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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Do We Really Need to 'Get in Touch With Our Feelings'?

The importance of emotional self-awareness for a healthier, happier life.

Key points

  • Awareness of your own feelings, for better or worse, impacts every part of your life.
  • Learning to recognize, acknowledge, and manage your feelings will move your life in a positive direction.
  • Mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral strategies, and positive psychology provide a powerful combination of tools to help you manage your emotions.

I had a lot of swag and strong opinions to go with it when I started graduate school for a Ph.D. in counseling psychology back in 1983. Well, my past cockiness got eradicated quickly by an intense course load and clinical supervisors who provided lots of not-so-generous constructive feedback. Nonetheless, I was excited to be on my way to learning about what makes people tick.

"Getting In Touch With Feelings"? How Trite

During an introductory class on theories of counseling, a fellow student asserted that a woman presented in a clinical case example needed to "Get in touch with her feelings." My reaction was strongly negative. I thought, "Get in touch with her feelings?" Seriously, is that all you've got to offer in this lofty discussion of clinical insights and formulations?

There I was fighting to adjust to the rigors of analytic thinking demanded by grad school while my classmate made such a general, banal statement. After all, what about all the clinical lingo and theories we were learning, such as:

Positive affect, cognitive dissonance, negative affect, self-disclosure, psychodynamic theory, client-centered counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, humanistic theory, operant conditioning, repressed trauma, anxious attachment, distorted cognitions, family-of-origin conflicts, family projection process, dysphoria, mental status, cognitive complexity, defense systems, and adaptive coping. A term used more recently, neuroplasticity (the notion that our brains are flexible and able to keep learning), has really caught on. By the way, as therapists, we love saying "neuroplasticity." I suspect that's because saying "neuroplasticity" really makes us sound smart!

All those representative terms of erudite professional knowledge and lingo above put us as clinicians well beyond the simple idea of laypeople talking about "getting in touch with feelings." Or, does it?

Well, guess what? After well over 30 years as a psychologist, I can tell you that the ability to be in touch with one's feelings is super important. In fact, putting aside all the fancy-sounding mental health jargon, "getting in touch with feelings" was, though I didn't know it at the time, the best concept that I learned (and many times in my career keep relearning) in graduate school. To give back some credit to all the academics out there, emotional intelligence is a more formal term (increasingly popular) that embodies getting in touch with feelings.

Why "Getting in Touch With Your Feelings" Is So Crucially Important

In the words of noted emotions researcher Caroll Izard, "Emotions play a critical role in the evolution of consciousness and the operations of all mental processes." Think about the unhealthy and often tragic outcomes of unhealthy alternatives like the "bottle-it-all-up-and-explode-(or implode)-later plan" has to offer.

You have likely heard and seen from living life about the power of unprocessed feelings: relationship drama, violence, domestic abuse, self-esteem struggles, and addictions, to name a few. And, how about those ever-increasing political divides breaking apart friendships, as yet another example of troubling feelings going awry?

So how do you get in touch with your feelings, anyway? Now that we have made a big-time case for the importance of being in touch with our feelings, let's discuss how to actually do it.

The 3 Essential Tools Needed to Get in Touch With Your Feelings

As I describe in my book, The Anxiety, Depression, And Anger Toolbox For Teens, combining the three approaches of mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and positive psychology, provides a 1-2-3 punch for reaching emotional awareness.

Mindfulness slows us down to tune in to the present moment, often using our bodily sensations, breath, and immediate surroundings as anchors.

Cognitive behavioral interventions, once we have slowed down our racing thoughts with mindfulness, help us identify and challenge distorted interpretations of what is troubling us and blocking us from problem-solving.

Positive psychology strategies help us take inventory of our personal strengths, feel gratitude, learn to see our world with more optimism, get grit, which is the ability to live out the Japanese proverb, "Fall down seven times, stand up eight," and then tap into our flow states, which means getting positively absorbed into things we love to do.

A Quick Example of Getting In Touch With Feelings

Julia was interested in dating Trey, who lived next door in her apartment building. He had made it clear that he was not interested in an exclusive relationship but Julia told me they "hooked up" anyway. She was distraught after several more encounters with Trey that he had no interest in a committed relationship with her. Julia was getting depressed and sought out counseling with me.

Here is how Julia got in touch with her feelings:

  • Julia came in to see me visibly upset but unable to share how she felt. We then did some gentle breathing exercises and she also visualized herself as a strong tree being blown in the wind (bending but not breaking).
  • Once feeling calmer, we used CBT to help uncover and dispute her distorted, persistent belief of "I can't ever find a good guy who will love me back."
  • Next, Julia worked with me to learn to "dwell in well." We made a list of her strengths, talents, and achievements, she discovered what she was grateful for, and developed skills in becoming a more optimistic thinker.

I got a heartwarming text with wedding photos three years later of Julia sharing with me the "happiest day of my life." There was no hint of Trey in the picture.

Final Thoughts

Emotional self-awareness is truly the gift that keeps on giving. It is incumbent on all of us to educate and coach our children to manage their feelings and re-educate ourselves (aren't we all continuing to learn and grow?) to get in touch with our feelings as well.


Carroll E. Izard (2009). Emotion Theory and Research: Highlights, Unanswered Questions, and Emerging Issues. Annu Rev Psychol. 2009; 60: 1–25. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163539

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