How To Feel Your Feelings
(Therapy in Ocean City, Mechanicsville, Santa Fe, and Philadelphia)
Maybe you’re going through a difficult break up, lost a job, or are dealing with another stressful life event. You’ve talked to your friends or family, vented or cried, and you’ve started to notice that you keep getting similar advice from people in your life. You just have to feel your feelings! Many of us have read and heard these words online, whether on TikiTok and Instagram or scrolling through Reddit, or from individuals we know offline. It sounds like a simple task, and people keep suggesting it, but… what exactly does it mean to feel your feelings?
First, let’s talk about what feelings are. Feelings, emotions, and mood are words we often see lumped together, but they mean slightly different things. Emotions often appear in response to something that is happening around us, or a sort of stimuli. They may also cause physical sensations in our body – a warmth spreading through our chest, our stomach twisting into knots, clamminess in our hands. Depending on whose research you are reading, there are hundreds of emotions or as few as six. To keep it simple, we will refer to what psychologist Paul Eckman identified as basic emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, anger, pride, shame, embarrassment, and excitement. While these basic emotions are very intense, our experience of them may only last for a short time.
Our feelings are tied into our interpretation and experience of these sensations, and are often more specific and directive than our emotions. If you were to pull out a feeling wheel that has Eckman’s six basic emotions at its center (similar to the one above), it might expand the basic emotion of fear out into feeling rejected, humiliated, or frightened. We don’t have to feel rejected when we are experiencing fear, but it is one way that we might make sense of and interpret that sensation based on what is happening in our life.
Our mood, more broadly, is a general state of mind that can be influenced by or influence our thoughts and feelings. Moods are typically not as intense as feelings and emotions, and they can last for long or short periods of time.
Now that we have some language to use to talk about our feelings and emotions, take a moment to pause and reflect on a few feeling words (you can refer to the below list, or use whichever comes to mind first). Can you imagine what someone’s face might look like if they were experiencing that feeling? If you had to wordlessly act out that feeling in a game of charades, what would it look like? Where in a person’s body do you imagine that feeling might show up?
Very often, when people experience a feeling, they do one of several things to distance themselves from it, or to try to minimize the feeling. Many of us begin telling ourselves a story when we have a feeling. Our stomach starts twisting into knots and our chest feels tight after a difficult conversation with our boss, and we start telling ourselves about how badly that meeting had gone and get stuck worrying about how it will impact your job. At other times, we may flag that twisty-stomach, weird-chested feeling as insecure or ashamed, and we begin explaining to ourselves why exactly we feel those things. I’m feeling insecure because my boss gave me negative feedback, and I’m worried I might get let go. I’m embarrassed because I made a mistake that I shouldn’t have - if I had just sent that email sooner, this wouldn’t have happened. Perhaps, stomach and chest still doing that weird thing, we then jump into problem-solving mode, looking for all of the ways that we can address what just happened.
In either of these scenarios, we aren’t actually feeling our feelings. We are instead using a defense mechanism to stop ourselves from fully feeling. Defense mechanisms are things that we all use almost every day to protect ourselves from unpleasant feelings, to varying levels of success. Two common defense mechanisms, which we discuss below, are intellectualizing and rationalizing. When we intellectualize, we use our thinking brain to get away from what we are feeling. We use this thinking style to think about the situation rather than allow ourselves to get in touch with the feelings that we have. This might look like telling ourselves a story about why we feel this way (which many of us mistake for feeling our emotions), planning what we are going to do next, or generally thinking about and observing the situation without considering our feelings. In our example of making a mistake at work, we might hyper-focus on how to fix our mistake or prevent another from happening, rather than allowing ourselves to feel distressed after receiving criticism.
Rationalizing is another common defense mechanism that we use to create distance between ourselves and an unpleasant feeling. When we are rationalizing, we use logic to explain or justify why something has happened - and usually twist the situation in some way to alleviate ourselves of negative feelings such as blame or embarrassment. In the above example of having a difficult conversation with our boss, rationalizing might look something like…my boss only said something negative about my performance because he’s a jerk who likes to make people feel bad, or I only performed poorly because my team made so many mistakes. We are redirecting the feelings of embarrassment or shame that are associated with a poor performance review by placing them onto others, rather than feeling them ourselves.
We engage in these defense mechanisms (and others) to distance ourselves from unpleasant, uncomfortable, or scary emotions, and many of us have learned these distancing strategies from our parents or other caregivers - and that’s okay! While these strategies might be useful or adaptive at times, when you are unable to turn them off, you can become disconnected from your emotions, struggling to tune in and feel your feelings.
Now that we’ve covered how to not feel your feelings, let’s talk about how. To feel your feelings means allowing yourself to sit with the sensations in your body, breathing through them, and allowing them to pass without judging those sensations, attempting to fix them, or telling a story about why you should or shouldn’t feel that way. If that sounds easier said than done, below are two exercises you can use to practice feeling all of those feelings: a full body scan and a mind-heart-gut check in.
