What does processing your feelings even mean?
Modern life was already a 24/7 test of our emotional stability, and then along came COVID-19 to upend our entire existence — our routines, our social lives, our financial security, our sense of safety. For many of us, our emotions have gone into overdrive and we’re drowning in a myriad of feelings we have no idea what to do with.
On the one hand, we know the importance of fessing up to our feelings, that unprocessed emotional reactions to problems may themselves become new problems because of their negative impact on our overall emotional state and decision-making. On the other hand, many of us have been conditioned to avoid our emotions unless they’re positive in nature.
“Even though all emotions can have a positive use, women are generally trained to avoid any emotions other than joy or a moderate degree of sadness,” says Carla Marie Manly, a California-based clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear.
It doesn’t help that we’re not given a formal education in understanding and utilizing our emotions, which is a lot like not being offered swimming lessons yet being expected to jump into the deep end. “As a result, people misuse, underuse, or ignore their emotional world,” says Manly.
But because ignoring our feelings often leads to unhealthy behaviors — stress eating, drinking too much, shutting people out, or lashing out at people — it’s important to face them and understand them, even the ugly and uncomfortable ones.
A crash course on emotions and feelings
Emotions are the internal felt reaction to a specific stimulus, of which there are five — fear, joy, anger, sadness, and disgust — and we experience them due to their survival value.
“Emotions are indicators of how safe, stable, and secure we feel,” says Manly. “They’re of great value in that, when we attend to them and use them wisely, we’re able to assess how a situation is affecting us and then make necessary shifts to ensure our needs are met.”
Even though we tend to use the words interchangeably, emotions and feelings aren’t exactly the same thing. “Whereas we have five emotions, we have thousands of feelings,” says Manly. This is due to the fact that our emotions are a gut (instinctive) response without the benefit of mental processing.
So what are feelings, then? “Feelings are a conscious subjective experience of emotion,” says Minnesota-based psychologist Kristi Phillips. They typically emerge after self-reflection, as a result of judging our thoughts or the actions we take, as opposed to involuntary reactions to a stimulus.
Without our emotions and subsequent feelings, we wouldn’t learn from our mistakes —we’d instead keep repeating the same unhelpful behaviors and experience the same adverse repercussions, our lives forever locked in a downward spiral.
This is why repressing feelings can be extremely damaging. “Our feelings have a message that wants to be heard and understood,” says Manly. “Feelings aren’t good or bad, it’s what we do with them that matters.”
Processing feelings is necessary, but it can be complicated
On the surface, processing your feelings seems simple enough: Identify and label the feelings that are brewing, give yourself the time and space to feel how you feel without judgment, then decide how you’re going to handle your feelings — either by deciding how you’ll resolve the problem if you have control over it, or how you’ll better cope with it going forward if you don’t.
We all have subconscious ways of avoiding uncomfortable feelings, known as defense mechanisms, which can thwart emotional processing. “Because we’re largely unaware of how our defense mechanisms work, it can mean we fail to process our emotions without even realizing it,” says psychologist Meghan Marcum, Chief Clinical Officer and Chemical Dependency specialist at A Better Life Recovery in California.
When we avoid or repress our feelings, it’s often an auto-pilot reaction, and if we don’t make an effort to allow those feelings to resurface so we can face them, it becomes damaging. The longer this pattern of feel-ignore-repeat goes on for, the more your repressed feelings will build on each other — and the more difficult they’ll be to cope with.
“Consistent efforts to ignore our emotions won’t make them disappear,” says Marcum. “They’ll be waiting for us to acknowledge them at some point.”
There are many different ways to process your emotions
All forms of emotional processing require one thing, and that’s mindfulness — recognizing and feeling your feelings without judging yourself for having them.
“Where they differ can be in what comes next, expressing that emotion in some way,” says Matthew Mutchler, L.M.F.T., associate professor of counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University. “In psychodynamics (exploring unconscious processes), this might come through catharsis, while creative expression (art, drama, music) is often an indirect method of release.”
There’s no one approach that will work for everybody, so the process of, well, processing, is about discovering which styles will work best for you. Some of the better-known ones include:
Psychodynamic therapy explores unconscious processes, including defense mechanisms. “It’s best for people who want to gain insight and understand how early relationships are influencing current behaviors,” says Marcum.
CBT therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy) aims to change behaviors by examining unhealthy thought processes. “This type of therapy is good for people who are committing to doing homework as part of therapy and setting goals between sessions,” says Marcum.
DBT therapy (dialectical behavioral therapy) was designed for people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), but it has been shown to be effective for people with other mental health issues. “It’s best for people who have difficulty regulating their emotions and need help learning healthy ways to cope with their feelings,” says Marcum.
EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) works by reprocessing traumatic events from the past and is best for people with histories of trauma or conditions like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Group therapy involves one or more psychologists who lead a group of five or more patients who usually are struggling with similar problems (substance abuse, grief, social anxiety, anger). If you make sense of your problems best by talking through them or don’t have a strong support system in your life, joining a support group might be a good fit.
