The Key Skill We Rarely Learn: How to Feel Your Feelings
We are wired to avoid our emotions, not mindfully embrace them.
Posted October 12, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
I Feel My Feelings! Probably Not
In my family, I was the “emotional one.” Even as I kid I remember throwing angry tantrums when things didn’t go my way, crying when I got hurt or scared, running around the house with joy and glee. My feelings came on big and swift and moved on quickly, leaving my parents a little bewildered, trying their best to respond. Plenty of emotional ups and downs continued into adulthood, and if you had asked me then if I knew how to feel my feelings, my response would have been “of course!”
I had feelings. They rolled around in the background with different degrees of awareness. I pushed some away without even knowing it. Others spilled out unexpectedly. Often I acted out my feelings in ways that were not always helpful. But I didn’t really know how to skillfully feel my feelings.
This subtle and challenging skill does not come naturally, but it can be learned. Without it, we are truly at the whim of our emotional weather, unable to deeply know ourselves, and lacking a grounded compass for choosing our actions wisely.
The Function of Emotion Is to Drive Rapid Behavior (Not Feel)
It is clear from affective neuroscience research that emotions are connected to our evolutionary motivation system. Feelings signal how we are reading the environment, and they are designed to mobilize and drive an adaptive behavioral response.
Positive emotions (such as excitement, joy, attraction, pride, amusement) are labeled “positive” because they feel good or pleasurable by design. They arise in situations when we perceive important physical, psychological, or social (attachment) needs are within reach, and they motivate approach behaviors. Let’s say you walk into a social gathering and see a delicious spread of appetizer (food!), a charismatic person talking in the corner (connection! sex!), or a warm and admiring crowd (status! belonging!). Pleasurable feelings arise as you make these assessments, and they propel you forward to eat, lean in, open up, engage, pursue. Positive feelings, because they are rewarding, also reinforce the behavior (i.e., make the behavior more likely next time).
Negative or threat-related emotions (such as fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, disgust, hurt, anger, jealousy, sadness) are labeled “negative” because they feel uncomfortable or painful by design—they are part of the body’s alarm system. They arise when our brain perceives a threat to our fundamental goals or needs or the well-being of loved ones. Negative feelings also mobilize the body for action, but they motivate avoidance behavior: efforts aimed at escaping, reducing, fighting, or controlling the threat and the associated feelings.
Let’s say when you walk into that gathering you smell something gross (spoiled food!), you smile at the charismatic person and they ignore you (rejection!), you see your group of friends and they look at you with frowns and begin whispering (judgment by the tribe! I am unworthy!). Disgust, hurt, anxiety and shame arise as your brain quickly makes these threat assessments (which may or may not be accurate). These feelings drive us to put the sandwich down, steer away from the attractive person, perhaps leave the party altogether and resolve to avoid this group of friends next time. When you move away, the uncomfortable feelings diminish, bringing temporary relief (reward!) which reinforces the avoidance behavior.
It’s important to notice something here: Feelings are NOT designed to have us slow down and really feel them. We may not even be consciously aware of our emotional state. Our brain just needs to register a feeling just long enough to orient us to what’s important in the environment and to activate various physical and behavioral systems to fuel a move toward or away.
We Are Also Socialized to Avoid Feelings
As social creatures, we also learn to avoid feelings by watching others and absorbing social messages. We hear from caregivers and friends: “Look on the bright side!” (don’t be sad), “you need to be strong!” (don’t cry), or “Stop making me feel guilty!” (don’t be upset with me). Different cultures and social groups have varying implicit “rules” about which feelings are acceptable, and which ones are not. Suppressing negative emotions is often associated with strength and health (while expressing them is often equated with weakness). In my family, we were encouraged to be upbeat and not linger too long in painful feelings. Anger was definitely tolerated (my mom and I would blow up at each other and then easily make up), but my parents didn’t know how to sit with disappointment, hurt, or grief (mine or theirs).
