"Feel your feelings!” “It’s ok to not be ok!” “Sit with the feeling, without judgment.”
These are all things I tell clients to help with difficult and uncomfortable feelings, and they often find them helpful. Yet these phrases don’t always come naturally to us and to execute them it requires practice, emotional intelligence and patience.
Lately I’ve seen many helpful articles normalizing (that’s a therapist term for “letting the client know this feeling/thought/action/experience is normal”) all the feelings you might be feeling right now during COVID-19 shut downs. The same articles give tips on ways to care for yourself, many just as vague as the phrases above. So I thought today, I’d help clarify what these articles and Instagram posts are saying,with a few brief “how to’s.”
Learning the Mental Health Check In
So, let’s play a game. Fill in the blank:
Lately, I’ve been feeling _________ about everything going on. It’s really been a _
_________ influence on my day to day life. From this experience I can see that I have these needs: ____________ and __________. One thing I can do to meet these needs is ___________________.
Notice what you wrote. When was the last time you checked in with yourself like this? Why is it even important? Mental health check ins are important because they give you a sense of what your emotional, physical and mental needs are. If you don’t check in on yourself, you’ll stay in autopilot mode, meaning you’ll react without thinking and this can cause some serious issues in your life.
If “mental health check ins” are new for you, here’s a how to get started:
Stop whatever it is you’re doing.
Breathe. Inhale slowly for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds and then exhale for 4 seconds. Do this at least three times.
You probably feel a little bit more in tune with yourself already at this point. While you’re here take note of three things
One feeling you have right now.
One thought you’re having right now. (This could be an image that’s come to mind, actual dialogue in your brain, self talk etc.)
One physical sensation you can detect right now. (Take a moment, this one isn’t always so obvious).
Take what you gathered from step 3 and consider what these things are telling you about yourself in this moment. Is there something you might need? Something you’ve been feeling for a long time? Or are you doing ok?
Take note of what you’ve noticed and stop there.
That’s all it takes for a little self check in.
Feeling Your Feelings
Let’s talk about what we mean when we say “feel your feelings” and the importance of it. Once you start to do a daily check in, you’ll probably start to notice that you have feelings about your feelings. Weird huh? For example, if you’re feeling lack of motivation right now, you might also notice part of you is annoyed at this lack of motivation.
While it’s completely fine to have one or many feelings at a time, too many conflicting emotions can make it hard to decipher your feelings and figure out what you actually need. So when we say “feel your feelings” that starts with noticing what feelings you have and later learning how to focus in on them one at a time.
When you learn to sort out your feelings and focus on them one at a time, you’ll start to develop a better understanding of your reactions, your needs and your beliefs. It’s in feeling your feelings that you start to process emotion and learn better ways to care for yourself. It’s also in feeling your feelings that you’ll enjoy positive moments more and let go of negative experiences faster.
Here’s an example:
Every time your partner leaves dishes in the sink you feel irritated and upset, which later leads to an argument. You can mitigate these feelings, by spending some time with them. By sitting with your feelings, you start to notice that it’s important for you to feel respected and every time they leave dishes in the sink, it feels like they’re expecting you to finish the job and thus not respecting your time.
In connecting these dots you then can choose to respond differently to your partner when they do this. Rather than starting an argument because you’re feeling disrespected, you can start by letting them know you feel frustrated and would like them to please remember to put their dishes away. You can even let them know you feel “disrespected” and explain the insight you had with them.
Of course, none of this explains how to actually “feel your feelings,” that part is a little more vague. In the previous exercise you took a moment to notice your feelings, that’s step one of feeling your feelings. Step two comes when you allow yourself to be free of other distracting emotions and sit with just one, we often call that “being with an emotion.”
Being With An Emotion
Whether it’s “sitting with” or “being with” the practice of learning to be with your emotions is sometimes rather confusing, until, it isn’t. It’s almost like riding a bike, when you’re learning, it can feel impossible, then one day everything seems to align, your body gets its balance and you can never unlearn it!
When we get to this step, I often explain that being with your feelings is different than being in them. If you are in your feelings you’re usually letting them in the driver’s seat too, and that’s often when we say or do things we later wish we hadn’t. Being with your feelings is more like standing next to them; you can look at them, see what they’re like, but not be consumed by them.
Sounds easy enough right? With practice it can be. By noticing your feelings daily, you’ll start to develop an idea of what your internal world is like. Once you have some emotional vocabulary and can connect it to real experiences you’ve had, you can start to practice being with your feelings. To initially get started I recommend trying this exercise:
Pick a time when you aren’t feeling too emotionally overwhelmed. (Calmer times are often easier places to start.)
Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit/lay.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Begin by doing a feelings check in.
Pick one feeling you identified that you’d like to explore.
Take another deep breath and imagine all your other feelings drifting off into the sky (or into the other room).
Refocusing on the target feeling, see if you feel it in one part of your body more than another (i.e.anxiety often sits in our chest, stomach, neck and shoulders, anger can be all over our bodies). If you don’t feel it physically, try to notice it in other ways.
Give your attention to wherever you feel it most. If it helps you can visualize lighting this part of your body up with a blue light.
With a deep breath sit and notice the qualities of the feeling. Notice what comes to mind for you as you do this. Do you get flashes of images or memories? Do you notice thoughts or other feelings?
Try to notice all the qualities as if you are holding them out in front of you on your hand. Notice them by naming them.
Continue to name the qualities until you are finished. Then take a deep breath and open your eyes.
(If at any point you start to feel overwhelmed by the feeling, you can take a deep breath and open your eyes and start identifying and naming things in the room you’re in to help you feel more grounded.)
When we talk about “qualities” of feelings the range can be wide. For some people they see their feelings as physical representations, therefore they might describe a feeling’s physical appearance. Others might have a more physical experience of their feelings and notice it in that way. There is no wrong way to feel a feeling. If you find you’re struggling to label qualities of a feeling, begin by naming the feeling itself and sit with it until you notice more qualities. If nothing comes, don’t get discouraged, this is an exercise you’ll need to practice.
So why do any of this at all? Building emotional intelligence and insight is not easy and won’t occur over night, but the benefits will definitely outweigh the work you put into it, because it’s through this process that we learn better, more productive ways to care for ourselves, to have healthier relationships, to have, but not be defeated by uncomfortable feelings, and to be resilient in even the most difficult of times (i.e. right now!).