If you’ve been around the therapy block a time or two before, you may be familiar with the idea of “sitting with your feelings,” but what does that even mean?
Let’s start with what feelings are. Feelings are not emotions. Feelings are what happens in your mind around an emotion. An emotion is an involuntary reaction of the body to the world around it (which is probably why many of us have such strong feelings about our emotions--they’re hard to control). We also have to separate feelings and emotions from the behavior that often comes with them.
Many of us try to classify our feelings in a strict binary: good or bad, positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy. It is not uncommon to run to the off switch when faced with the feelings we’ve told ourselves our bad, or that we're not allowed to feel. But this is not sustainable emotional maintenance. Eventually, something will breakdown.
We have to give those feelings space to breathe. Sometimes sitting with a feeling looks like journaling. Sometimes it looks like making artwork, or writing a song. Sometimes sitting with it means listening to that song that describes it “way better than I ever could.” Most of the feelings that need “sitting with” are the ones that are less pleasant to feel, which makes it way less motivating to give them the time of day. Sometimes sitting with a feeling means talking it through with a loved one, friend, or therapist. Sometimes sitting with a feeling is having a good cry.
This is not “sitting in your feelings.” We’re not “wallowing in self-pity” and getting stuck in the pit of despair. There is a little bit of distance in sitting with. Our emotions, and consequently our feelings, are full of useful information about who we are and how we respond to the world around us. Get curious. Why did that one little comment make you feel so strongly? What is going on underneath the surface, causing flare ups of strong emotions and feelings with little provocation?
The list of feelings that are hard to sit with is long. And sitting with them can be uncomfortable, but if we don’t put in the time, things can turn toxic. So sit with them. Listen. What are your feelings trying to tell you?