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Don’t Just Talk About Feelings

microphone in meeting room Under my November post entitled How to Stop Ruminating, Marty left this comment:

“You’re right that ruminating, at least in my case, is an attempt to figure out what’s wrong and what to do about it. So let’s say I go to the feelings behind this, and they happen to be “fearful”, “alienated”, and “grieved.” And then I say, yes, I feel afraid, I don’t feel like my life works for me, and I have pain about the past. Then what? Those aren’t feelings I want to stay in. I talk with my therapist about this already, and I try to make life changes, but apparently this is not enough.”

As I told Marty, once you’ve accepted and fully experienced the truth of your feelings* on an emotional level, with self-compassion, you’ll have your answer.

I don’t mean to be mysterious about it. It’s just that it’s hard to describe what happens when you stop fighting with your own experience.

Experiencing Feelings vs. Talking About Them

Let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what it means to “experience,” “embrace,” or “feel” a feeling, as opposed to “acknowledging,” “observing” or “naming” a feeling.

Experiencing an emotion, for many in our culture, is that thing that makes you feel out of control, like you’re having a meltdown or even going crazy.

It’s the thing you’re supposed to avoid so that others can be comfortable around you and vice versa. It often feels unseemly or just plain wrong, like something you shouldn’t be doing.

In short, if you’re having a physiological reaction that feels illicit, shameful or out of control even though you’re not doing anything, you may be experiencing a feeling.

On the other hand, noticing, acknowledging and naming an emotion is something you can do even if you’re not experiencing the emotion.

You can tell a friend or your therapist, “I’ve been lonely lately.”

But saying that is not the same as experiencing loneliness.

Even knowing that you’re lonely is not the same as feeling lonely.

Come Home to Your Authentic Self

When you really experience or feel an emotion, you’re in touch with your authentic self — the self that laughs when you’re tickled and cries when you’re sad.

Experiencing even your worst feelings puts you in touch with truth, reality and the potential for healing and renewal.

The final ingredient, and the most crucial, is compassion.

Too many of us didn’t learn self-compassion early in life. But it’s not too late. Look for a compassionate soul and model your relationship with yourself on how they treat you.

A feelings-friendly therapist can help you gently access your feelings and provide safety while you experience them in the here-and-now of the therapy room.

The therapist’s acceptance, validation and normalization of your feelings is what provides the safety that makes it possible to face feelings you may have needed to avoid in the past.

Experiencing these feelings helps them to move through and out of you once and for all, leaving you stronger, more peaceful, and one step closer to wholeness.

A big thank-you to Marty for the comment that inspired this post.

* I use the words “feeling” and “emotion” interchangeably.

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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