Surprisingly, even though “positive” feelings are by their nature pleasant to feel, we can also be socialized not to express (and by implication feel) them. If your caregivers criticized the pride you felt in your achievements (“Don’t brag—you’ll get a big head!”) or taught you that joy sets you up for disappointment, then good feelings can also come to trigger our threat alarm, causing a cascade of anxiety, guilt or shame in their wake. You may move to avoid by playing down your accomplishments—just one example of avoiding feelings.
All the Ways We Try to Avoid Our Feelings
How do we humans avoid feeling our emotions? Ah, let me count the ways! We use TV to distract, smoke to relax, videogames to numb-out, porn to relieve stress. We drink and binge-eat and use drugs and stay really busy. If sadness arises as we recount a story, we “pop out” of the feeling by talking about it intellectually, or we change the topic. We act out our anger by yelling (trying to “discharge it”), instead of feeling what the anger might be covering (often hurt or shame). We nag our partner to go to the doctor (to relieve our fear they may be ill). We also avoid discomfort we imagine feeling in the future: we shy away from risks at work (to avoid disappointment or shame if we fail); we don’t ask someone out that we find attractive (to avoid the embarrassment of possible rejection). All of these are examples of external (observable) behaviors. You can also avoid by doing internal (mental) behaviors, such as trying to suppress a disturbing thought, “undo” something in the past, or worrying to “prepare” for a future threatening situation. Sometimes we are aware of trying to change our internal mood state (“man I need a glass of wine!”), but most of the time we are not conscious of avoiding.
Psychotherapists have different terminology for these avoidance behaviors. Psychodynamic therapists focus on how we unconsciously avoid threatening thoughts and feelings and call these moves defenses. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), any move away from uncomfortable feelings (and the contexts that trigger them) is called experiential avoidance. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), any behavior intended to reduce or manage distress is called a safety behavior. Even Buddhists have a term for how we internally react and struggle with our inner experience: they call it the “second arrow” of suffering. Meditation practice can, in fact, help you notice even the most subtle ways we avoid: the moment following the breath gets boring (negative feeling!), our mind starts wandering toward planning lunch (positive feeling!).
What’s Wrong with Acting to Avoid Feelings?
Nature wants us to act not feel. Nurture also wants us to shut down certain feelings. Why not give in to our emotional instinct then and simply follow the impulse to escape, defend, act out or control what is distressing (i.e., avoid or dispel painful feelings) or grasp after what is pleasurable?
First, notice that emotions pull for quick, reflexive action to meet immediate goals and avoid or satisfy the feeling in the moment. They are not designed to move you toward your longer-term goals, values, or well-being. Thus, you may find yourself snapping at your partner even before you consider asking why she didn’t call you back, and this ends up creating more distance instead of the connection you really want. If you don’t know how to stay with uncomfortable emotions and therefore must give in that short-term drive toward or away, there is no opportunity to consider how you want to act in a situation. You won’t have that emotion-muscle to move toward meaningful goals in the face of difficult feelings.
Another problem is that our initial feelings (and the behaviors they drive) are based on our quick interpretation of the situation, which isn’t very reliable. Those people at the gathering who turned away? You took it as a personal rejection (and so felt hurt or anxiety), when really no one in the group even saw you come in. Our assessment of what’s happening is influenced by many factors beyond the situation itself. As we move through our lives, we organize our experience into cognitive “schemas” (beliefs, categories, and expectations) that shape how we read what is happening in the present; our mood can also add an additional filter (rose-tinted or grumpy grey). If you simply obey the feeling, you may be acting on faulty information.
It is also a cruel irony that while striving to avoid emotions may bring some brief relief in the short-term, it doesn’t really work over the long-term. This is because we really don’t have direct control over our feelings (if we did, we’d all be hanging out in bliss). So when we try to reduce or avoid emotions, we get stuck on the hamster wheel of trying to control something we really can’t. The resistance takes up much of our attention and energy, while the core issues remain. As we say in the trade: what you resist persists.
