As a clinical social worker and therapist, I spend a lot of time speaking with individuals and couples teaching them how to feel their feelings. They are a critical piece of how we make positive change and move through life’s challenges. Emotions 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 emotions 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. For example, love and tenderness brings us toward mates. While other reactions like anger and fear which help us respond quickly to threats in our environment. Other theorists posit that brain activity generates emotions. In addition to those who believe that our thoughts and behaviors contribute to our emotional state.
Regardless of which theory of emotion you subscribe to, experts agree that emotions carry key information. They inform us of 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 they 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. 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:
- 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.
- Every time you engage in your check-in behavior, pause for just a moment. Then notice what is happening in your mind and body.
- 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?)
- 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.)
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 emotions.
Step 2: Spend time with your feelings
Once you’ve gotten into the habit of practicing identifying emotions, you will be able to label them more easily. Especially as they come up throughout the day. Then you can move on to building your tolerance to sit with them.
Continue to be intentional about checking in with yourself. Then 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 emotion 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 emotion is located
- If you are overwhelmed, remind yourself that they 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
Emotions are messengers. They 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 an emotion 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. This will help you gain insight into the messages your feelings are delivering to you:
- What need is this emotion communicating to me?
- What other situations or experiences have brought this up for me?
- Does this emotion seem aligned with the situation it arose in?
- How can I process this feeling?
- What information might this emotion carry about my expectations of myself or others?
- What does this tell me about my boundaries?
Feeling your feelings takes practice. However, in time 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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