How to Feel Your Feelings (and Why You Should)
Raise your hand if you got well into adulthood without knowing how to do this.
Feeling our feelings—contrary to long-held popular opinion that it is somehow weak—is remarkably hard work. Which is why we engage in frequent avoidance techniques so we don’t have to feel them: drinking, binge-eating, gambling, and staying excessively busy, to name a few. But as it turns out, learning how to feel (and not just think about or bury) our feelings is crucial to our development, and to achieving what’s most important to us.
But as human beings with complex emotions, why is it so difficult to adequately feel our feelings? As Dr. Victoria Lemle Beckner, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of California San Francisco writes for Psychology Today, “The function of emotion is to drive rapid behavior (not feel).” Evolutionarily, she writes, feelings are designed to “drive an adaptive behavioral response” to our environment. (I perceive a threat! I must flee!) “Feelings are NOT designed to have us slow down and really feel them.”
But, Beckner writes, any avoidance or attempt to reduce or control our emotions will leave the core issues beneath them unresolved. It’s essential to learn to “skillfully feel” she argues, because our feelings signal what’s important to us. We may feel sad because we crave more connection; or angry at mistreatment or injustice. It’s only after we’ve stayed with “this uncomfortable welter of emotions” that we can enable new learning about our capabilities, resist reactive, sabotaging behaviors, and wisely choose action in service of our deeper values.
If you’ve spent any time doing self-improvement work, you’ve no doubt heard vague directives to “sit with” and “hold space” for your feelings—but what does that mean, exactly? How do we do this nebulous thing of “feeling our feelings completely”?
In this TikTok video that has received nearly one million views, Jeff Guenther, founder of Therapy Den outlines the process in clear, bite-sized steps. Below, find the six-step process to “feel the feeling and let it pass through your body.” Because, in Guenther’s words, “if you can’t, then disaster might strike.”The Future of Protection (Episode 2)How I Learned to Stop Nagging My Kids and Start Motivating ThemFinally, Everyone 18 and Older Can Get a Booster ShotHow (and Why) to Do Two Workouts a Day
Guenther says the first step is to answer the question: “What emotion is hijacking you?” If you’re vibing with your new sweetie and are suddenly seized with anxiety—what is that? Name it, almost as if you were a reporter. “I’m feeling fear and worry.”
Wait, what? Don’t we need to investigate the feeling intellectually to figure out why it’s holding sway over our minds and bodies? Nope. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Don’t think about it. Don’t start creating stories,” Guenther says. In this step, you actively resist engaging in narratives commonly created around feelings. Things like, “I don’t deserve this love” or “I’m probably gonna screw this up, too.” Those thoughts just invite our brain to create more reasons to be fearful. “When you do this, you’re thinking your feelings. And the more you think about your feelings, the more your feelings are going to intensify.”
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and observe: Where is this feeling in your body? Is it in your chest, belly, throat? Sink into it. Keep noticing it. Remember: We’re not here to create stories or intellectualize the feeling. Literally just feel it. If your brain needs something to do, objectively describe how it feels in your body. “My chest feels tight. My toes are tingling. My breath is shallow.”
Here, Guenther advises us to, “Breathe into it, send it energy. It could be healing energy, positive energy, it doesn’t matter. Just focus on the physical sensation.” Since I’m not sure how to send a feeling positive energy, I think of this step as doing deep breaths while repeating, “I acknowledge this fear. I acknowledge this anger.”
Or, as a pictograph created by writer/illustrator Emily McDowell (which Guenther used as inspiration for his video) instructs us: “Cry, shake, etc. If you’re not, like, in Target.” (Personally, I’d add throw things, scream, and punch a pillow to this list. Basically, whatever your body needs to do.)
When you’re focused only on the feeling, notice: Is it moving around your body? Did it go from your chest into your jaw? Is it weakening, or getting stronger? Rather than reverting to thought-story mode, redirect your awareness to the feeling in your body. Observe its journey. “The more you watch it, the more you feel it and don’t think about it, the more it’ll start to dissipate,” Guenther says.
Are you still breathing? Keep breathing. Slowly and deeply. In McDowell’s words, “Let the feeling exist and trust that it will leave.” Once the feeling is more tolerable (weaker), consciously return your mind to the present moment. Bring your mental focus back to whatever you were doing when the unpleasant feeling arose, and “notice that you have survived.”