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Why should you actually feel your emotions?
a guide for the overthinker
Picture: your name is Bob and your therapist’s name is Alice. Every time you share something with Alice, she responds with, “I see. And how does that make you feel?” After a few rounds of this you begin to wonder whether this is the only sequence of words in Alice’s vocabulary or if you’ve accidentally ended up on an SNL sketch somehow.
I will get as annoyed as anybody if my therapist’s only apparent trick in the book is to ask me how things make me feel (with a serious-looking expression on their face and an uncomfortably heavy emphasis on the “feel”) and my responses don’t go anywhere useful. But today I am going to be Alice, and I am going to explain why she’s right.
The answer to “how does that make you feel” should not be verbal.
You’re talking about how your friend doesn’t respond to your texts as quickly as you would like and Alice asks her signature question. Your first answer is: well I feel betrayed, the friendship feels lopsided, but I also feel needy, and I feel like I shouldn’t be so bothered by silly things, and also how come none of my—
After about an hour of this you feel exhausted from talking for so long and are wondering why you keep paying $100 to do this for an hour every Saturday. This is the problem I always had with traditional talk therapy, and I now realize why I struggled with it: because I already do way too much talking. To friends, to the internet, to myself.
My running internal monologue is constantly preoccupied with how things make me feel, but it’s always trying to answer the question conceptually, and frequently lumps in other questions like “why am I feeling this?” and “how can I stop feeling this so I can get back to what I was supposed to be doing?”
If you’re prone to over-conceptualizing your emotions, “how does that make you feel” should instead be a nudge to look inward into the body, to let go of concepts and explore the character of the emotion itself, independent of the thoughts associated with it.
Actually feeling your emotions allows you to process them faster.
Say you feel anxious. You don’t like the way this feels in your body: there’s this sense of tightness in your chest and your heart is racing. This feels like a threat, it’s unpleasant, and it’s getting in the way of what you’re trying to do (finish some work, read a blog post, talk to a friend).
In this moment, what happens if you pause and turn your attention to the emotion itself? Where is the anxiety, how is it moving through you? What’s going on in the rest of your body—arms, legs, hands, feet?
Often what gets in the way of feeling emotions clearly is a rapid-fire series of thoughts about the emotion. One way to address this is to use the thoughts themselves to hone in on the emotion. Literally say to the anxiety: you are welcome here. Or say to it: thank you for trying to keep me safe. And direct attention back to the feeling itself.
What all of this does is shift your mind from a stance of resistance towards the emotion, which only prolongs and intensifies it, to one of acceptance.
Actually feeling your emotions makes them less scary.
What exactly feels scary about feeling anxiety, or anger, or fear? A few things:
We’re afraid the emotion will make us do something embarrassing or destructive. This is literally the perfect situation in which to really feel the emotion clearly. With sufficient practice, what you find is that emotions (and cravings) don’t have control over you in the way you thought they did. Your implicit mental model shifts from: “I have the ability to suppress anger, but the moment I stop shoving it down it will take over and control me” to “I can’t control how much anger I feel, but I have increasing control over how I act in response to it”.
We’re afraid the emotion will destroy our mind. This one’s a little weirder but I do think it’s true: in moments where I’ve felt an especially intense wave of an emotion I was resisting (usually anxiety), there was this sense that the emotion would just become the totality of my experience and everything else (me, the world) would just be gone forever. But this does not happen: like all other sensory experiences, emotions are transient and they will pass. To embody this realization more and more, it helps to pay attention to the disappearing of inner sensations and emotions, which is one of the objectives of vipassana meditation.
The better you get at feeling your emotions, the more you address both of the fears above. Eventually your emotions go from being a pack of wolves trying to eat you alive, to a throng of squirrels scurrying around minding their own business.
What prevents us from feeling our emotions?
A few culprits: (1) there are too many emotions to feel; (2) phones distract us; (3) thoughts distract us.
Literally so much happens in one day. The number of social interactions you have with others—DMs, meetings, news, social media feeds, micro-encounters with strangers on the subway—ranges from the hundreds to thousands in a single day. That is a lot to process! It would be nice to have ten seconds to pause and process each one of those, but you don’t have time for that.
Also, we have an easy escape hatch: phones and the internet. When we are constantly stimulated, we feel bad (restless, agitated, anxious), and then, rather than just feeling these feelings, we distract ourselves from them by seeking out more stimulation. Hence, addiction. Hence, very little emotional processing.
