Humans 101

What Your Therapist Means When They Ask You to ‘Sit With Your Feelings’

It’s not about wallowing or self-care — it’s about paying attention

Mollie Birney, M.A.
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readOct 30, 2020

--

A person looking at a cloudy sky, sitting in a circular window that’s almost 10 times taller than them.
Image: gremlin/E+/Getty Images

“Sit with your feelings” is the lukewarm, nebulous buzz phrase we’ve all been hearing a lot lately. We hear it from our therapists, we hear it from mental health columnists, we hear it from yoga influencers showing off their smoothie bowls. Last week, I’m pretty sure I heard the Amazon delivery guy say it. The expression is decidedly mainstream, yet it remains a pretty vague instruction. Given the deluge of feelings we’re all currently drowning in, it seemed like the right time to offer some clarification on what this seemingly simple bit of advice actually means.

Let’s start with what it’s not:

Some interpret “sit with your feelings” to mean “wallow in how shitty you feel.” That’s a hard no. While sitting with your feelings can look similar to wallowing, if we’re truly sitting with them we’re doing so with the intention of allowing them to move through us and leave us at a new beginning.

When we wallow, we’re not interested in a new beginning — we’re not curious about what’s on the other side of that feeling. When we wallow, we’re simply invested in holding our position, which we tend to do by replaying the story of how offended we are or how unjust our circumstance is, or by simply ruminating in the narrative of our anxiety. Wallowing entrenches us in our victimhood, it won’t get us liberated.

Some interpret “sit with your feelings” to mean “practice exquisite self-care,” which I guess kind of makes sense. Some feelings are difficult, and if we’re feeling shitty, doing things to help us feel calm and cared for can be helpful. But this interpretation is also overly simplistic. Reducing “sitting with our feelings” to “self-care” implies that a massage, incense-burning, and a Netflix binge will do the trick. Don’t get me wrong — self-care is great, but it doesn’t play a major role in emotional evolution. While a bubble bath and an edible can make for a relaxing and indulgent Sunday afternoon, let’s not confuse it with doing emotional work. It’ll get you clean and high, but it won’t get you liberated.

--

--

Mollie Birney, M.A.
Human Parts

Clinical Coach in private practice — life coaching with an eye towards mental health. @molliebirney www.molliebirney.com