'Feeling your feelings' can be a confusing concept. Surely if you're experiencing feelings then by that very definition you're feeling them, right? Not quite! Did you know there's a difference between dealing with your feelings, and actually feeling your feelings, especially when it comes to negative emotions such as anger, anxiety or sadness?
There are lots of different ways that we deal with our feelings in daily life. We might deal with unpleasant feelings passively, by ignoring them. Or we might deal with them actively, by taking steps to ensure they don't affect our everyday life.
We might manage anger by counting to 10 and waiting for the initial rush of emotion to pass. Or we might deal with feelings of sadness by reaching for a glass of wine. These coping mechanisms are designed to help us avoid the emotional pain that stems from these negative emotions.
Sometimes, we don't even realize we're actually dealing with feelings because our busy minds race from thought to thought. This means we don't have the opportunity to recognize there's something going on in the mental background!
However we deal with our feelings, the important thing to note is that it's not the same as feeling our feelings.
When we truly feel our emotions, instead of glossing over them or ignoring them, we are fully attuned to our internal selves. We are able to draw connections between experiences and events, and the impact they have had on our life story. We are able to gain true emotional autonomy and self-awareness, which gives us the tools we need to navigate life with a sense of control and empowerment.
It's completely understandable to want to numb or avoid unpleasant emotions but, when we do this, it also means we're not able to feel happy and positive emotions to the fullest. Having the experience of negative emotions is part of what makes experiencing joyful emotions so fulfilling.
And while we might fight strong emotions in a bid to avoid suffering, doing so can lead to more suffering in the long run. These avoidance behaviors don't fix the underlying problem, they just mean you have to work harder to avoid negative feelings in the future. Meanwhile, all the energy of those uncomfortable emotions gets trapped in your mind and body.
Allowing ourselves to truly feel our feelings can also be quite revelatory, allowing us to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our experiences. Many unpleasant emotions stem from deeper issues and other primary feelings; for example, angry outbursts can come from fear, and sadness can come from shame. Getting to grips with the actual emotions we're truly experiencing can bring a sense of peace and relief, and help us form a new and healthier perspective on life.
Learning to truly feel your difficult emotions is not a quick undertaking. It's a gradual process that can be refined over a period of time, and which requires patience, mindfulness and, most importantly, self-kindness. But it's worth it. Caring for your emotional health in this way is a skill that will support you throughout your life.
One of the biggest obstacles to truly becoming attuned to your feelings is the amount of mental chatter going on in our heads. Real life is full of distractions, responsibilities and deadlines, so finding space to sit with any feelings can be hard enough, never mind painful feelings! Make time to check in with yourself every day, whether that's while spending some peaceful time in nature, or just taking five minutes for a cup of tea and a breather.
Catch the feeling
When you notice an intense emotion bubbling up, let it - resist the urge to put it to the back of your mind or 'shake it off'. Consider what triggered the feeling - was it a particular situation or interaction? How does it make you feel? What does it feel like? Are you aware of any conflicting emotions? How does this feeling make you want to behave? By noticing and reflecting on these things, you'll soon become aware of the deeper feelings that need to be addressed.
Sit with the feeling
Once you've spent some time being curious about the feeling, let go of making sense of it and pondering the 'why'. Instead, breathe into the sensation of the feeling, and acknowledge the impact it is having on you. You might feel like crying or shouting, and that's okay! We've been conditioned to view these types of responses as 'bad' and 'unacceptable', but they are a perfectly natural way of releasing emotional pain. And the key word here is 'releasing'. When we numb uncomfortable feelings, the pain remains inside of us.
Acknowledge the feeling
After spending some time with the feeling, acknowledge its presence. Tell yourself, "I am feeling anger right now". Let the feeling exist and breathe into its sensation, but trust that it will leave. Observe the feeling changing and, once it subsides, recognize that you have survived it and that you are stronger for it.
Be kind to yourself
Becoming attuned to your internal self means opening yourself up to the unknown, and this takes a lot of courage! Like so many things in life, practice makes perfect, so don't be hard on yourself if you find this technique challenging to begin with. Instead, acknowledge and affirm yourself every time - you are doing a wonderful thing for yourself!