The other major culprit for not feeling emotions, for overthinkers at least, is our tendency to ruminate excessively on the emotion, especially its causes and its consequences.
You don’t need to figure out what the emotion implies about your life or your future or your relationships or
This is what was happening in the texting example above: rather than just feeling a bit of sadness that my friend didn’t reply to my text, I worry about what this feeling implies about my maturity. (And also how much longer I’ll keep feeling this, whether this will affect my relationships in the future, whether I will become increasingly sad about it, whether I could ever maintain a relationship again, et cetera.) The better you get at feeling your emotions, the more you will sever the connection between a feeling and an immediate spiral of catastrophizing thoughts. Allow me to establish once and for all: that emotion you’re feeling has zero consequences for your life and your decisions that you absolutely need to figure out in this moment.
Emotions are your body’s way of expressing its needs. In feeling them, you are getting better at listening to your body. Importantly, when I say listen, I really mean listen, I don’t mean talk back and try to problem-solve. Your emotions do not need an overanxious parent that goes: oh shit, sadness! what do we do about this, ahh sorry you’re feeling sad, what should we do to fix this? I’ve messed up, you shouldn’t be feeling—
Given this, you might ask: do I literally just listen and listen? Should I not do any reflection about what my emotions mean? Two answers: you should do some reflection, via journaling or therapy or talking to friends, but like, maybe once a week at most. Definitely not 37 times a day. Also, your body (by which I mean everything outside your internal monologue) will do a lot of the “making sure needs are met” on its own, so you should mostly just get out of its way.
Ok, but X emotion is interfering with Y thing I’m supposed to be doing
You’re supposed to go to your friend’s party but you feel anxious. You want to have a productive writing session but you feel a creative block. You want to have a calm Sunday afternoon reading at your favorite cafe but you can’t stop feeling angry at what your friend said last night.
The emotion is “getting in the way” of something you’re trying to do. You have two options: (1) give up on doing the thing and sit with the emotion instead; (2) push through your emotion and do the thing anyway. Given everything I’ve said so far you might expect me to advise option (1), but actually, there is no hard rule that applies to all circumstances. (Haley Nahman has a useful framework for making such decisions, but again, it won’t give you a perfectly clear answer for every situation.)
All I would say is: either option is perfectly fine. It’s ok to fall short of a commitment because your emotions are pushing you elsewhere, and it’s ok to make a judgment that you are going ahead with something in spite of emotions that are interfering with it. The point is to find equanimity with the fact that the emotion is there in the first place. And then, if you decide you’ll miss the party, finding equanimity with the FOMO that results. Or, if you decide you’ll actually go to the party, finding equanimity with the social anxiety and frustration that comes from that. Both options present you with an opportunity to befriend an emotion.
Actually feeling your emotions makes you more embodied.
All of this work is helping you learn to identify less with your head, and more with your embodied experience of the world. This is really important: feeling like you actually are your body, rather than a separate little thinking entity up above that’s controlling the body. This not only feels nicer, but is a truer way of being in the world.
Ok, but obviously, I am ultimately in my head and am not the rest of my body, right?
Excuse the long philosophical digression (I did say this was a guide for the overthinker); consider skipping to the next section.
The physicist-philosopher David Deutsch claims that the defining characteristic of humans is their capacity for creative thinking. Being able to think of new ideas and reason about them is what allows us to create knowledge of the world, which we’ve used to create this whole weird technological civilization thing. It’s what makes us different from every other species on earth, and any other entity we’ve discovered thus far in the universe. Embodying the spirit of Descartes’ I think, therefore I am, Deutsch speculates that our capacities for consciousness, free will, problem-solving, and intelligence, are all bound up in this same creative thinking program running in our brains, which, given sufficiently advanced technology, can be decoupled from our physical bodies and implemented on a computer.
This is an interesting and useful definition, and I will remain agnostic about whether Deutsch’s speculations are true. But they’re in line with this more obvious fact that your brain is the locus of your conscious experience, and that it’s the place where most of what you and others care about resides. A surgeon would consider amputating your leg if it was absolutely necessary, but no one would consider amputating your head. I’m going to refer to this complex of ideas about the primacy of the thinker and the brain (which are mostly valid) as the “head-first view”.
