More Than a Feeling: How Over-Identification Gets in the Way

sad girl sitting and thinking in the classroomWhen was the last time you saw one of those charts that has a bunch of yellow, circular faces representing a variety of feelings? Elementary school? Perhaps it’s time to refresh yourself. Happy, sad, frustrated, confused, disappointed, surprised … we often identify these and other feelings by examining facial expressions. Feelings are often deeper and more complicated than that, however. Psychotherapy is often about identifying and exploring feelings that might not be apparent on the surface.

Sometimes we might think we feel, say, anger or irritation when talking about an issue, but it may turn out a whole bunch of feelings that are more applicable, interesting, and useful are underneath. For example, a person might come to therapy talking about why her supervisor’s method of running meetings irritates her. Upon further exploration, however, we might find that the irritation is masking a feeling of her feedback being devalued. We can then come up with solutions to process and manage that feeling.

The feeling remains just a feeling. As with a passing rain shower, we get wet or take out an umbrella, or possibly even enjoy the depth of being alive, even if the feeling itself is unpleasant.

Sometimes a feeling profoundly affects a person’s well-being. Instead of a passing rain shower, it feels more like a tsunami that has swallowed the person up. In the previous example, the feeling of being devalued by the supervisor may extend to coworkers or even people outside of work. This person might be attaching more meaning and weight than is necessary to the feeling. In other words, she may be over-identifying with the feeling to such an extent it has a negative effect on unrelated areas of her life.

A feeling is not an identity that has a mind of its own and gets to run your life.

A feeling is not an identity that has a mind of its own and gets to run your life. When we over-identify with feelings, we may start to feel that they are truth—permanent states, even—that take control and determine our life paths. Feelings are just responses to certain events and people, and while many events have a certain predictability of feelings that follow, they are still just a part of our emotional selves. We likely have many other feelings and experiences even when we are feeling dismissed, sad, or angry. But over-identifying with one sends them all to the background.

Some of us are more emotional than others. If you have strong reactions to the news, for example, you might also ruminate on another’s problem or a small piece of feedback that another person might brush off. There’s nothing wrong with being sensitive and empathetic, but when these feelings become unproductive and affect your well-being, or when you feel that a wave of emotion has swallowed you whole, you might consider the following actions:

  • Go back to the chart of “feeling faces.” Visualize those yellow faces with labels underneath them and really identify what it is you are feeling. Then say very clearly, “I am feeling ______.” In the previous example, the person might say, “I am feeling that my feedback at today’s meeting was not valued.” This is very different from saying, “I’m always dismissed at staff meetings” or “Nobody values my opinions.” We have to work hard to not turn feelings into broad statements about ourselves. Clearly labeling something is helpful in keeping it in its place.
  • Use self-compassion. Self-compassion is a powerful way of looking at yourself and your behavior so you can better manage stress and bring the best version of yourself to all of your activities. It requires not over-identifying with feelings, but rather acknowledging them and moving on. For example: “I’m feeling disappointed that my phone interview didn’t get me to the next round, but I did the best I could and will focus on the next job now.”
  • Try a cognitive therapy exercise. Thought charts and other structured activities can help you counter big-wave feelings and put them in perspective. They take a little practice, but over time you’ll likely be able to do a thought chart rather quickly. Here is one example.

So the next time you’re feeling off-balance because of a feeling, try to see it for what it is—just a feeling that will pass—and let it be. If it sticks around, or if it seems to return again and again, try challenging it with self-compassion and perhaps a thought chart. Comment below if you want some feedback on a thought chart you’ve completed!

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lindsey Antin, MA, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

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.

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  • Donna

    Donna

    February 23rd, 2016 at 7:00 AM

    Sometimes I might need a combo of the feeling faces to adequately express what I am feeling!

  • henry

    henry

    February 23rd, 2016 at 10:13 AM

    So where is that perfect balance of feeling and not hiding from things? Because to me it is like I either run away from it or over feel it I guess.

  • Will

    Will

    February 23rd, 2016 at 2:05 PM

    I have kept things beneath the surface fr so long now that asking me to actually verbalize how I feel and what I am thinking can be a very big challenge for me. My girlfriend always wants to know what I am thinking and feeling but I don’t think that she gets it that I am just not that comfortable sharing that.

  • Parker

    Parker

    February 24th, 2016 at 7:29 AM

    You have to learn to occasionally give yourself a break. None of us are perfect and even though we like for things to go smoothly they don’t always. That’s okay. It can be a little chance for reflection and growing that is actually good for you.

  • Jessie

    Jessie

    February 25th, 2016 at 6:56 AM

    Wonderful advice! As a counselor, I use those techniques so frequently with clients AND with my own strong emotions. CBT is such a great way to recognize the huge role that our thinking plays in intensifying our emotions. Realizing that I could change my thoughts to change my emotional response was one of the most valuable lessons on mental health I think I’ve ever learned! Thanks for the great article :)

  • Andrew

    Andrew

    February 25th, 2016 at 10:03 AM

    What about those people who take everything personally even when it is not happening to them? They internalize the feelings of everyone else too so there would of course be this overwhelming feeling that they are going to have.

  • Paige

    Paige

    February 27th, 2016 at 8:25 AM

    Once we discover a way to cut through those feelings which are masking the real emotions, then you are more than halfway there. Figuring out what the REAL thing you are feeling can be the hardest part though.

  • Jaime

    Jaime

    February 28th, 2016 at 7:32 AM

    The feeling faces might seem a little elementary but hey, we need that from time to time

  • reed

    reed

    February 29th, 2016 at 7:24 AM

    That is the greatest thing about therapy. You come in thinking that there is this one thing that is going on but you work with someone great and they start helping you peel away all of these layers and you see that you are so much more complicated than what you ever thought or gave yourself credit for! I say this sort of jokingly and lovingly at the same time because I love going to my therapist and talk about oh I am feeling this way today, and come to find out, it really revolves around that I did not pay any attention to or thought that I did not at all. It can lead you on quite the journey that’s for sure!

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