thoughts and behaviors contribute to our emotional state. 


Regardless of which theory of emotion you subscribe to, experts agree that feelings carry key information about what is happening in our internal and external world. Think about your feelings as messengers. They may not always be carrying 100% accurate information, but it is always worth exploring why this messenger arrived today. 


Step 1: Notice and name your emotions

Many of us, due to trauma, our attachment experiences, or how we were raised, learned to survive by “turning off” our emotions. But that doesn’t mean that our feelings aren’t still there. Think of it like this: just because you stop looking at the thermometer (or checking the weather app on your phone) doesn’t mean the weather stops fluctuating from warm to cold–we are just less attuned to and aware of those shifts. 


In order to learn to sit with and feel our feelings, we have to be able to identify which emotions we are experiencing at any given time. For many of us, that requires learning how to check the temperature again. 


To do so, I often recommend my clients begin by using a mindfulness exercise. When we say mindfulness, we simply mean intentionally observing what is going on for us without judging or making up a story that assigns positive or negative value to a thought, emotion, or experience. 


Try these steps to get started:

  1. Choose an activity you naturally do multiple times in a day. Maybe it is going to the bathroom, taking a sip of water, eating a meal, or even picking up your phone to check social media. This will be your check-in behavior.
  2. Every time you engage in your check-in behavior, pause for just a moment to notice what is happening in your mind and body. 
  3. Notice any sensations happening in your body (is your heart beating quickly? Do you notice any heaviness in any parts of your body? How shallow or deep is your breath?)
  4. Look at the feelings wheel and note any feeling words that resonate (remember, we are capable of feeling many things at once, and there is no right answer.)
Feelings Wheel

Originally developed by Dr. Gloria Wilcox, the feelings wheel can be a helpful tool to improve our ability to label our emotions, by turning an open-ended question (“what am I feeling?”) to a multiple-choice question (“which of these words resonates with what I am experiencing?”)

   5. Jot down what you noticed in your body and what (if any) feeling words seemed right. Over time this record will help you identify patterns in your feelings.


Step 2: Spend time with your feelings

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of practicing identifying emotions (and you’re more easily able to label emotions as they come up throughout the day), you can move on to building your tolerance to sit with them. Continue to be intentional about checking in with yourself, and add these strategies to your practice to stay with an emotion once you notice it. Remember, our goal is simply to experience a feeling, not change or judge it.


  • Close your eyes and ask yourself what color this feeling is. If this feeling were a shape, what would it look like?
  • Try to locate a place in your body where you can feel this feeling. Take three slow deep breaths, imagining sending your breath to the part of your body where this feeling is located
  • If you start to feel overwhelmed by your feelings, remind yourself that feelings do not last forever. Say out loud or repeat in your head “I am safe in this moment, even if I am experiencing discomfort.”
  • Work to gradually increase the amount of time you can stay with an emotion. Even if you only start with a few seconds, that is excellent practice. 


Sitting with our emotions for the first time or in new ways can be activating particularly when we have experienced trauma. Click here to learn how to build your self-care playbook to have strategies prepared to manage overwhelming thoughts, feelings, or sensations in your body that arise through this practice.

Step 3. Get curious about your feelings

Feelings are messengers that carry important information about our internal experience and how we are relating to the world around us. The final step in the process of learning to feel our feelings is to get curious about the information they are delivering to us. Once you are comfortable sitting with a feeling without trying to change it, you can begin to explore what meaning it holds for you. 


Try journaling, talking to a friend, processing in therapy, or simply reflecting on some of these questions to gain insight into the messages your feelings are delivering to you:

  • What need is this feeling communicating to me?
  • What other situations or experiences have brought up this feeling for me?
  • Does this feeling seem aligned with the situation it arose in?
  • What might help me move through this feeling?
  • What information might this feeling carry about my expectations of myself or others?
  • What does this feeling tell me about my boundaries?

Final thoughts

Feeling your feelings takes practice. However, in time by following these steps you’ll find yourself more easily able to identify, sit with, and manage your emotions. If you find yourself stuck in this process, get in touch with one of our therapists to get the support you need to move forward.


By Kirsten Lyons, LSW

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