When “Feel Your Feelings” Doesn’t Work
“Feel your feelings” is a common truism in healing circles. It is good advice sometimes, most specifically when processing trauma or if you habitually suppress your feelings and ignore your needs.
But, not all feelings are created equal.
Feelings are generated from several sources–some need to be felt, and some need to be taken as indicators that something else is going on that needs attention.
1. Present 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.
If you habitually ignore these signals, then recovering your relationship with these feelings is essential to your emotional health and wellbeing, and feel your feelings is good advice.
Feelings can also be those same signals about needs met or unmet, but being generated from thinking about 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.
These feelings 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 lost ruminating on the past. You can also imagine something will meet your need, but you might be wrong. Actually doing the thing is the only way to know if it will actually meet your need in real life. If you tend to dwell, 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.
Memories are images of the past that our brain has emotion already attached to. Reviewing positive memories can be a useful way to shift your mood.
Feelings need to be felt and fully discharged if they are from a traumatic memory that you haven’t fully processed yet.
4. Thoughts & Beliefs
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.