Why It’s Essential to Learn How To Skillfully Feel
Feeling What’s Painful Gives You Access to What Matters
Feelings signal something important to us. We will feel fear if our emotional or physical safety is threatened, sadness with the loss of someone or something significant to us. We feel anger in the face of injustice or mistreatment, guilt when we harm others. If we reflexively move away from these primary feelings which reflect actual danger, harm, loss, transgression—we will miss something meaningful that needs attending to. In ACT, there is a coin metaphor: Pain is the flip-side of what we value. If you push down your loneliness by staying busy, you can’t get in touch with your desire to love and be loved.
And yet, our initial emotional response is often a complex jumble of primary feelings (that reflect what’s actually happening), plus secondary emotions (often related to distorted interpretations), mixed together with all of our avoidance behaviors (our reactive struggle against all of the feelings). We have to develop the muscle and courage to stay with this uncomfortable welter of emotions in order to unpack what is important and meaningful. This isn’t easy! I often help clients visualize their initial emotional reactions as the “surface waves” of an ocean. We need to ride these choppy waves, while holding our thoughts and interpretations lightly, in order to slowly drop into deeper emotional waters where the felt-sense of our values reside. Only then can we distinguish our primary feelings (and the values they reflect) from all the secondary noise.
A good example is my client “Martina,”1 who was thoroughly fed up with her husband. Every day after work he’d retreat to playing videogames, and she felt ignored. Her anger propelled a perpetual protest aimed at changing him: she criticized him relentlessly and complained to others. Acting out her anger gave her a brief sense of control and relief, but it did not effectively engage him (it pushed him further away), and her anger persisted. So after listening to her for a while, I asked her to slow down and actually feel the anger in her body. I had her mindfully observe and allow and stay with the internal experience. This was hard for her at first – she noticed her chest was tight and fingers tingling—the sensations were intense! But as we made room for her anger and empathized with her pain, she began to drop below the turbulent waves into more vulnerable feelings: hurt and sadness that her husband was so distant, and fear that he might someday leave her. Here in the calm depths, she was able to access what was at the core of her pain and her heart. She got very clear that her marriage deeply mattered to her. Martina was then able to approach her husband and begin talking about why they had grown apart.
Willingness to Feel Enables New Learning
New learning also happens when we develop the capacity to be with difficult feelings. Because many of our threat-related beliefs and feelings are based on the past, if we continue to obey them and avoid, we won’t have the opportunity for new experiential learning to update our beliefs and discover what we are capable of now. In other words, what we avoid we can’t learn from. To move beyond our past, we have to engage in new experiences that often feel risky and generate negative feelings like anxiety (in CBT, this is called an “exposure”). This is how we transform old, unhelpful beliefs at an emotional level, and grow in new ways.
Feeling Our Emotions Enables Wise Choice
Notice that Martina’s willingness to stay with her feelings helped her access her values at a deeper emotional level, and thus to realize how she would want to respond. It also enabled Martina to pause, resist her reactive moves to alleviate her anger (via criticizing and complaining), thus opening up the possibility to choose an action in the service of her values and long-term goals. It’s critical to see that this skill must be developed in order to overcome our nature-nurture wiring. As Victor Frankl famously wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
For those who may be thinking this all sounds very touchy-feely, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains how emotions are fundamental to rational decision-making. Without emotion, the landscape of our choices looks like a flat grey desert without any landmarks indicating what is important. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) uses the term “Wise Mind” as having both your thinking mind (prefrontal cortex) and emotion mind (limbic system) on-line and working together. Dropping deeply and mindfully into feeling allows us to access our compass, to know both intellectually and emotionally what is important.
What about Emotion Regulation Techniques?
Though not the topic of this article, there may be times when it is useful to consciously choose to reduce intense emotion. Emotion regulation skills can help you bring feelings into a manageable range (your “window of tolerance”) in order to effectively work with them. Note that this is different from reflexively avoiding your feelings, assuming it is done with awareness and intention to move toward accepting your feelings.
