‘How Does That Make You Feel?’ Why Your Therapist Is Asking

Person in denim shirt holds cup while looking out window of office, thinkingIt’s one of the most important questions in therapy. It’s stereotypical. Sometimes, it’s disruptive. It can lead to anxiety and self-examination.

And it’s not going away.

Your therapist asking you what you’re feeling is a staple of most forms of counseling, and for good reason.

What you do with the question can begin to free you.

Yes, we all know therapy is about feelings. Before any of us stepped into a therapist’s office, we probably saw a cartoon, TV show, or movie in which a therapist asked the person sitting across from them: “How does that make you feel?”

The thing is, people come to therapy for a million different reasons. It could be to deal with depressive or anxious symptoms, trauma, or unhealthy expressions of anger. The list could go on and on.

Few people come to therapy with the stated goal: “I want to better understand and connect with my feelings.” For everyone else, it may not seem productive to be asked each week about what they’re feeling. All they know is they want to feel better!

A common response to the feelings question is frustration and annoyance. Especially if it occurs during a the telling of an event or a story from the past. If you’re focused on something from the weekend or from work, the feelings question may disrupt your flow.

Well-timed, the question can lead to breakthroughs regarding unhelpful patterns, difficult feelings, and negative interpersonal relationships.

Of course, it could be an ill-timed question by the therapist. Maybe it would be more helpful if they waited a bit longer to move you toward reflection. Maybe not, though. Perhaps the question is coming from the therapist’s sense that there are feelings you may be unaware of.

Well-timed, the question can lead to breakthroughs regarding unhelpful patterns, difficult feelings, and negative interpersonal relationships. It can reconnect you with any feelings you may be trying to avoid by overthinking the situation.

So, yes, the question may be an attempt to interrupt and go deeper. But if it’s making you angry, tell your counselor. That’s important information too.

This Is Not a Test

A common response to the feelings question is anxiety or, worse, a sense you’re doing something wrong if you’re not sure what the feeling is. Suddenly, it may feel like you’re being “quizzed” or tested.

This, too, is important information to bring up. The intention is (hopefully!) not to make you feel like a failure. You’re in therapy to learn about yourself and how to better understand your feelings. You’re not expected to know all the answers, let alone anticipate questions. Speak up if you sense pressure to perform or expectation from your counselor.

Remember that “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer. You may not be aware you’re having a feeling because you don’t tend to stop and check in with yourself. If the feelings question comes up, it’s a chance to do that.

And maybe you’re having zero feelings in that moment. Again, good information.

The Feelings Layer Isn’t the Only Layer

Becoming more aware of how you’re feeling at any given moment is not the only aspect of emotional well-being, but it’s an important layer to explore. Knowing your feelings may help you understand your actions better. It can inform your future choices.

Becoming aware of your feelings may help you feel less helpless. It may help you feel more in control.

Perhaps best of all, knowing your feelings gives them less control over you.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, MSW, LCSW, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Hank78

    April 19th, 2018 at 8:59 AM

    I think part of my problem is that I don’t trust my therapist and think she is just trying to fill time when she asks this.

  • Justin Lioi

    April 19th, 2018 at 1:50 PM

    Thanks for your honesty here. I hope you can soon say that to your therapist and that she can hear it without defensiveness. It’s important information about your treatment and if a client of mine felt that it would be really helpful that we talk about it. Good luck!
    Best, Justin

  • David

    April 24th, 2018 at 10:51 AM

    I am a therapist. It pains me to no end that clinicians continue to use the words “How does that make you feel.” It is so counterproductive in its reinforcement of the Victim position. To ask, “when that happened, how did you feel,” opens the door for the client to own her own emotional experience. My feelings are linked to external events only by my own definition of those events and my relationship to them. People and events do not make me feel. They just are, and I feel. What I feel tells me about how I define the relationship between myself and those external people or events. If they “make me feel,” then I am essentially screwed unless they stop doing whatever it is that “caused” me to feel that which I do not want to feel. Separating the feeling from the event is essential to altering my experience of people and events to a more favorable one. For clinicians to stick with the “make you feel” line is sloppy and irresponsible. The difference is far greater than simple semantics.

  • Justin Lioi

    April 24th, 2018 at 2:08 PM

    David, thanks for your comment. I agree that people and events don’t “make” us feel anything. I was riffing on the stereotypical phrase that is often associated with therapy. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  • Alex N.

    April 25th, 2018 at 5:38 PM

    I teach the diploma of counselling in Australia and I always picking up my students for asking this questions. I support them to ask “How do you feel about that?” any comment from you on this?

  • Justin Lioi

    April 27th, 2018 at 10:43 AM

    Thanks for writing, Alex, although I’m not fully certain of what you’re asking. “How do you feel about that?” is a great question that helps people connect to their emotions.

  • Val B.

    June 11th, 2018 at 12:13 PM

    I am a gestalt therapist, and I might ask different tipes of questions like 1) What are you feeling right now? (Connects the cleint to the here-and-now), 2) What were you feeling at that moment? (to connect the client to the feeling that is replayed at that moment), 3) How do you feel about that? (If I venture a comment and I want to verify if it makes any sense for the patient), 4) What sort of feeling is that? (if the client is not sure what is going on), 5) What might somebody be feeling at that moment? (if I want to summon a bystander view, to emphasize the perspective) etc. To be honest there are countless ways to reconnect the client to their emotions. My perception is that when the client is asked that question they are really happy to switch to the feelings part, because otherwise they might feel haunted by those hiddent emotions they are only partly aware of. And I believe that they are relieved to accept them and finally let them go.

  • Justin Lioi

    June 14th, 2018 at 7:20 AM

    Thanks, Val. It’s great to hear your variations!

  • Carol S.

    September 17th, 2018 at 12:30 AM

    I agree that, Therapists asks, what you’re feeling is a staple of most forms of counseling, and for good reason. Sometimes Therapists asks for to know symptoms of Panic Attacks.

  • Rhianna H.

    November 12th, 2018 at 8:21 AM

    I want to find a good therapist for my husband, but he’s very sensitive to cliches when it comes to therapy and so being able to explain the reason behind things to him is very important. It’s good to know that he’ll be able to talk to his therapist if questions like “how does that make you feel” make him angry or “disrupt his flow,” as you said. I agree, though, that it’s important to maintain awareness of how something is making you feel and how you’re feeling at every given moment, and I think therapy will really help my husband with that.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    November 12th, 2018 at 9:17 AM

    Hi Rhianna,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page: https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. If you need help finding a therapist, you are welcome to call us. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy Team

  • Elissa H.

    May 21st, 2019 at 7:54 AM

    I liked seeing here that people can say – “I don’t know.” I was just in therapy yesterday when my therapist asked some variation or that question exactly… I can’t remember the exact phrase – but the truth is, I don’t know. I remember the event – because it wasn’t “pleasant” like it should have been under normal circumstances- but really tapping into the feelings around it… I’m not sure I even know now after my session. So, it’s good to hear – not knowing is okay. What I’m learning most in therapy– is how much I don’t know.

  • Jennifer

    July 8th, 2019 at 8:50 AM

    What if a therapist is doing this to you… and they are not your therapist. It was happening at lunch discussing a job opportunity. I would ask a question about the current situation for the opportunity, trying to get an understanding of current state of being and the goals in an effort to assess if I thought it was a suitable pursuit. I would be interrupted or answered with the ‘how do you feel about that’ response. It felt very much like an interaction that overstepped… the word consent comes to mind. Does this seem odd?

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