How to 'feel your feelings'
I would never consider myself to be an unemotional person. In fact, I would say that I am more the opposite. I laugh with a cackle that is infamous among my friends, I cry at anything, even a particularly sweet advert on YouTube. I tell my parents I love them, I tell friends I love them. However, if I were to respond honestly any time someone asked me how I am, most of the time it would be that I don’t really know.
I’m never really thinking about my feelings, never taking the time to be present in them. Either I’m working and prioritising tasks, or I’m home and doing my best to consume enough media that I don’t have to think about much of anything. This of course means that worries, anger, irritation, and countless other emotions will begin to stack themselves on top of each other, whether I’m paying attention to them or not, and begin to manifest in ways that I have to pay attention to. Tightness in my chest, shortness of breath, blurred vision, headaches.
Now I am forced to be present in this intense moment, and it’s frightening because it feels sudden, huge, and uncontrollable. My instinct, which I’m sure many others can relate to, is to intellectualise and analyse in order to regain control. I run through all the things that could have stressed me out today and tell myself these are trivial, tell myself this is just my anxiety overreacting to something small and that I just need to suck it up and get past it.
I thought this was what the phrase ‘feel your feelings’ meant; to comb through each sensation and analyse it looking for causes and ways to let the feeling go because I understand it now. It’s a phrase I see or hear often in guided meditations, essays on mindfulness or conversations about mental health on twitter as examples. However, it isn’t ever really explained. I think it is supposed to be quite self-explanatory, just do as the words instruct, but it turns out I’ve been misreading the words the whole time.
It turns out that what I am actually doing is ‘thinking my feelings’.
I have a lot of firmly negative opinions about ‘social media therapy’, and about the harm that giving out mental health advice and diagnoses can cause to vulnerable people seeking answers. However, I do love when people are kind enough to share their own learning experiences as a way of finding community and supporting each other through our individual journeys. I wouldn’t have this blog running, otherwise.
I recently came across a TikTok by user @/brendawiththeagenda that is sitting at around 2.6M views, talking about an infographic she had recently been sent by her therapist about the difference between thinking your feelings and feeling them. The author of the actual infographic is writer and illustrator Emily McDowell (insta: @emilyonlife).
The difference is simple once broken down: to feel your feelings is to simply acknowledge that they are there. ‘I feel angry’, not ‘I must be feeling angry because’. Notice your breathing, notice your body language and the self-soothing motions you may do without thinking. Don’t try to understand or to adjust them, just let them wash over you and take comfort in the knowledge that these feelings are real, and they don’t feel good, but they will pass. You will be OK.
An exercise I like to do now when I’m in a private place and I can feel panic mounting, is to stop whatever I am doing and focus on that feeling even though my instincts will tell me to do the opposite. I close my eyes and take stock of the sensations. If my chest feels tight, so I take a deep breath and focus on that tight feeling. If I can feel a tingling in my fingers, I breathe in and focus on that tingling. I take it every sensation one at a time, taking deep breaths with each. This stops me from hyperventilating, and in focusing on just one bit of discomfort it makes the others less intense and gives me the space I need to relax. It’s still scary, and I don’t always catch myself before I start to panic, but with every try it gets easier.
There are thousands of people in the comments under both the TikTok and the infographic talking about how finally understanding this distinction changed their lives, and I count myself among those people. It seems simple, but the aggravating thing about all of the simple fixes is that they really do work. Some of us will need medical attention, talking therapies, or other professional support but it’s harder for those things to work when we aren’t brushing our teeth, getting fresh air, moving our bodies, staying present in the moment, and feeling our feelings.