Practice: Skillfully Feel Your Feelings
The following steps draw on mindfulness techniques, and can help you cultivate the art of leaning into your feelings. It’s worth saying here that skillfulness with emotion starts as a relational process—if our caregivers did not help us learn how to accept our feelings, then we were left alone and overwhelmed by them, or unable to glean their significance. This is one of the reasons why the therapist-client relationship is so important in psychotherapy. So while these steps can be done on your own, a therapist can help you notice the subtle ways you may move away from feelings, and create safety as you explore difficult feelings.
Step 1: Name the Feeling
When you become aware of a feeling, pause. You may first notice the general tone of the emotion (either negative or positive). For example, you are feeling vaguely stressed or uncomfortable. See if you can gently name the specific emotion present without judgment (e.g., sad, afraid, ashamed, joyful, excited, delighted).
Step 2: Allow the Feeling Sensations in Your Body
Emotions are called “feelings” because we feel them in the body. See if you can mindfully observe the physical sensations without judgment—how do you directly sense the feeling in your body? Encourage yourself to “allow” the sensations to be present and flow – let them rise and fall without trying to control, reduce, or escape them. If the feelings are difficult, this requires the courage to stay with a scary or aversive experience. It helps to bring curiosity and openness to whatever arises, to give the body permission to feel whatever is present. During this step, be careful not to get lost in your thoughts – keep gently bringing your attention back to the physical sensations. The intention is to keep mindfully accepting what you are feeling in the moment. Ride the waves for several minutes.
Step 3: Mindfully Investigate What’s at the Heart of Your Feelings
Now gently shift your attention to investigating what is driving the emotion. Maybe you are facing a loss or something threatening in the future, or having an experience of being unseen or excluded. Hold your thoughts lightly as you inquire, remember that your interpretations are colored by your history. Try not to get stuck in a story, analysis, or ruminating about a “scene” in your head. Keep it simple: what is at the heart of your pain or joy? And if you notice that you are blaming yourself or others, this is an avoidance move. See if you can feel the pain without blame. It’s helpful to have an image of your initial feelings and thoughts as reactive waves on the surface of the water, where we typically resist and splash around. The goal is to drop into deeper and more vulnerable waters, where the core of your pain and values reside.
Step 4: Bring Compassion to Your Experience
As you allow and investigate your feelings, it is important to bring kindness to your experience (especially if it’s painful). We all know how to speak critically to ourselves – this step is about cultivating the opposite: bringing a compassionate, caring stance to what we are feeling. If this is difficult for you to do, think about how you would bring empathy to a family member, dear friend, or your child. You also deserve that care! You might say to yourself: “I’m so sorry you are feeling this way,” “this is so difficult,” or “I’m with you.” Whatever you are feeling, it is certain that you are not alone—we all get hurt and disappointed in life, we all need a sense of safety, connection, belonging. While our individual experiences are unique, there is something universal in our desires and pain. This step is about recognizing our common humanity and actively bringing a nurturing stance to our own experience.
The World Opens Up
As we develop this internal acceptance muscle—leaping into uncertainty and a fierce sea of emotions—something remarkable happens. We drop our resistance and avoidance, and sink deeply into that deep, blue water. This is where possibility opens up. We emerge from the ocean, putting our soft feet in the sand as we venture forth into a more grounded and technicolor present. We start showing up more up in our relationships and accessing both the joy of what’s here and the pain of what’s absent. Maybe we try music or build something or take on a new challenge at work because we are willing to feel thrilled and also awkward and embarrassed. We expand our capacity to feel fear when there is actual danger, grieve our losses when they happen, take in comfort when we are held, and rediscovery our playfulness. Learning to skillfully feel connects us deeply to ourselves, and creates the freedom to fully engage our life and do what is meaningful.
1“Martina” is a composite client, with all identifying information removed or changed to maintain privacy.
Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1994.
Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal “emotions.” New York: Oxford University Press.
Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2008). The evolutionary psychology of the emotions and their relationship to internal regulatory variables. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions (3rd ed., pp. 114–137). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.