You might imagine that if you can name your feelings, you should be able to feel them—but in my experience, that’s often not the case. Sometimes our feelings are obvious—but more often, they’re either suppressed or hidden behind thinking. And feeling your feelings is especially hard when you’re triggered. Reactive emotions are uncomfortable to feel; they compel us to react, instead. Generally, the last thing we want to do with reactive emotions is simply feel them. But feeling your feelings can be a powerful way of freeing yourself from reactivity.
Having the willingness to feel your feelings is a good first step, but unfortunately it’s not enough. You also need capacity and know-how. In terms of capacity, you need enough strength of attention to experience your feelings without identifying with them or reacting to them. And your attention must be energized to a higher level of energy than the feelings you’re trying to feel—otherwise, when you try to feel your feelings, your attention will get overwhelmed, and you will get swept away into thinking or some other form of reaction. (This can actually reinforce your reactive patterns.)
To help build capacity, I recommend doing daily practices for strengthening and energizing your attention. Meditation is my favorite practice for this, and there are many others that can help as well.
A Practice for Feeling Your Feelings
I’ve found the following practice really helpful for feeling my feelings, especially when I’m triggered or distracted.
Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. (If you meditate, you can do this practice within a meditation session.) Start by stabilizing your attention, by resting it on the sensations of your breathing. Then start noticing your sensations, including sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and all other sensations related to the body. Expand your field of attention with the goal of including as many of these sensory modalities as possible—so you are simultaneously seeing your entire visual field, hearing all sounds, feeling all body sensations, and so forth. This energizes your attention.
Then expand your attention to include your field of emotions. If your emotions are not obvious, start by noticing feelings of like and dislike related to your body sensations. Like and dislike are the most basic emotions; once you recognize them, it becomes easier to notice other emotions.
Then expand your attention again to include your thoughts—that is, everything else you’re experiencing that’s not a sensation or emotion. Let your thoughts come and go, without following them. When you notice you’re caught up in thinking—that is, chasing your thoughts—start the whole process over again (stabilizing your attention by resting it on your breathing).
With this preparation, you may find you can rest your attention on your feelings—your emotions and body sensations—without getting caught up in thinking. If not, there is more energy in the pattern that’s triggered than in your attention. Try strengthening and energizing your attention, through practices like meditation.
Even if you’re not noticeably triggered, you’re likely to discover some feelings that are uncomfortable to feel. The challenge here is to allow yourself to simply feel these feelings without turning away from them, suppressing them, or reacting to them. To feel your feelings, do just that—don’t try to name them, change them, connect them to your needs, or do anything else with them. Let your thoughts come and go, without trying to analyze them, categorize them, or change them.
After feeling your feelings for a while, you may be surprised to discover you can feel any uncomfortable feelings that may be present—and be at peace at the same time. Soon after that, you may notice something starting to relax within yourself. Sometimes this is a shift from triggered to centered, and sometimes it’s a bigger shift from attachment to liberation (as reactive patterns dissolve).
(Thanks to Ken McLeod, whose work influenced this piece. For an introduction to Ken McLeod’s work, see his book Wake Up to Your Life.)
Photo Peaceful evening in the Owens Valley, near Bishop, CA (by Frank Kovalchek) is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.