When 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!
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