There seem to be many misconceptions about feelings. Learning about feelings isn’t something we’re often taught in school, even though they play a significant role in our lives. We generally don't talk much in casual conversation about how we experience our feelings or the beliefs we have surrounding feelings. However, we receive plenty of messages about feelings in our culture, some of which aren't accurate or helpful. Ergo, here's a list of eight truths about feelings.
1. A well-educated individual who practices in the field of psychology recently posted on LinkedIn that you can only have one emotion at a time; many others agreed. I’m sure we can all remember times when we felt both sad and angry simultaneously. Years ago, I went to Europe by myself to meet up with a friend from college. I was both exuberant and anxious at the same time. We can also have conflicting feelings simultaneously. Often, after the death of a very ill loved one, a caregiver will feel relief and sadness. We can feel more than one feeling at a time, more than two, etc. Sometimes this can be overwhelming or confusing. It's also normal.
2. Today I saw a sign that read, “How do you feel today?” Really, it’s much more accurate to ask, “How do you feel right now?” Our feelings often change many times throughout the day. Our feelings are not static; they are constantly in flux. Learning to be aware of your feelings and how they change can help you be more in tune with the reality of your life. Psychologist Rick Hanson has said "The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones." Similarly, negative emotions can stand out more to us and have a greater impact than positive emotions. When we are aware of our feelings and how they change, we realize that "negative" feelings are often less permanent and more short-lived, even though we may attend to them more and "hang onto them" more. By being more aware of your feelings throughout the course of a day, you will have a more accurate appraisal of your experience. Instead of having a "bad day," you are more likely to recognize positive emotions and experiences as well as the negative emotions and experiences.
3. Years ago, I went to a seminar presented by a well-respected psychologist. Somewhat jokingly, he stated that there’s one emotion a therapist won’t say he or she feels: anger. It reminded me of another class I went to on anger, where the presenter seemingly was feeling angry after an incident transpired, a participant shared with the presenter and class that the presenter seemed angry, and the presenter vehemently objected. Anger is a normal and healthy emotion, yet it seems feeling angry can be taboo, particularly for women. It might be more accurate to say our society tends to be more accepting of men feeling angry compared to feeling hurt or sad. Any feeling is "okay" to have; there are not "wrong" feelings. Any behavior or action as a result of certain feelings might not be healthy or constructive, but the feeling itself is okay. Everyone is entitled to their feelings.
4. You are responsible for how you deal with your feelings—acting out on a feeling can have significant consequences. Discomfort, pain, and stress are part of life and we all need to "deal with it" in some way. Learning to cope in ways that are healthy and constructive is necessary for better quality of life and wellbeing.
5. Thoughts aren’t any “better” than feelings or vice versa; both thoughts and feelings are important. Marsha Linehan often discusses the wise mind, where the reasonable or logical mind and emotional mind overlap; this is the integration of thoughts and feelings.
6. Feelings have value and utility. When we have strong feelings, they are telling us something: what we enjoy, what we want, what we don’t want, what we need, what we think is “wrong,” what we think is “right,” etc. Feelings might not always be an accurate reflection of the reality of a situation, but they are important indicators of what is going on for us internally, our personal codes of conduct or ideals, and what we perceive is happening in our world. Feelings can have great value in helping us see where we are and where we want to be (or don't want to be).
7. Sometimes we understand why we feel a certain way, other times, our feelings might not make sense to us at all; this is normal! Often, with some time, thought, and talking with others, we are able to develop insight as to why we feel how we feel. Generally, the stronger the feeling and the more it impacts us, the more important it is to understand what the feeling is telling us. Once we understand our emotional reaction, we can better evaluate how to cope or respond to the triggering situation.
8. We are not always aware of the feelings we have. Often, people have much difficulty identifying feelings when they have them. There is actually a word for having a limited emotional vocabulary: alexithymia. Since there are so many feelings, simply remembering the basic mad, sad, glad, or anxious can make it easier to identify feelings. A study by Dr. Michelle Craske at UCLA looked at people who were phobic of spiders, evaluating coping methods when the participants were exposed to the spider. The group that labelled their emotions during exposure to the spider experienced less physiological reactivity, meaning they had a less severe stress response.
Being aware of your feelings, managing them, and being responsive to them are skills; they can be learned. Practicing mindfulness facilitates developing these skills. Try not to judge your feelings or yourself for feelings you have; practice self-compassion, particularly being kind toward yourself and not critical. Be mindful of how you feel, aware and observing it in a non-judgmental way without over-identifying with the feeling or letting the feeling “consume” you. This will also allow space to choose how you respond to the feeling(s) with intention. Practicing mindfulness can be a powerful way to help be more aware of how you feel and facilitate being more intentional with how you respond to the feelings you experience.