Greetings! Today I wanted to write about something I’ve been practicing a lot this year: feeling your feelings, and releasing said feelings.
Do you ever feel “stuck” on an emotion you can’t stop ruminating over? Especially when it makes you feel icky? You spend hours brooding and reflecting, even experience repetitive thoughts about it. Well, you may be surprised to hear that you might not be feeling your feelings.
I know it may sound strange: how could I not be feeling my feelings if I can’t stop thinking about them? Consider though that thinking about your feelings is actually a distraction from feeling your feelings. When we do this, the emotion we’re experiencing actually never achieves the full expression or catharsis it needs, so it keeps coming back into our conscious awareness – looking for acknowledgment, becoming sticky. We often then proceed to engage a recurring cycle of distracting ourselves from our difficult or unpleasant emotions by approaching them indirectly – ruminating, trying to problem-solve, even fidgeting or turning to drugs or other habits like “eating your feelings.” These are all defense mechanisms.
Defense from what? Well, sometimes emotions just plain suck and don’t feel good, and many of us were taught that anything that doesn’t feel good is a waste of time. You may have even experienced traumas or abuse in response to expressing your emotions and now experience an instinctual fear towards feeling them. A lot of this stuff is entirely unconscious to us, and it takes a good amount of inner work to get to the bottom of ourselves in this regard.
Personally, I didn’t notice that I was distracting myself from feeling my feelings until I started learning to meditate this past year. Meditation gives you the opportunity to direct your awareness inward and simply observe, rather than actively direct your inner world. This kind of skill is critical when engaging in inner work, and I highly recommend that everyone develop a regular and consistent meditation practice no matter where they are at in their paths.
If you are new to meditation, I recommend downloading Insight Timer and checking out their free tutorial for how to meditate. The recommendations I offer throughout this post are more effective when you have the tools to be an observer to your inner world. With that being said, let’s get into steps you can take to release sticky feelings.
Identify Your Feelings
Identifying and naming your feelings are effective first steps to resolving and releasing sticky feelings. However, a lot of us think we are naming a feeling when really we are avoiding or diminishing it. It can actually be quite difficult to acknowledge a feeling by naming it, especially if that feeling makes us feel vulnerable or unsafe in any way. Additionally, we could be so used to avoiding our feelings that they become difficult to recognize in the first place.
A habit I am guilty of is abstracting or intellectualizing my emotions to avoid directly naming a feeling. Nick Wignall does a good job of explaining what intellectualizing one’s emotions looks like with the following excerpt:
As a culture, we tend to avoid using plain emotional language to describe how we feel. When asked how we’re doing, it somehow feels strange to say “I feel sad,” as though it’s too childlike and simplistic.Nick Wignall, The Dangers of Intellectualized Emotions
Instead, we say much more adult things like: “I’m upset.” Or, “I’m just spread too thin.” Or, “I’m really worried.”
But these more adult words and phrases we use to describe how we feel aren’t really emotions at all. And our habit of using them allows us to think we’re communicating how we feel, when in reality we’re doing the exact opposite — hiding how we feel.
It’s very easy to fall into this defense mechanism. The more we do this, the more of a challenge it can become to identify what we are truly feeling even when we try. How do we deal with this? It helps to go back to the basics.
Many philosophers and psychologists have theorized models of emotion, for which there exists endless language to describe. Robert Plutchik in particular developed a rather robust theory of emotion. From his theory came a useful tool: an emotion wheel.
I’m primarily sharing this wheel to make available some vocabulary you can reference to try and name your emotions. It’s not necessary for the purpose of this article to go into detail about the structure and theory of this wheel, but if you are interested I do recommend checking out this article on Plutchik’s theory of emotions. At the center of this wheel are eight primary emotions: grief, amazement, terror, admiration, ecstasy, vigilance, rage, and loathing. These are some intense emotions, and the wheel is designed so that the intensity of emotions is concentrated at the center. The surrounding emotions become less intense the more distanced they are from the center. You’ll also see that on the outermost ring there are emotions that exist in between two spokes; this is to demonstrate the way that different emotions relate to and combine with each other. Aggressiveness is a combination of vigilance and rage, while submission is interestingly a combination of admiration and terror. Are there any combinations that stand out to you?
So now we have emotional vocabulary, but that’s not necessarily enough to identify your emotions. As I mentioned before, it can be difficult to recognize your own emotions if you have spent a long time avoiding them. This is where meditation comes in. When you are in a situation where you need to identify how you are feeling – it may be during a conflict, a shocking event, or while you are alone – give yourself permission to excuse yourself from whatever is happening (if you can, otherwise commit to setting aside some time to do this when you are able) and find a quiet space to check in with yourself. If you are in the middle of a conflict, it can help to have a phrase like, “I want to be healthy (or loving, or fair, etc), so I’d like to have some space to figure myself out and I will check in with you in x amount of time.”
To check in with yourself and how you are feeling, you have to relax your attention and your will. Again, it’s very easy for us to think we are feeling our feelings when really we are just engaging in mental chatter which takes us out of our bodily awareness. I did not know the difference between mental chatter and feeling until I learned to meditate. Some helpful hints: emotions have a sensory experience to them (hence the word feel), they can provoke mental noise but they are not the same thing as mental noise. It can be useful to describe emotions as a kind of “energy” within us. When you are comfortable and ready to sit and be with your body, try the following:
- Notice any sensations in your body. Where in your body are they? What do they feel like? Do they feel good or bad?
- Once you have noticed a sensation, focus your attention on it (this is how you feel your feelings). Do not try to change it or “do” anything to it – just direct your attention to it and allow it to be there. Does it change on its own? Are there any new sensations that appear when you focus on this one?
- What kind of thoughts or desires appear in response to this sensation? That could be a clue that points you to what emotion you are feeling. For instance, if focusing on a heavy feeling in my abdomen makes me want to start crying, I would conclude that I am feeling sadness.
Once you’ve taken inventory of what you are experiencing inside your body, you can use the emotion wheel to guide you to identifying your emotion. Think about the adjectives you use to describe the sensations in your body. A lot of emotions share the same bodily sensations: fear and love can both make you feel tightness in your chest or stomach, but the difference between the two is that fear makes you feel awful and love makes you feel good. You can even feel multiple emotions at once, adding complexity to the challenge of identifying what you are feeling.
Don’t worry if you need to spend a long time in contemplation to sort out your emotions. Sometimes it takes me at least 30 minutes, or even longer, to identify my emotions. Notice when you are avoiding your feelings: it may seem like you’ve identified your emotion if you say “I feel like punching a hole in the wall” but “punching a hole in the wall” is not an emotion! Emotions are nouns. Keep reflecting until you’ve identified a noun, or several.
Once you get the hang of it, keep practicing. It takes practice to develop the habit of identifying your emotions (and avoiding falling back on defense mechanisms). The more you do it the easier and more natural it will become. Don’t forget to be patient with yourself while you are learning a new skill.
That concludes part 1 of releasing sticky feelings. I decided to break this post up until multiple parts because it is a lot to write, and it is a lot for my readers to take in at once. I think there is enough in this first post to keep you busy while I work on the next part. Please leave a comment and share your experience with identifying your emotions! In the next part I will go into detail about what comes next: accepting your feelings and then resolving them. Thank you for reading!