How to Feel Your Feelings
“Allow yourself to feel.”
“All emotions are valid.”
“Get in touch with your feelings.”
If you swim in personal growth circles, you’ve probably gotten used to hearing phrases like these. Our culture is becoming more aware that feelings are to be felt — not denied, suppressed, or judged as “right” or “wrong.” This growing awareness is a sign of progress, but most of us still have questions about how exactly we’re supposed to be “feeling our feelings.”
Many people relate to their emotions with a sense of helplessness, believing they could be swept away by a negative mood state if they allow their feelings to come and go. Others may struggle to access their emotions at all, as well as the reservoir of wisdom they have to offer.
To feel your feelings in a healthy way, you need to be tuned into your emotions. You need to be able to take guidance from your feelings, just like you take guidance from the sensory information coming from your eyes and ears. You also need to develop some emotional intelligence skills so that you can stay regulated and balanced, within yourself and within your relationships.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t receive much help building these skills at crucial points in our development. Many people seek out therapy or emotional intelligence coaching in adulthood to learn how to relate to their emotions in a healthier way. I hope this article helps you think about feeling your feelings in a new light, and gives you some fresh ideas about how you can use your emotional guidance system to create the life you want.
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How to Feel Your Feelings: Episode Highlights
Our culture doesn’t place a lot of value on emotional experiences. Instead, we value thought.
We praise people for not letting emotions “cloud their judgment” in high-stress situations. On the job, we expect people to behave in logical ways, and not to do anything because they’re feeling overwhelmed or hurt or angry. We certainly don’t expect them to cry. Some of us may even consciously reject our own feelings and the feelings of others, and believe we’re wise when we do so.
But human beings have feelings for a reason. Emotions aren’t like an appendix that you can have excised from your body without noticing much of a difference. In order to make good decisions, be the best version of yourself, and have healthy relationships with others, you need to have a good connection with your emotions.
Why Do You Need to Feel Your Feelings?
Sometimes, not feeling anything seems better than the alternative. But the importance of emotions cannot be overstated.
Emotions play a huge role in personal growth. It’s when we’re feeling painful feelings that we’re motivated to take action and make big, necessary changes in our lives. Think about how much you’ve learned and grown through your most difficult experiences, like having your heart broken by a terrible breakup, or losing a loved one, or making a big mistake that made you experience regret. As terrible as these experiences are to live through, the “post-traumatic growth” they foster is a real phenomenon that quite literally makes us who we are.
Emotions are also an important source of data that we need access to in order to make good decisions. Feeling queasy or uncomfortable around a new person (for reasons that your logical, “thinking” mind can’t quite articulate) can be the red flag that keeps you safe from danger. A pang of guilt can tell you when your actions don’t match up with your moral code, so you can bring them back into alignment. Feelings of excitement tell you you’re starting down a path that has the potential to be great for you. Without a good connection with your feelings, it’s impossible to pick up on these bits of data and put them to use.
Feeling your feelings allows you to have accurate empathy for others, which is the foundation of healthy relationships. After all, it’s impossible to be sensitive to other people’s feelings when you’re disconnected from your own. Knowing how you would feel in a given situation allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand them better.
You also need to feel your feelings because of all the bad things that can happen when you don’t. Suppressed or denied emotions can be the catalyst for serious problems, ranging from addictions, to eating disorders, to anger and aggression (and passive-aggression), to toxic shame and low self-esteem.
What Are Feelings?
At their most basic level, feelings are physical sensations in your body that happen in response to a subjective experience. The experience could be internal, such as feeling anxiety when you think about things that could go wrong in the future, or external, such as feeling happiness when you receive good news.
We say these experiences are subjective because they don’t mean anything in and of themselves. We create meaning out of our experiences when we run them through our internal “filters” — our core beliefs, judgments, and expectations. That’s why it’s possible for different people to feel different emotions about the same experience, like a mass layoff that leaves some people devastated, others feeling elated, and others with mixed emotions. The way you feel will depend on the subjective meaning that you assign to the experience.
The physical sensations that accompany emotions also vary from person to person and from feeling to feeling. To you, sadness may come with a choking sensation, or an aching in your stomach, for example, while other people feel it elsewhere in their bodies.
It’s also important to understand that your felt responses, thought responses, and behavioral responses all exist in a feedback loop. For example, if you were hiking in the woods and you started worrying about being stalked by a bear, you may feel your stomach lurch and your mind may become more alert. You may start breathing more heavily, walking more quickly, and glancing behind you every few steps.
Or, you could start by doing these behaviors on their own, and as you did, your thoughts would likely grow more anxious. You might start playing out possible scenarios about bears and serial killers and getting hopelessly lost in the woods. These anxious thoughts would then provoke a physical sensation in your body, which would provoke more anxious behavior, and so on.
The emotional feedback loop is important to understand, because it reveals how we can have influence over our feelings by managing our thoughts and behaviors.
Why Do We Struggle to Feel Our Feelings?
Unfortunately, many boys are socialized to believe feelings are shameful. To avoid this shame, they may learn to shut their feelings down and actively reject the emotional part of themselves. By the time they become adults, many men have trouble recognizing and identifying their feelings at all. This is a tragedy, and it creates all kinds of pain and trouble for the men who experience it.
Girls, on the other hand, may not be shamed for having feelings, but they may receive the message that these emotions are silly, or dramatic, or unreasonable. They may experience their feelings being invalidated or dismissed. Kids who receive these messages develop the habit of looking outside of themselves to know what is good or important or “right” — in other words, they seek external validation because they’ve learned that what’s happening inside of them is not to be taken seriously. This can lead to people pleasing, low self-esteem, and other issues.
