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

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.

In fact, that self-care-oriented interpretation of “sit with your feelings” has actually given the phrase a bad reputation, causing some personalities (especially compulsive overachievers) to dismiss feelings altogether for fear that investigating them is an indulgent slippery slope into laziness. This is an important misconception to dispel! Let me assure you that truly sitting with your feelings is anything but lazy! (If this feeling sounds familiar, you may want to check out “A Meditation on Not Being a Dick to Yourself.”)

Welcoming in these overpowering emotions goes against our biological instincts.

So let’s get into what “sitting with your feelings” actually is:

At first glance, feelings have two elements — thoughts and physical sensations. Anxiety, for example, can be a combination of tightness in the chest and racing thoughts about things we can’t control. Grief often has the physical tag of a hollowness in the stomach paired with our thoughts of loss and heartbreak. The first step in sitting with our feelings is labeling the physical sensation. Where in your body do you feel it? What shape is it? Is it heavy? Tingly? Tense? Is it moving? Just notice.

We are biologically wired to avoid feeling difficult shit, so identifying the sensation accompanying our feelings is a technique that allows us to be just a little more present with them. Our own presence is a gesture of compassion to ourselves. It communicates, “I see you. I’m witnessing.” And it can be especially healing for those of us who desperately lacked mirroring when we were little. So drop the thoughts and spend a few minutes just witnessing the physical sensation. You’ll likely discover that however uncomfortable the sensation is, if you continue to breathe it’s manageable.

You might ask yourself which came first, the thoughts or the sensations. Sometimes the sensation drives the thoughts, but sometimes the thoughts generate the sensation. Perhaps you notice that as you let yourself ruminate about your anxiety, the tightness in your chest increases (thoughts drive sensation). Or you might first become aware of the tightness in your chest, and then scan your brain for your usual go-to topics to be anxious about (sensation drives thoughts). In either case, notice that the sensation is separate from the thoughts.

Let’s get into thoughts for a second. We mistakenly think our thoughts are our emotions, but here’s a hard truth: for the most part, our thoughts are actually obscuring our emotions (and galvanizing our egos). Our thoughts keep us from feeling what’s truly there. “I feel like I’m being taken advantage of” isn’t actually a feeling; it’s a thought. Other examples of things that sound like emotions but aren’t: “It’s not fair.” “I feel like he’s taking me for granted.” “I’m being manipulated.” And “I feel like you’re abandoning me.” Those are all thoughts. They are our ego’s commentary on the circumstance, they are not the emotions.

Accepting this reality is tough, but it’s a discipline to dismantle our thoughts in search of the feelings under them without getting snagged by their drama. When we surrender our egos, we get to see the emotional material more clearly. Egos aside, each of the above examples distills down to fear, grief, and anger. Those are the feelings.

So the first part of sitting with our feelings is about zeroing in on what the emotions are without getting too caught in the intensity of our somatic sensation or falling for the self-importance of our thoughts. The second part of sitting with our feelings is where shit gets messy and we actually do the deep feeling. It’s where we find some relief, expression, creativity, and healing.

But to unlock all that good stuff, we’ve got to be clear about our intention: If we’re not looking to be transformed by our feelings, then feeling them is just emotional masturbation. When we’re not open to getting an education from our feelings, they tend to calcify into victimhood, and victimhood is never looking to learn something new, it’s only looking to defend what it already knows. Feeling our feelings can only be transformational when we’re willing to discover something fresh, such as compassion for the person we’re angry with, resolution and closure in a relationship, or resolve to better protect ourselves. Or forgiveness. You don’t need to know what you’re trying to discover ahead of time, but you need to be open to allowing the feeling to take you somewhere.

The real magic here is that feelings themselves are always generative, creative, productive, or healing, but for them to work we have to cultivate and embolden them so they can go to work on us. Invite the feelings to take up temporary residence in you and give them whatever they need to feel welcome. Sure, cranking up the emotional volume may look a little like wallowing. So what? Blast the music, watch the sad movie, take the melancholic drive up the coast, break the dishes, write the song. Sob. Fucking scream. There is no wrong way to process our emotions — provided we maintain curiosity for what they might have to teach us.

And that’s it. That’s feeling your feelings. It’s not a one-shot practice — the emotional intensity will come in waves, but it will ultimately move through you and subside.

The whole process is not for the lazy or the faint of heart, which is why so few people actually do it. It’s tempting to be overwhelmed by the physicality of emotion and seduced by the thoughts of our oh-so-fragile egos. It takes a special kind of courage to disentangle ourselves from our victimhood. Welcoming in these overpowering emotions goes against our biological instincts. It’s all a heroic ritual — and it’s especially heroic in the context of the intense times we’re living in now. But that makes it all the more crucial to practice.

So, when the peak of the storm is over, take advantage of the ebbing emotional tide and find a way to get quiet. Come back to your body, let your breathing settle, and be still. See if something doesn’t reveal itself. See if you don’t find some oxygen.

And then it’s time for that bubble bath.

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

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