For either of these exercises, I’d recommend that you record yourself reading the instructions aloud so that you can complete the exercise without having to open your eyes and refer back to the written instructions. As a bonus, you may want to have soothing, ambient noise in the background - that’s up to you!
Exercise One: Body Scanning
As you begin, first focus on your breathing. Make sure you are breathing in a way that feels both comfortable and natural to you.
Once you feel comfortable, close your eyes. Direct your attention to your toes (I like to start from the bottom up - if starting from the top of your head and working down is more comfortable for you, do that instead!). Do you notice anything happening in your feet? Maybe they feel hot or cold, or they’re tapping or bouncing. Take note of whatever you find, and slowly direct your attention to your legs. Check for whatever you might find here. Is there tension? Are they still, or moving? What sensations do you notice?
Slowly bring your attention up through your body, pausing again at your hips. What do you notice here? Are they tight, or sore? Relaxed?
Take a moment to refocus on your breathing here. Keep inhaling and exhaling at a pace that feels natural, allowing your lungs to fill and release.
Next, check in at your lower abdomen and stomach. Do you feel as though your stomach is twisting? Do you have butterflies? Does it feel fuzzy, or like it’s dropped?
Once you’ve taken note of your stomach, bring your attention to your chest and lungs. What’s happening here in your body? Is there a weight here? A feeling of lightness, or warmth?
Finally, direct your attention to your neck and throat, your face, and your head. Are there any feelings of tension? Does it feel as though you need to laugh, or to cry? Take stock of whatever is happening, and then take a few more focused breaths. When you feel ready, direct your attention back to the sensations you found in your body.
Now that you have become aware of the sensation in your body, try to tune into the emotions that come with these sensations. Assign whatever emotional label feels appropriate to you. If you find yourself getting caught up in finding the right word to describe these sensations, or start attempting to explain to yourself why these sensations are here, take a breath, and redirect your concentration on your bodily sensations. You do not need a label in order to focus on the feelings and sensations in your body.
Again, take a breath. What you are noticing may be intense, or uncomfortable; that is okay. Whatever sensations and feelings you are experiencing, they are fleeting. They will pass. Consider reminding yourself throughout this exercise that whatever you are feeling, it won’t last forever.
Once you have spent some time sitting with these sensations and breathing through them, allow yourself to pull your attention away from the sensations. Make a note of what happened during this exercise. Did any of the sensations become more or less intense? Did they migrate to other parts of your body? What was this experience like overall?
Exercise Two: Mind-Heart-Gut Check
As you begin, focus on your breathing. Make sure you are breathing in a way that feels both comfortable and natural to you. Take a few deep breaths, and then let your eyes close. Bring your attention and awareness first to your head.
What sensations do you notice? Are there any feeling words that you are thinking about, or any situations that you are finding yourself thinking about? As you observe what is happening in your head and in your mind, take a few more slow, deep breaths.
Next, draw your awareness to your heart and your chest. Maybe you bring your hands to your chest and take a moment to feel your chest rise and fall as you breathe. Again, pay attention to any physical sensations that are present. As you focus on your heart, you may find yourself thinking about people or things that you care about deeply; that is okay. Continue to breathe and focus on the feelings and sensations that are present in your chest. Take note of any feeling words that come up as you focus here.
Lastly, bring your attention and awareness to your stomach and gut. Again, you may lower your hands and gently rest them on your abdomen. Take another deep breath as you pay attention to the sensations that are present in your stomach. Some people may experience a “gut feeling” or intuition in this part of their body; acknowledge any such feelings or feeling words if they are there for you and before refocusing on the physical sensations.
Once you have checked in with your mind, your heart, and your gut, take a moment to consider what feelings and sensations you observed during each check in. There are times when all three places are aligned, and direct us to a single set of emotions. Often, however, we may notice different or conflicting emotions in different parts of our body. Allow yourself to acknowledge whatever feelings you found before opening your eyes.
Either of the above exercises can be completed as often as is useful to you. A full body scan, such as the first exercise, provides you with a lot of information and allows you to access feelings from all over your body. This can be helpful for many people (and I encourage you to try it with a variety of feelings, including pleasant ones!), although it can also be overwhelming if you haven’t practiced it before. The mind-heart-gut check in is somewhat briefer, and may be more useful if you have conflicting feelings about a particular situation. After either exercise, you can try to identify and name the feelings you observed, or you can move on to the next part of your day.
It can be difficult to tune in to our feelings. If you struggled with these exercises or had intense emotions come up that you would like to talk to someone about, the Center for Growth offers anxiety, depression, gratitude, and mindfulness based therapy at our offices or virtually in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Mexico and Virginia. Please call 215-922-5683 or self schedule an appointment with one of our therapists.
At TCFG you can schedule directly online with a therapist or by calling (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 and speaking with our intake department. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have six physical mental health counseling / therapy offices. We provide mental health counseling and talk therapy both inperson and virtually.
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