Regardless of your gender, the attitudes about feelings that you grew up around will have a big impact on your relationship to your emotions. If healthy emotional intelligence and empathy for others wasn’t modeled for you as a kid, then you’ll have to learn these skills intentionally as an adult.
Some kids are made to feel guilty or ashamed of their feelings. For example, a well-meaning parent may tell a child to cheer up or stop crying, because their child’s sadness causes them to feel inadequate or bad about themselves. If this is the normal response the child receives when they’re sad, they learn that their sadness is a problem for other people. They learn to over-regulate and suppress their feelings, and they feel guilty when they can’t.
Judgment is the Enemy of Feeling Your Feelings
People experience and process emotions in different ways, and no way is right or wrong.
It’s okay to compartmentalize your feelings about a situation until you’re in a place where you feel enough emotional safety to deal with them. It’s also okay to have a big emotional response in the moment. It’s okay to take a while to know how you feel, or to cry at the drop of a hat, and it’s definitely okay to feel angry sometimes. Shame and judgment are never helpful, especially when it comes to feeling your feelings.
Rather than judging your emotions, try to accept them with mindful self-compassion. To practice this, you may literally need to say out loud, “I’m feeling [sadness/rage/anxiety/frustration/] right now.” Notice where you feel the feeling in your body, and try to focus on that sensation rather than the “story” you’re telling yourself about what’s causing the feeling. Rather than thinking about everything that could go wrong on an upcoming trip, for example, you could focus on the physical sensations of anxiety in your body. This mindful acceptance of a feeling is what allows it to pass through you. When you try to fight a feeling, or judge yourself for having it, it tends to stick around.
Getting Separation from Your Feelings
Feeling your feelings does not mean becoming your feelings. You can feel angry, for example, but that doesn’t mean you have to let that feeling take you over or drive you to do something destructive. It’s healthy to recognize and accept how you feel, while also making intentional choices about how you want to act, regardless of your feelings.
But we all struggle with this from time to time, especially when we’re trying to suppress or deny our feelings. Eventually they leak out, and that’s when we do things we’ll later regret.
To get some space between your feelings and your choices, it helps to have clear goals. When you are clear about the outcomes that you want to create, it’s easier to be led by those outcomes rather than by what you feel in the moment. You can feel an emotion, acknowledge it, and even express it to others, while still making the conscious decision to act in service of your goals.
Feeling Stuck in Your Feelings
People who feel things readily and intensely often spend a lot of time trying to avoid big feelings. They worry that surrendering to the full force of their emotions is akin to falling down a well that has no bottom. So they use denial, or they numb themselves with compulsive behavior, or they try to force themselves to feel differently.
There’s a pop-psychology truism that applies here: What we resist persists. Feelings are transient; they ebb and flow within a few minutes, if we allow them to. But when we fight a feeling back, we stay stuck in it for longer than we need to be.
If you are someone who fights against your feelings because you’re afraid of feeling them fully, you may need some help developing confidence in your own ability to process emotions. Remember, feelings are just sensations in our bodies. They can’t hurt us, and we don’t need to change them or to run away from them. A good therapist can help you let your feelings in, which allows them to pass through you, rather than remaining stuck.
You may also need some help changing your cognitive processes. For example, if you have a habit of rumination, that can keep a feeling alive for much longer than its natural lifespan. Catastrophic thinking and black-and-white thinking are other examples of cognitive processes that can feed negative mood states. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one therapeutic approach that can be very helpful in shifting mindsets like these.
Ongoing exposure to the situation that’s creating the difficult feelings — like staying in a toxic relationship, for example, or trying to be friends with your Ex who recently broke your heart — can also be the culprit when you’re stuck in your feelings. When you listen to what your emotions are telling you and take healthy action on your own behalf, you’ll begin to heal and eventually to feel better.
Finally, a negative mood state that persists for a long period of time, especially in the absence of an obvious “trigger,” can be a sign of depression or anxiety. If this is the root problem, it’s important that you get support from a qualified therapist.
Exercises for Feeling Your Feelings
Therapy is a service that’s designed to help you feel your feelings. That’s a big part of how therapy works! Your therapist will help you tune into how you feel, build a better relationship with your feelings, and take influence from your emotional guidance system to create the life you want for yourself.
Journaling can also be a valuable practice when it comes to feeling your feelings. If you develop the habit of writing in a journal on a daily basis, recording your experiences and the feelings they bring up, you’ll notice some patterns over time. Looking back at old entries can give you insight into your thought processes and the way you tend to deal with your feelings. Then, you can use this insight to make choices about the mindsets you want to cultivate, and the ways you want to handle feelings when they arise.
As we’ve discussed in this episode, figuring out how you feel and how to access the wisdom available to you through your emotions can be a lifelong learning process. It is very helpful for many people to have a guide on this journey — someone who can shine a light on your blind spots, help you dig deeper, and teach you the skills and strategies to develop your confidence (and competence) in working with your emotions.
If you’re interested in doing that transformational personal growth work with a therapist or coach on our team, we invite you to launch your journey of growth by booking a first free consultation meeting with one of our experts.
P.S. — If you want to learn more about building a healthy relationship with your feelings, check out our “Emotional Wellness” collection of articles and podcasts.
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How to Feel Your Feelings
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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Music in this episode is by Peak Body with their song “Feelings.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://peakbody.bandcamp.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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