We all have a relationship with our emotions. Some of these relationships are intuitive and accepting. Some of us have disconnected relationships with them. More often than not, we have selective relationships with our emotions – welcoming in the ones we have positive associations with and seeking out any means to escape the ones we find uncomfortable. These tend to be emotions like anger, sadness, or shame.
However, we cannot selectively numb our emotions. Each time we run away from one we decide is uncomfortable, we limit our capacity to welcome in and deeply feel the ones we want more of – ones like joy, excitement, and even love. Learning to make space for our more difficult emotions can be easier if we learn what each one is telling us, and the gift each one has waiting on the other side for us, if only we are willing to feel them. In this blog post, I will teach you about what happens when we hold on to the more painful emotions, the gift on the other side of feeling them fully, as well as ending with a practice to help you embrace this in your own life.
Anger usually means that a boundary of ours has been violated. When held on to or repressed, anger has the potential to turn into rage. The gift on the other side of processing our anger includes things like strength, energy, and motivation.
Fear is a normal response to protect ourselves. We may be biologically programmed to fear certain things (for example, a large bear showing its teeth) or we may fear things that have hurt us personally or caused us harm in the past. We may also fear things that we don’t understand or feel uncertain about. When carried or denied, fear can produce panic or paranoia. The gift of processing our fear can be wisdom or protection.
Sadness can be a spectrum related to a loss of something in our lives or a response to being hurt. If we carry or deny our sadness, it has the potential to become depression or hopelessness. When processed fully, the gift of sadness can be healing or growth.
A core human need is connection, and when we feel this lacking, loneliness can set in (even if we are around people, if we don’t feel connected, we can feel lonely). When carried or denied, loneliness can produce isolation or helplessness. When processed through, the gift can be reaching out or reaching in.
Guilt is the feeling produced when we feel like we have done something “bad” or rather, out of alignment with our values. When carried or denied, guilt can lead us to immobility. When processed fully as an emotion, the gift can be making amends (which leads us back to a place of connection in our relationships, and the potential for forgiveness) or connecting with our values.
While guilt tells us we have done something “bad,” shame is an emotion that is internalized when we feel we are bad. It’s one of the most painful emotions, and when denied or carried with us, shame can lead to a feeling of worthlessness. The gift on the other side of shame when felt is humility or humanity.
A Practice to Process Feelings
The saying “feel your feelings” gets thrown around a lot these days. In therapy sessions, I’m regularly asked by clients what this even means, and I get why. It’s not as self-explanatory as it sounds because most of us have never been shown this practice or had it modeled for us. While the practice actually is simple, it’s important to remember that simple does not mean easy. This is a practice to help you feel and process your emotions on a somatic level, letting your body tune into it’s natural healing ability.
To begin, it may feel good to close your eyes or bring a soft gaze over the bridge of your nose. This is where we turn inward.
Focus your attention on the sensations you feel in your body. You may label the emotion you feel, for example, stating “I feel angry” and then directing yourself towards the sensations: “Where do I feel anger in my body?”
When you have located the sensations, begin to focus on these, using mindful attention. Your mind will likely want to get involved, that’s okay. When you notice thoughts about the emotion or sensation happening, redirect your attention to the sensation. Your mind will continue to amplify the emotion or block the processing (the stories our minds create can lead to emotions all on their own!) The focus of this practice is on the sensations of the body.
To help, it may help to label where you feel them and what they feel like. For example, “I feel hotness in my upper stomach. I feel a swirling sensation in my throat.” Focus on one of these sensations and then notice when something shifts. Breathe through it until you feel something shift – even if the shift is small, when the sensation changes, that is your cue that your body is working through the emotion. You can continue on for as long as you’d like. This practice does not need to be longer than a few minutes.
Unlocking the Felt-Sense for Better Mental Health
I will end with one of my favorite quotes that highlights the power of working with our emotions. Psychologist Eugene Gendlin coined the term, “felt sense” to describe the power of feeling ourselves fully, including emotions, when we connect deeply to mind and body. He argued that this has the profound power to improve our mental health. He says:
“What is split off, not felt, remains the same. When it is felt, it changes. Most people don’t know this! They think that by not permitting the feeling of their negative ways they make themselves good. On the contrary, that keeps these negatives static, the same from year to year. A few moments of feeling it in your body allows it to change. If there is in you something bad or sick or unsound, let it inwardly be and breathe. That’s the only way it can evolve and change into the form it needs.”
Allowing your feelings in has the power to transform your mental health, deepen your connection with yourself, and expand your sense of joy. It might be worth letting the discomfort in with these benefits in mind.