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What You've Learned About Feelings May Be Wrong

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So let’s talk about feelings, shall we? As a psychotherapist, I truly believe experiencing our emotions is integral to feeling whole and alive. It is also vital to having deep and rich relationships. I truly believe the more we are able to feel, tolerate and appropriately express emotions, the greater our quality of life will be.

However, learning how to feel and appropriately express our emotions is a skill we all have to learn growing up. Unfortunately, not all of us grew up in homes or communities where we received lots of support and encouragement about how to feel and express our feelings. More likely, many of us grew up in homes or communities where it wasn’t fully OK or even safe to express these emotions. These early experiences may have created beliefs and patterns in us about our feelings. Messages like “Anger is bad.” Patterns like, “I can’t show someone how I feel.”

While these messages and patterns likely served a great purpose for you back then (keeping you safe, for instance, in a family where it wasn’t safe to show emotions), these early beliefs might now be keeping you locked into rigid emotional patterns. These patterns aren’t helping you live a life as rich and connected as you could be. If this is the case for you, then you’re not alone. It was the case for me and also for many of the clients I work with.

The good news? You’re in wonderful company. The great news? It’s never too late to learn more about how to undo these early messages. It’s never too late to learn how to fully experience and appropriately express your feelings. Doing this will allow you to deepen your sense of aliveness and connection in the world.

I want to share some ideas and tools with you to help you do just that:

1. Recognize and respect the value of your feelings.

As we begin the process of fully feeling and appropriately expressing our emotions, it’s likely our stories and beliefs about feelings will be flushed to the surface. In working with my clients, two of the most common internalized messages are, Some emotions are good, others are bad, andIt doesn’t do me any good to feel this way.

Let’s unpack these assumptions, shall we?

  • There’s no such thing as good or bad. One thing I often hear in my work is some version of, “I don’t want to feel angry. I just want to be positive.” Many of us have unconsciously categorized certain emotions as “good” and certain emotions as “bad.” Actually, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Emotions are not “good or bad” or “right or wrong.” They simply just are. Emotions are energetic charges in our bodies that come and go like waves on a beach, a constant presence in our lives. To use another metaphor, if each emotion is like a key on a keyboard, then you can imagine the goal of life isn’t to play just a few notes on the keyboard of emotions (how boring!). Rather, the goal is to learn to play all of the keys to create the richest symphony of music possible. We really, truly want to be able to feel and honor each of our emotions. Even the ones that sometimes might be challenging to feel.
  • There are clues contained in our emotions. Another truth about emotions is they all contain some signal value, some functional attribute of information that can yield wonderful clues for us as we navigate the terrain of our lives. Let’s take anger, for instance. Anger is a sign we have a need that’s not being met or a boundary that’s being crossed. If you’re walking away from a conversation with your sister-in-law and are feeling irritated, annoyed or grumpy, but you don’t know quite why, check in with yourself. Notice your anger and get curious about what may have happened in that interaction. Did she somehow cross a boundary of yours? Did you have a need in that relationship that wasn’t met? Knowing this, does it now make sense that you’re feeling this way? Anger’s just one example, but all feelings have this kind of information for us. If we’re able to value and identify the clues contained, these feelings can be a wonderful kind of guidance system for us as we move through life.

2. Notice and name your feelings.

Sounds simple, right? Noticing and naming your feelings seems like “Feelings 101,” doesn’t it? Maybe, but for those of us who grew up in homes or who received messages that it wasn’t safe or OK to feel, we may truly struggle in noticing or naming our feelings. If that’s the case, then we do have to return to “Feelings 101,” by trying to pay attention to and name what it is we’re actually feeling.

I have two tools that can help you do this:

  • The Body Scan
    Our bodies know far more than our heads ever do. Whenever a client is struggling to notice what it is she’s actually feeling, I always invite her to do a body scan. She sits back against the office couch, closes her eyes and begins to notice what’s going on in her body. I invite her to notice any parts of her body that may be calling for attention. If she becomes aware of a particular sensation, I invite her to describe in more detail. What’s the temperature? (Hot? Cold?) What’s the texture of that sensation? (Spiky? Tight?) I invite her to guess what the feeling contained in her body is. If she’s succeeded at noticing what’s going on in her body but is struggling to actually name the feeling, or if her emotional vocabulary is limited, then we next turn to the filing cabinet.
  • The Filing Cabinet
    I’m not talking about an actual filing cabinet but rather an imagined one. Specifically, a filing cabinet containing four major drawers: Sad, Mad, Glad and Scared. These are the four meta categories of emotions that then contain hundreds more specific emotions. When a client is struggling to guess or name how she’s feeling, I invite her to consider which of the four major drawers her feelings could, at that moment, most likely be filed under. This usually helps by giving us a starting place to work from. Try it the next time you’re struggling to name exactly how you feel. Check in to see if the general sense of your experience is one of sadness, gladness, anger or fear.

3. Expand your emotional container and appropriately express your feelings.

As we rewrite the stories we have about feelings and begin to notice and name them, it becomes increasingly important to also expand our emotional container (i.e. our ability to feel our feelings) and to appropriately express them. By doing so, we can be in responsible, connected relationship with ourselves and with others.

  • The Swimming Pool of Feelings
    As we work toward expanding the capacity to feel our feelings, I think for some of us it’s helpful to practice titration. What’s titration? Well, imagine emotions are a swimming pool and you are a young child attempting to enter these waters. You don’t have to jump into the deep end of the pool of your emotions and flail around there. You don’t have to cling to the steps unwilling to dip a toe into the pool. You can practice being the child who titrates his or her experience by stepping in a little bit, waiting, stepping in a bit further when she’s comfortable and getting out when she needs to. Emotionally, this may mean turning toward and feeling your feelings in amounts that feel tolerable. Then, when you notice you’re becoming overwhelmed, helping yourself stabilize and ground. You can do this through deep breathing or distracting yourself when you need to come back to a more integrated space.
  • Appropriately Expressing Your Feelings
    You may have noticed I keep using the phrase “appropriately expressing your feelings” through this article. For me, this means as we work to grow our capacity to feel our feelings, we also work to grow our capacity to tolerate and manage them. We work to express them in ways that are healthy and not act out destructively or inappropriately from this place.

Here is my invitation for you. We’ve covered a lot of material and explored quite a few ideas and tools that might be supportive for you in more fully honoring, feeling and appropriately expressing your feelings. I’d like to invite you to consider what you know about your relationship to your feelings:

  • Growing up in your family, what messages did you receive, either explicitly or implicitly, about your emotions?
  • Is it easier and more acceptable to you to feel some emotions and not others? If so, why is that? What do you know about that?
  • What do you know works for you in feeling and appropriately expressing your feelings?
  • What do you know doesn’t work for you?

Finally, I want to invite you to remember this: We’re aiming for progress here, not perfection. Relearning how to value, feel and appropriately express your emotions is a skill, and, like anything new, it takes practice before it’s fully internalized. So be kind to yourself and to each other as we all seek out richer, more enlivened and more connected lives.


This post originally appeared on Annie Wright Psychotherapy.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: August 17, 2016
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