Self-help workbooks are best for people who are driven to stay on task without the support of another person. “They share many of the same techniques taught in therapy, but require independent reading and practical application of the skills,” says Marcum.
Mindfulness meditation helps us to stay present and acknowledge our feelings in the moment without judging them. The practice can also keep us aware of any physiological symptoms that may indicate we’re carrying extra tension in the form of unresolved feelings. It’s a good place to start if you need an assist recognizing and labeling your feelings.
Venting to a supportive friend or family member is best for people who enjoy sharing and processing their feelings verbally. “Talking it out can be helpful, but it’s recommended you master other ways to process emotions too, for times when your go-to person isn’t available,” suggests Marcum.
Creative outlets, like art, writing, and dance allow us to express ourselves non-verbally and is a great outlet for people who are creative or may have difficulties verbalizing their emotions, says Marcum.
How to make a habit of processing your feelings
Recognize the signs
If you’re having difficulty identifying or labeling your feelings, this could be a sign you’ve not fully processed them yet. A tendency to use alcohol or drugs as a way to calm down or change your mood is a sign that you may have an emotional backlog that needs to be processed.
Another sign your emotional baggage is getting out of hand? Acting in ways you consider to be out of character, “Especially if your patience is less than usual or you find yourself snapping at people or, by your own standards, overreacting to things,” says Mutchler.
The better you get at calling yourself out for avoiding your feelings, the less likely you are to reject them — whether out of fear, habit, or trying to force positivity.
Label your feelings
For those of us who’ve learned to keep our feelings to ourselves, labeling how we feel can be super-challenging.
“Many people tend to oversimplify their emotions and fail to recognize they might have a myriad of emotions, like sadness, anger, hopelessness, and fear, all as a result of one interaction,” says Marcum. “When we fail to recognize the different layers of emotions, we can’t fully process them.”
Once you’re able to recognize the many different feelings you're experiencing, then you can begin to process them.
Mood tracking apps, like Daylio, simplify the process by offering sample adjectives to help you get to the core of how you’re feeling, as well as pinpoint and briefly vent about what triggered the feelings you’re having. The app also creates charts that you can use to identify patterns in your feelings and triggers, so you can make the changes necessary to turn things around.
Experiment with different styles of processing
Explore different ways of processing your feelings to determine which styles suit you best. “Try them not just once, but for a while — at least a week or two,” suggests Mutchler, and see how you feel afterward.
Try them one at a time, starting with the ones that spark your interest most. Do you already keep a journal or enjoy painting? These might be helpful outlets for processing how you feel. Do you typically turn to a friend or loved one for venting sessions? Therapy, either one-on-one or in a group, might be cathartic for you.
“You’ll know which ones are working by how you feel after you’ve spent some time using that specific outlet,” says Marcum. If you feel better (emotionally lighter, mentally clearer, physically sturdier), then add them to your “emotional toolkit,” and bust them out as needed. If you feel the same or worse, drop them and try different ones.
Process as you go
Since emotions are the one thing that can’t be predicted or scheduled, the next best thing is to set aside some time each day to think about what happened and how you chose to respond. Don’t judge your feelings or the actions you took in relation to them — instead, study them like you’re an outside observer.
“Reflecting on our emotional experiences is the mechanism that leads to emotional processing no matter what technique you use,” says Marcum.
It can be helpful to identify both positive and challenging moments and how you reacted so that you can use positive reactions as a point of reference when deciding how to better handle future rough patches.
“So often, the things that upset us are out of our control, so we can’t affect them,” says Mutchler. “Spend time reflecting on what you can control, and how you’d like to respond to the feelings you have when you can’t control something.”
It won’t prevent negative feelings, he adds, but coming to a place of acceptance can help prevent those feelings from overwhelming you.
Compartmentalize as needed
When strong emotions strike but you’re on a deadline or have a Zoom meeting coming up, it’s okay to temporarily put them away and then return to them at a more appropriate time.
What’s not okay is intending to get back to them and then continue putting it off. If you do this, before you know it, your feelings go from being compartmentalized to repressed. “Instead of pushing your emotions aside for an extended period of time, return to them as soon as you can make the time and space to process them,” says Marcum.
Recognize when you’re ruminating
If you find yourself revisiting the same issues or internal stories again and again, that’s a sure sign you’re not processing, but stuck in rumination mode, says Manly. You might be especially prone to this if the situation that’s bothering you is currently a fixture in your day-to-day life (say, a certain pandemic).
“We all get stuck in rumination mode sometimes,” says Mutchler. “It’s important to forgive ourselves when it happens, then switch gears and use the coping skills that work for us.”
The next time you notice yourself stewing about something, try a technique called radical acceptance, which is just as it sounds: When there’s something in your life that’s upsetting but you can’t control it, radically accept it instead.
“Acknowledge the feelings that are part of it, allow yourself to feel them as they happen, and then continue to move forward,” says Mutchler. “Not move on, as the situation still exists and ignoring it won’t help, but give yourself permission not to obsess."