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Feel Your Feelings: Mastering the Art of Managing Emotions
A simple guide to processing your feelings
Hello & welcome to another edition of Beyond Self Improvement! Last Wednesday, I published The Path of Least Pain: The Shortest Route to an Unsatisfying Life.
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The Article in Three Sentences
Discover actionable insights to manage your emotions, enhancing your overall emotional well-being. Learn tools, including the Mood Meter, that can be integrated into your daily routine for heightened emotional awareness. Experience a broader, more balanced emotional landscape, unexpectedly enriching your life.
I hope this finds you peaceful, contented, and full of joy.
Thirteen years ago to the month, my marriage ended. I felt hurt, lonely, and disoriented.
By then, I had meditated, studied Buddhist psychology, and attended silent meditation retreats for several years. I felt satisfied with the clarity, insights, and strength of mind I had gained, but it wasn’t enough to sustain a healthy relationship. So, I began looking for answers.
I joined a men’s group that met weekly in the basement of a building on Stanford University’s campus. We would check in with our feelings at the start of each meeting. The only problem was that none of us knew what we felt—except for one guy.
The following week, he brought a photocopied list of emotions. As we did our check-ins, we would scan the list to see if any words matched the sensations in our bodies. It was hard initially, but it got easier over time.
Then, a curious thing happened.
I began feeling more alive. My needs became more apparent—when to rest, keep going, or set boundaries. I started sharing appreciation with others. I began feeling fear and grieving loss and was willing to be more vulnerable.
Learning to be with unpleasant emotions opened me to previously unfelt pleasant feelings like joy, happiness, and contentment. I rediscovered my playfulness and laughed more. Eventually, unpleasant feelings themselves became pleasant. They connected me to meaning, myself, and my humanity.
Are you starting to see the value of feeling your feelings—pleasant and unpleasant? But if feelings are beneficial, why don’t we all feel our emotions?
My experience in the men’s group is not uncommon. Ask anyone, “What are you feeling right now?” and most wouldn’t have an answer. “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body,” wrote James Joyce.
Feelings are meant to be released, which the body does naturally. We breathe in and exhale. We take in food and water and excrete them. As Eckhart Tolle observed, ducks flap their wings to release emotions after an altercation.
Unfortunately, we learned early to block emotions. Repression is one way we do this. We deny or resist our feelings or distract ourselves through eating, shopping, working, drinking, watching TV, or just numbing out.
In childhood, many of us received messages (often nonverbally) that certain emotions were unacceptable. Depending on your family, you may have learned that anger was okay but not sadness. Or sadness was okay, but not sexual feelings.
Many of us were raised by caregivers who didn’t understand that feelings are simply sensations to be experienced and released. When feelings came up, something terrible happened. When Mom got mad, she yelled and screamed.
We learned to suppress emotion, deny feelings, and block the natural flow of emotional energy.
But repressing emotion blocks all emotions in the same way that kinking a hose constricts water flow. “We cannot selectively numb emotions,” writes Brené Brown. “When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
Another way we block emotion is through a cognitive/emotive loop. Cognition or thinking is mind-based, while emoting or feeling is body-based. Ruminating on a thought intensifies and reinforces the emotion, preventing its release.
Here are some examples of rumination:
If he had put the milk away, it wouldn’t have spoiled.
I wouldn’t be stuck in traffic if I had left the house earlier.
This country is in such a mess because so and so is in office.
When we repress or reinforce emotions through thoughts, they disappear temporarily, only to return later. Unfelt feelings never go away. Instead, they remain in the body and keep returning, again and again, until they are felt and are allowed to move through the body entirely.
When repressed or ruminated on long enough, an emotion can harden into a mood: Fear becomes anxiety. Anger becomes bitterness. Sadness becomes apathy. These moods can last for days, months, or even years.
Feeling your feelings can help you avoid this dilemma.
In her book My Stroke of Insight, Harvard-trained brain scientist Jill Bolte-Taylor discovered most emotions last no more than ninety seconds. My experience confirms they often last only seconds.
Emotions move through the body in waves, similar to an ocean. An emotion rises, crests, and releases (if we allow it), followed by a period of calm stillness, often followed by another wave. Emotions can be small ripples across the water’s surface or intense, tsunami-like waves. Learning to release feelings as they arise is the key to sustaining the calm spaciousness that is always in and around the next wave.
This begs the question, how do we release our emotions?
The 4 Steps to Feeling and Releasing Your Feelings
1. Name the feeling. Once daily, ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Research indicates that simply naming what’s present calms the body and mind, helps de-personalize the experience, and helps us feel more in control.
To help you answer this question, I recommend the Mood Meter, a handy tool developed by Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. You can find the Mood Meter here.
Using the Mood Meter, locate the quadrant that best represents the sensations you feel in your body. What I love about the mood meter is that it simplifies naming your feelings. Alternatively, you can use the emotions list we used in my men’s group. You can find that list here.
How we talk about emotions affects how intensely we feel them. Specific phrases can create space between you and the feelings. Instead of saying, “I’m anxious,” you might try:
I feel anxious.
This is anxiety.
Anxiety is present.
These phrases help you name the experience without getting caught up or defined by it.
2. Notice the feeling. Instead of judging your feelings (or how you feel about how you’re feeling), notice the direct sensations in your body.
Where in the body do I sense it?
Do I sense tension or contraction?
What is its temperature, effect on the breath, and degree of pain?
3. Listen to the feeling. After being with the sensations of the emotion, get curious about what the feeling is trying to tell you. Listen like you would a friend. You might ask yourself:
What does my body need?
What truth is it trying to convey?
What action is called for?
The need may be physical (rest, sunshine, or a hug) or psychological (care, love, words of affirmation). Instead of judging the feeling, see how you can support it or seek support.
Don’t overthink it. Listening alone is often enough.
4. Let go of the feeling. Feelings are intended to share their message and leave the body. Once the emotion has served its purpose, let it go. For overthinkers, this can be easier said than done. Here’s an exercise that can help:
Inhale and exhale deeply three times.
As you inhale, imagine breathing the thoughts and emotions into your lungs.
As you exhale, imagine exhaling the thoughts and feelings out through your mouth.
Feelings are one of the great gifts of being human. They contain vital messages and add richness and color to our daily lives. When emotions are understood for what they are, they can be enjoyed, wondered about with curiosity, and released.
So, I invite you to start making space for your feelings with a daily check-in using these four steps. Sitting with emotions isn’t easy, but you will feel more alive and human with practice.
I’ll leave you with this quote from author Louise Erdrich: "You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart."
Feel your feelings,
When you’re ready, I can help you transform chronic stress and worry into ongoing calm—making you feel in control in 90 days. Schedule a free, 30-minute discovery call today.
Or, if you want to grab coffee or tea, let me know when you're in Silicon Valley. ☕️