“Feel your feelings.” How many times have we heard this phrase? In my life experience, I have heard it countless times. When it is stated, the words are very simplistic in nature. However, when you stop, and really say the words with meaning and purpose, the phrase becomes much more complicated. Say or read it again, slowly, and with more conscious awareness, “Feel your feelings.” Do you notice the difference? Let’s break apart this expression and take a deep dive into the meaning behind it.
What is a feeling? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a feeling can be both a noun and an adjective. To further complicate things, a feeling can be broken down into more nuanced meanings. A feeling can be described as “an emotional state or reaction” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Additionally, it can be defined as a sentiment, which is an attitude or belief about something. In an adjective form, a feeling is outlined as “an expression of emotion or sensitivity” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). No wonder there is often confusion about feelings! There are so many ways to define it, the water can become muddied with different definitions and interpretations of the word itself.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I work with children who have varying physical, developmental, cognitive, and emotional abilities. Many of these children have significant difficulty interpreting, processing, and coping with feelings, whether big or small. In order for any of these things to occur, the sensory systems need to be well functioning. What does this mean and how is it applicable to adults as well?
The human body is composed of seven different sensory systems:
Tactile: How we interpret touch and pressure.
Visual: Provides us details about what we see including colors, lines, contrasts, shapes, and movement.
Auditory: Helps us hear and process volume, tone, pitch, rhythm, and sequence of sounds.
Olfactory: How we use odor and smell to make sense of the environment. Certain smells can be associated with memories of the past.
Gustatory: Provides us information about food and objects put close to the mouth. This includes sweet and salty, sour, and spicy.
Proprioception: Information that comes from our muscles and joints that help us determine where our body is in space and also helps us adjust our muscular movements.
Vestibular: Located in the inner ear that interprets the sense of balance, direction, speed, and posture.
From Myles, B.S., Mahler, K., & Robbins, L. A. (2014)
There has been new and exciting research that supports the evidence of an eight sensory system, called interoception. As with other sensory systems, interoception has specialized receptors in the body that pick up information to send to the brain for processing. These receptors provide information to our brains about our current body state, such as thirst, hunger, pain, arousal. These receptors also deliver information about our emotional state, such as anger, happiness, fear, and sadness. Not only do these special cells help us gain awareness of what we are feeling, they help us answer the question of “how do I feel?”
Feeling emotions have a crucial role in the human experience. Think about some of the common expressions that are used in our everyday conversations. We use the phrases “sitting on pins and needles” and “getting cold feet” when describing nervousness and anxiousness. When describing sadness, one can use the term “broken-hearted” or “having a lump in the throat.” In actuality, these common phrases are connecting the sensations that the body has to the feeling or emotion that is being experienced.
Gaining awareness of how the body feels when experiencing different emotions does not always come easy. However, being able to distinguish body sensations (i.e. feeling a racing heart, lump in the throat, clammy palms, etc.) can help us better identify our various emotions. Once we are able to properly identify our emotions, we can use tools and strategies to help get back into a more balanced state (i.e. homeostasis or regulated state.)
In western society, there are innumerable distractions that interfere with the process of gaining awareness of the sensations in our body and truly feeling emotions. Oftentimes, people numb themselves using substances, food, technology, sex, gambling, etc., which actually prohibits the ability to truly feel emotions. It’s very easy to avoid feeling and experiencing anger, sadness, loneliness and engage in maladaptive behaviors instead. These maladaptive behaviors provide a small sense of relief to the body but truly never address the root feelings and sensations.
On a personal level, I am codependent. I began my personal healing journey in 2010 when I attended counseling for the first time. I learned that I came from an enmeshed family system which enabled my codependent thinking. I am a long-time perfectionist who seeks validation through academic and professional performance. My family did not have emotional boundaries and we shared everything with one another, including feelings. If my mom or sister was feeling anger or anxiety, the whole family unit experienced that emotion. Additionally, I usually hid my emotions and feelings from others, minimizing my own life experience for the sake of others. As I began to unpack some of my past and present circumstances in therapy, I came to realize how maladaptive my behaviors and thought processes really were. I continued to work with my counselor for many years on deprogramming my thought patterns. During the COVID-19 shutdown, I started to spiral into unhealthy codependency within my marriage. I began attending virtual Codependent Anonymous (CoDA) Meetings on a daily basis. This jump-started my healing journey again. I joined a step group and worked through the CoDA steps. As I progressed through the steps, I started to deeply explore emotions and feelings and how they present within the body. As a codependent, I am often unaware of my own feelings and am more concerned about the feelings of others. I compartmentalize things and keep busy so that I can avoid feeling my feelings.
So, how did I take the first step into gaining awareness of my feelings and my body? In my personal healing journey, I have used stillness and meditation to gain insight. Being still and using breathwork, for even 5 minutes, has provided me detailed information about my body sensations, the location of where I am feeling tightness or pain. I can use that information to further explore what emotions might be causing those sensations. I can then determine what tool or strategy that I need to use to regain homeostasis or regulation.
In the next article, I will continue to explore ways to learn more about your feelings, and interoception. We will learn tools and strategies that may help assist you in your own personal recovery.
Author biography: Christina is an occupational therapist working in a suburban Chicago school district. She has been an occupational therapist for 22 years, working with infants, children, and adults in clinics, schools, and hospital settings.. She completed her Bachelor’s of Science degree at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan and her Post-Professional Doctorate Degree at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals in Provo, Utah. She lives with her husband, teenage daughter, and rescued pitbull. When she is not working on feeling her feelings, she enjoys reading, cooking, doing yoga and meditation, arranging flowers, and rescuing misunderstood pitbulls.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Feeling. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved April 5, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feeling
Myles, B.S., Mahler, K., & Robbins, L. A. (2014). Sensory issues and high-functioning autism spectrum and related disorders: Practical solutions for making sense of the world (2nd ed.). Shawnee, Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Self Regulation of Emotions and Codependency
Self Regulation of Emotions
Feel Your Feelings
Written by: Christina Immergluck OTD, OTR/L