So many of us do not want to feel our feelings.
In fact, we’ll do anything not to. We fear that under our anger or sadness lives a tidal wave of emotion so dark and scary that it could bury us alive. Instead, we repress our anger to ensure we don’t have an unfortunate outburst at our co-worker. We pretend our sadness isn’t there because if we actually feel it, we might never feel happy again. We keep ourselves distracted, so we don’t have to feel the pain of our grief.
The problem is, when we push down our emotions long enough, they come back with a vengeance. As therapist Karla McLaren notes, “Never-ending depressions, cycling rages, unresolved anxiety attacks–these are clear signs of emotions that aren’t being attended to inappropriate ways.” Whether we consciously acknowledge them or not, our emotions know how to get our attention.
It’s hard to feel emotions we don’t intend to feel. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unpleasant. So, we’ve become skilled at thinking about our feelings–we create mental constructs around emotional experiences to help us make sense of them, rather than actually diving in and feeling. But, allowing ourselves to feel what we’re feeling, whether it’s a more desirable emotion (joy, excitement) or one we prefer to avoid (grief, envy), is essential to develop emotional flexibility and resilience. Emotions are the locomotive of our life–when we feel them, we move forward, and when we suppress them, we get stuck.
Emotions provide a wealth of social information, such as understanding when someone needs help and communicating our needs to others. If we listen, they offer valuable information that can help us form stronger relationships, avoid danger, and make better decisions in life. This allows us to build deeper, more meaningful bonds with people in our lives. Emotions also keep us safe and prepare the body to take action when needed. For instance, feelings of fear or anger can trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, leading to a series of somatic processes that prepare the body to manage the looming threat.
But how do we actually feel our feelings? If we tune in, our emotions often have a physical manifestation that shows up in our bodies. Sadness can feel like a dull heaviness in our hips. Anger can feel like a hot intensity coming from our arms and chest. Shame can feel like a heavy rock in our gut.
Once we identify what is happening in our bodies, we can offer the emotion a name (“I’m feeling sadness” or “This is anger”). Naming an emotion is a powerful practice of self-validation–we acknowledge and accept our emotions without judging them or trying to change them. In addition, labeling our emotions is an effective way to reduce stress and anxiety. Dr. Dan Siegel coined the phrase “name it to tame it,” which describes how naming a feeling sends soothing signals to the worrying parts of our brain.
When we witness and name a feeling in our body, we permit it to share its information with us. Maybe our shame is asking us to share the source of our shame with someone we trust so that we can feel liberated from our shame-induced isolation. Maybe our anger is asking us to shake and scream the heat and intensity out of our bodies. Perhaps our sadness is asking us to bathe in sorrow and weep to allow ourselves to process what we have lost.
When we listen to the wisdom of our emotions, we offer ourselves a gift. Through noticing, naming, and responding to the sensations in our bodies, we allow our emotions to undergo their natural processes and cycles, rather than keeping them stuck, festering inside. Over time and with practice, we can engage with life in more resilient, authentic, and adaptive ways.