Why Should I Feel my Feelings?
I used to be told to “feel my feelings” by an old therapist, and I’d secretly roll my eyes. If I knew I was feeling sad or angry, why in the world would I stay in that state? What was the point? I didn’t understand how it was of any benefit to me, and it felt like mumbo jumbo therapy crap. And anyway, even if I wanted to “feel my feelings,” what did that mean?
After doing a ton of research (and becoming a therapist myself - that’s another post), I found my answers. There are two compelling reasons to feel your feelings, and they’re both based on cutting-edge neuroscience:
1.There’s a cost to not feeling your feelings. Not feeling your feelings means you’re doing something to avoid, numb, or otherwise push them away — whatever strategy you’re using, it’s called a defense. Defenses can range on the spectrum of harmfulness, from mindful exercise and meaningful socializing to substance misuse and true intimacy avoidance. The issue with defenses is that they require a lot of energy, and they typically result in a whole new set of problems. These problems are actually what end up bringing most people into therapy. The reality is that we all use defenses against feelings at some point, but what we ideally want is to be aware of when this is happening so that we can use them intentionally and mindfully. Instead, most of us are not aware of when we’re using defenses, and they start to become our norms and go-to ways of dealing with life. Bonus: When you don’t feel your feelings, you will have higher anxiety levels. Don’t shoot the messenger! It’s science.
2. There’s a pay-off for feeling your feelings. If the above doesn’t give you enough motivation to try to feel your feelings, maybe this will: according to research when you feel a feeling completely, not only are you left feeling calmer, clearer, and more confident, you are also more likely to act in your best interests. Your brain is better able to make a decision about next steps that support the development of the life you want after it has processed available information — this includes, most importantly, your feelings. This is the evolutionary purpose and advantage of feelings — they’re built-in tools for thriving.
So you’re feeling bold and want to do a little feeling feelings experiment? Let’s go for it. Make sure you’re feeling as calm as possible so that the feeling has space to come up. Pro tip: Anxiety is almost always a sign that there is a feeling below that is not being felt. If you’re feeling anxious, then your only job is to try to regulate that anxiety — here’s the catch: without defenses. Most of the time, this looks like deep breathing, calming music, being in the presence of someone with whom you feel cared for and safe, or whatever else helps you feel grounded. If you’re still feeling a little anxious, that’s perfectly normal, and it doesn’t mean you can’t move forward to the next step.
Now for the feeling part (*drumroll*). Since feelings are biologically-rooted experiences that occur within the body, you’re literally going to feel it. Whatever might be there, no matter how small or faint, try to nonjudgmentally identify, name, and describe the shape, intensity, and tone of it. Observe it with compassionate curiosity as it shifts, moves, intensifies, or softens. Pro tip #2: Taking a nonjudgmental and compassionate stance is key.
This is going to be a visceral experience, and it’s probably different from anything you were taught about feelings growing up. That’s okay. Actually, that’s really good — that means you’re having a new experience, and THAT means that your brain is growing and rewiring! A lot may happen while you feel this feeling, or nothing may happen. Whatever does happen, please acknowledge yourself for trying this. Feeling feelings may sound simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. Anxiety can be intense, and defenses can be deeply ingrained — both of these things can keep us from connecting with our feelings, and all of that is normal. So we’ll keep practicing! I’ll be working on feeling my feelings too. And I enthusiastically applaud your effort to take better care of yourself by giving this a whirl.