When was the last time you experienced a strong feeling? Did you feel sadness or rejection when a friend didn’t text you back? Immense joy while watching a funny television show? Or anger when someone cut you off in traffic? Or maybe you cycled through a mix of feelings simultaneously, like both embarrassment and fear when you slipped on a patch of ice.
Navigating a mix of complicated emotions, from the pleasant to the seemingly unbearable, is a part of the human experience. While it can feel like we are the only ones grappling with all of the feels that come up for us on a daily basis, it’s important to remember that everyone around us is doing it too.
As a therapist, it’s my job to help my clients learn to notice and tend to their biggest, most challenging feelings. So, let’s talk through how you can begin to make healthy, loving space for your feelings too.
What exactly are feelings and emotions?
We often use the terms “feelings” and “emotions” interchangeably, so let’s first define the difference between the two.
- Emotions are unconscious physiological experiences that give us information about the world.
- Feelings are our interpretation of emotional experiences and physical sensations. So, feelings are experienced consciously and are the subjective perceptions of emotions.
It may be helpful to think of emotions as our instinctive, gut response before mental processing. And feelings are the mental portrayal of what is going on in the body physically when we experience an emotion, based on our unique past experiences, beliefs, and memories.
Why it’s important to “feel our feelings”
So, what in the world does it mean to actually “feel our feelings” and why does it matter? While they may be hard to notice and sit with, our emotions offer up great information and can actually serve as a signal.
Feeling our feelings can allow us to build our emotional awareness and greatly improve our mental health. You can think of it like lifting weights to build stronger muscles over time. To strengthen our emotional awareness, we need to practice the skill of “feeling our feelings.”
Then, we can begin to notice what behaviors may make us feel better or worse and make changes accordingly. And, we can begin to get a little space between us and our feelings so that we can choose ways to respond versus simply reacting without thinking. Plus, tuning into what’s going on for us internally can help us build resilience, allowing us to bounce back from difficult times.
It’s our human nature to want to experience all of the positive feelings, like happiness and excitement, while trying to push away feelings that we perceive as negative, like fear and sadness. But, ignoring our feelings can lead to not-so-great behaviors like over-eating, binge drinking, isolation, and lashing out at others. So, let’s get started on the actual process.
4 steps to feel your feelings
Here are four steps to try so that you can better understand and tend to your feelings. It won’t look perfect, and it won’t always be easy, so seek out a mental health professional if you need a little support along the way.
- Start by simply noticing. When you become aware of a feeling, try to take a moment to pause. Then, see if you can name it without judging yourself for experiencing it. For example, if you’re sitting in a work meeting and a colleague continuously interrupts you, you may start to feel your blood start to boil. Is this anger? Is it frustration? Can you just observe it without attaching the label of “good” or “bad” in the moment?
- Tune into the sensations. Now that you’ve given space to notice a specific feeling, try to observe the physical sensations going on inside your body. If you’re noticing anger, where is it showing up in your body? Is your jaw clenched? Chest tight? Skin flushed? We know it’s not always easy, but try to allow these sensations to just be there, letting them flow through you without trying to control or escape them. It takes a lot of courage to notice what’s going on inside of our body when difficult feelings arise, but give yourself loving permission to feel whatever is happening. An important aspect of being able to notice and experience your feelings is mindfulness. This can be a great time to try a body scan meditation.
- Get curious. Once you’ve tapped into what’s going on inside your body, try to make space for what is driving this feeling without blaming people or circumstances outside of your control. Are you afraid of how others will perceive you? Are you scared of losing your job? Do you feel insecure or dismissed? Instead of getting swept up in the story, try to keep the focus on yourself and get vulnerable with your pain, fears, or values. I am more of a visual person and process best through writing. Journaling can be a great way to explore and express emotions.
- Offer yourself compassion and acceptance. Once you’ve spent a little time noticing and investigating a particular feeling, go ahead and bring kindness to the experience. Instead of giving space to the inner critic with thoughts like, “I shouldn’t feel this way. What is wrong with me?” Try nurturing yourself like you would a dear friend or small child. Some of my clients like to use positive self-talk, like saying to themselves, silently or aloud, “I’m so sorry you’re experiencing this difficult feeling. I know it’s hard and I’m with you.” Everyone experiences tough emotions like jealousy or anger, so take some time to assure yourself that there is nothing wrong with you for feeling the way you feel.
As we become more comfortable with tending to our feelings, something pretty incredible begins to happen. We start to drop our resistance and avoidance, and we become more grounded and present for our lives. We’re more resilient and get to more fully experience the joys of life. Remember that while they may be hard to sit with, all feelings are temporary and we’ll be here to support you along the way.
By Regina Kendall, Sanvello Therapist
Regina is a licensed clinical social worker in California. She has over seven years of experience working with individuals who are dealing with depression, anxiety, PTSD, stress, life changes, grief/loss, and relationship issues. As a therapist, Regina uses cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness to support people on their mental health journey, so that they can achieve their goals. She brings a calming and supportive presence to sessions, while providing a non-judgmental, safe space.
When she’s not working with clients, Regina loves spending time with her partner, keeping up with her energetic toddler, practicing yoga, biking, and spending time outdoors with her puppy.