When “Feel Your Feelings” Doesn’t Work

Feelings are generated from three main sources.

1. Needs

The most functional form of feelings are signals about needs met or unmet in present reality. That’s really useful information that you can use to improve your life.

2. Images

Second, feelings can also be those same signals about needs met or unmet, but being generated from thinking about memories, or imaginary scenes. Our feelings come from parts of our brain that can’t really tell the difference between reality and an image of reality from our memory, imagination, or books and movies.

So, this can be useful information, if you are imagining something to test out how you feel about it, to make a decision. But you can also get lost in an imaginary future and miss out on real life, or you could generate worry or fear by focusing on worst-case scenarios, or get lot ruminating on the past. You can also imagine something will meet your need, but you might be wrong. Actually doing it is the only way to know if it will actually meet your need.

Non-present feelings need to be felt and fully processed if they are from a traumatic memory that you haven’t fully processed yet. But otherwise, you should ask yourself if it’s really helpful to keep reviewing these images, or if you would be better served to focus on the present.

3. Thoughts

Lastly, feelings can be generated from negative stories we tell ourselves, like  interpretations, thoughts and core beliefs about ourselves, reality, other people, or events. These are the most destructive and dysfunctional kind of feelings.

If you have a core belief like, “There’s something wrong with me”, that will generate awful feelings like pain and shame and helplessness. Feeling those feelings won’t help you. You are actually reinforcing that belief and making it more likely you will think those same thoughts in the future. Every time you think that thought, those feelings will keep being generated, and all they actually tell you is that it hurts to think that thought.

Don’t suppress those feelings either, because that also doesn’t do anything about the beliefs, and suppression causes its own set of problems. “Feel your feelings” is useful when your coping behaviors are destructive. But it’s not going to heal the underlying thoughts and beliefs.

Feelings that stem from beliefs signify you need to change your beliefs and stop repeating these stories to yourself.

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