The point I want to make is: the head-first view is completely compatible with the claim that you are your body as much as your thoughts. But they clearly contradict each other, don’t they? The apparent contradiction lies in the fact that we’re using the word “you” in two slightly different ways.
When someone advocating the head-first view is talking about “you” being the thinker in your head, they’re referring to a mental process that’s running in your brain and generating thoughts and actions as output. They’re speaking about “you” as an agent in the world, from the third-person. The question of whether this agent has any conscious experience is irrelevant: all that matters is that it takes inputs and produces outputs, just as a non-sentient machine would.
When I say “you are your body as much as your thoughts”, the “you” I’m referring to is the subjective field of awareness within which the experience of your body and thoughts is arising. That thing is not your thoughts more so than it is your body. That thing is just this open field of conscious contents within which things arise and pass. What happens, though, is that this field of awareness has a tendency to collapse around specific contents (typically thoughts), and as a result an illusory identification occurs between the contents and the field itself: it appears that “the thing which is conscious” is “the thing which is thinking”. That is literally all that is happening when you feel like you are the thinker in your head: the awareness that contains your body-mind-world-experience collapses momentarily around inner monologue.
As far as I can tell, this collapse and identification with thinking serves no particularly useful purpose for either the thinking process, or for the wider field of awareness, or for the other contents of awareness like the body. So, bringing us all the way back to the original point: feeling emotions in your body, and becoming less identified with your thoughts, will help uncollapse your awareness, and clarify your experience of the world.
Ok sure, but philosophical ramblings aside, if I control my emotions I can control my life, right?
There are certainly things you can do, in the long run, to change some of your emotions (e.g. exposure therapy to address a phobia). If there was a neutral third party that could dictate your actions and thought processes, then yes, they would have lots of control, perhaps complete control, over the emotions you feel. The problem is:
You are not a neutral third party, you’re in the middle of all this actually experiencing it.
You have very little control over your thought processes. Try to spend 30 seconds not thinking at all about elephants.
You have control over your actions but to a limited degree – you have control over your immediate next action, and not much else. (This is because you can’t be sure about how the world will change, and you also can’t be sure about what intentions or ideas might arise in your brain in the next moment.)
These things combined should make it clear that, on some important level, you—the self-reflective ego structure in your head, the transiently collapsed awareness that identifies with thoughts—are not the author of your life.
If you are not the author of your life, why not heed some of your (illusory) control to the emotions themselves, and more broadly, to the unpredictable vicissitudes of the universe? Again, the really weird and counterintuitive thing that happens is that the more you surrender to the things you don’t have control over, the happier you become and the more agency you have over the things you do have control over.
One small concrete way to get started
That medley of emotions you feel first thing in the morning that compels you to lunge for your phone? Great start. The next time you’re feeling this, resolve to sit with it for a bit, to not check your phone until at least ten minutes after you’ve gotten up and brushed your teeth. Importantly, avoid thinking about the cause of the emotion or what the solution might be. Just feel it and welcome it, and figure out what it feels like in your body and your face. (At most, the conceptualizing in your mind should sound like: “anxiety…sad…chest…forehead…longing…” and so on). Do this for however long you have, whether it’s two minutes or five or ten. The goal is not to make the emotions go away, but to become better friends with them.
The real reason to actually feel your emotions is to bring yourself into greater alignment.
Unless you’re already very good at this, attempting to feel your emotions just so you can process them faster and feel better and have more agency is prone to a major failure mode: all of this is still a kind of resistance. You’re still trying to get the emotions out of the way for some imagined perfect life you’ll have once you’re no longer burdened by these silly feelings. So really, while all of the above things are actually true, if they are your sole motivation for feeling your feelings, you will probably struggle. The reason you might ultimately land on for feeling your feelings is to get into alignment. Alignment with what, you ask? Idk, your true nature, your awakened being, the cosmic flow of the universe…something along those lines.
So, with all that said. How does this make you feel?
There’s some nuance over what I have and haven’t gotten out of traditional talk therapy, but that’s best saved for another post. I do think talk therapy can be helpful if there’s good alignment between the client and therapist.
While I say “you are your body as much as your thoughts”, what I really mean is “you are any one part of your experience (including e.g. the sound of your upstairs neighbor’s footsteps) as much as you are your thoughts”.