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Feel Emotions—Don't Fight or Feed Them

How to feel what's there without running away or getting stuck.

Key points

  • We know we should feel our feelings, but nobody tells us how.
  • Often what seems like feeling your feelings is actually running away from or getting stuck in them.
  • You can practice observing and describing them to get better at just feeling them.

We get this message that allowing ourselves to feel our emotions is good for us. It’s like eating our broccoli. But no one ever tells us how. What do they mean by feeling your emotions? How the hell are we supposed to just feel them?

Actually, feeling doesn’t seem to be the real problem. The problem may be feeling them all day and night. Or punching holes in the wall. Or curling up into a ball and muttering to ourselves.

 RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

What feeling your emotions really means

It turns out that the instruction to just feel your emotions hinges on the word “just.” All that other stuff—stewing in them, endlessly journaling about them, expressing them to your buddy over three or four or 14 beers—is stuff we do in addition to feeling them. Some of these responses are useful. Some of them are not.

These behaviors can actually be about avoiding your emotions, as well as your life. Have you ever found yourself having trouble letting go of some injustice? Maybe you felt wronged by someone’s insensitive comment, you were passed over for that promotion, or you lost a person or pet who was precious to you. You may have noticed that long past the usefulness of thinking and talking about it all the time, you were still thinking and talking about it all the time. You weren’t moving forward and facing the scariness of building a new relationship, rebuilding a career, or engaging with life in the face of your pain.

We’re not condemning thinking and talking about your emotions. We’re suggesting that all that activity doesn’t always equal fully feeling your emotions.

Remember when we told you that when you do, you get? When you dwell on something bad, you are getting some kind of payoff: maybe a sense of righteousness (Look at this injustice!), self-validation (This explains how bad I feel), or self-protection (If I keep thinking about this, it won’t happen again). Those are important payoffs, especially in the beginning. But eventually, you may be avoiding the discomfort of really contacting the pain.

You may discover that the only way to move on with your life is to get closer to the pain, and the only way to do that is to let yourself feel it. So here’s a rubric for remembering what to do when an emotion you don’t like shows up: feel it; don’t fight it or feed it. It teases out all the stuff we add to emotions that masquerades as feeling them fully.

Photo by Julia Larson from Pexels
Source: Photo by Julia Larson from Pexels

Fighting your emotions means trying not to have them (i.e., avoiding or suppressing them), whether through actions (working excessively, surfing social media) or thinking. There are lots of ways we can try to think our way out of feelings—rationalizing, convincing ourselves they are not justified, imagining ways of escape (winning the lottery, quitting our jobs), criticizing ourselves, mentally rehearsing arguments, repeatedly going over the situation that evoked the feeling. The list is endless. Do you employ any of these strategies?

Feeding your emotions means giving them more power than they need. Stoking their fires. Offering them treats to snack on. This is another kind of avoidance because it takes you away from simply experiencing the emotion as it is. Instead, you inflate it into something else.

This can also take many forms. For example, if you’re feeling angry, feeding your anger might look like reminding yourself over and over how you’ve been done wrong, imagining the evil motives of the person who made you angry, remembering other injustices you’ve experienced in your life, screaming and yelling, or storming around the house. (By the way, research shows that expressing your anger in these ways usually just makes you more angry.)

So how do you just feel your emotions? Here’s a two-step method that can be quite useful.

Teeny tiny practice: Observe and describe

Observing and describing requires some awareness of what’s going on inside you. Here’s one way to do it:

1. When you are feeling something that catches your attention—a flicker of sadness, a spark of joy— slow down and take three deep breaths.

2. Next, in your mind’s eye, slowly scan your body from head to toe, observing all the places where the physical sensations that are part of your emotion manifest in your body. Emotions are made up of thoughts, physical sensations, and urges. Focus away from the thoughts and toward the sensations and urges.

3. Observe what the sensations are like without adding any extra words. Observe where they begin and end. Notice if they seem heavy or light. Observe them without judgment, without trying to fix anything.

4. The next step is to describe. Label what you experience with just a few simple words. You might say something like, “I’m noticing a heaviness in my chest and a sinking feeling in my stomach.” Or, “My cheeks feel hot, and I feel an urge to run away.” Try not to add a story; if you find yourself saying something like, “I’m noticing a heaviness in my chest because my boss is a jerk, and he doesn’t pay attention to me,” back off a bit and stick to simple labels. It helps if you precede what you say with “I’m noticing” or “I feel.”

This practice is designed to allow you to just feel your emotions without fighting or feeding them, which are just different ways of avoiding experiencing them as they are. This will help you move toward the scary parts of life, doing what it takes to live meaningfully—even when it hurts.

Portions of this text are adapted from Stop Avoiding Stuff: 25 Microskills to Face Your Fears and Do It Anyway by the authors.

More from Matthew S. Boone, LCSW, Jennifer A. Gregg, Ph.D., and Lisa W. Coyne, Ph.D.
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