Even as a licensed therapist this has been a challenging question to wrap my head around. As a colleague of mine would say, it is simple but not easy. However don’t let this deter you. Here are a few helpful tips to get you started.
Start by stopping
A recent experience with a client brought great clarity to the question of how to feel our feelings. During a therapeutic exercise I noticed that only seconds after pausing everything - including distractions, talking, hiding their feelings or smiling when sad - their underlying emotions surfaced almost immediately.
In this moment it became clear that in order to start feeling our feelings we have to first stop doing all the other things that either hide or distract us from them. This can look like:
Stepping away from people or public spaces.
Asking yourself, “How is _____ situation affecting me or making me feel?” and then pause to listen to your body’s answer. It’ll show up as sensation such as crying, tightness, activation, restriction, tingling, etc.
Being still sitting in a chair with no phone, music, tv, etc.
Closing your eyes.
Anger tends to be a secondary emotion to something else more raw and vulnerable. Therefore if anger keeps showing up in an overpowering way then pause to ask yourself, “I felt angry when ______ because _____.” You’ll often notice one of these four themes: hurt, sadness, fear, loss.
It doesn’t have to make sense
While there is definitely a time and place for processing and understanding, this might not be one of them. (My one caveat here is anger. See above.) Instead, notice your immediate urge to think about your feelings or the situation (which is NOT the same as feeling your feelings). If this happens, pause and shift by asking yourself:
“How is the thought/memory of ______ making me feel?”
You’ll be much more able to process and dissect once you’ve actually been through both the situation and emotional response. But if you jump too quickly to thinking about the situation you’ll most likely end up in a memory loop with no end that just triggers the hurt feelings over and over.
Also, know that you don’t have to like the feelings that show up, even when they don’t make sense. Remember, small moments can come with big feelings.
Thinking fuels the fire. Feeling puts it out.
One of the most common things I hear clients say is, “Yeah but if I feel my ______ [insert emotion] then it’ll just make it worse.” I don’t agree with this and here’s why.
Having a feeling is not the same as it getting worse. The former indicates that a feeling simply exists while the latter indicates that whatever exists is becoming stronger and more intense. If you are used to ignoring or repressing feelings, it may surely seem intense and uncomfortable when you start tapping into them but this is not the same thing as them actually getting worse.
On the other hand, what does make a feeling worse is:
Thinking about it over and over.
Remembering what happened.
Planning repetitively what you want to say.