The Thinking Person’s Guide to Feeling the Feels

It’s possible to be sensitive, emotional, and moody, yet never actually feel our feelings. Until we learn how, we’ll always sense something is missing from our lives, our healing journeys, and even ourselves.

Feel the Feels

“You’re not feeling your feelings.”

My therapist’s words confused me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been moody, sensitive, and overly emotional.

“You’re very aware of your feelings,” she explained. “But you’re intellectualizing them instead of feeling them.”

She was right. There’s a difference between being affected by feelings and actually feeling feelings. I’m a sensitive, analytical person who gets a kick out of tracing the roots of my feelings back to childhood experiences, past trauma, and cultural and religious influences. It places a safe distance between my ego and the raw intensity of feeling the feelings that I’m very much aware exist.

Face the Fear

Starting as a little girl and continuing into adulthood, I’ve been haunted by a recurring dream. In the dream, I’m standing on a beach, and out of nowhere, a giant wave barrels toward the shore. I run for the jagged rocks further inland, freeze beneath the shadow, and look overhead as the wave crashes onto me. Darkness ensues, and I wake up in my bed.

There’s a difference between being affected by feelings and actually feeling feelings.

When I grabbed a board and headed for the waves in real life, it was a literal attempt to conquer my fears. It took about a year to stand up, and even today, I scream before I hop on a ride. But facing the waves in my waking life altered the course of my dream.

Not long after I learned to surf, my dream came back—same beach, same rocks, same wave. With my arms braced overhead, the wave crashed on me like every time before. Except this time, the dark never came. The wave washed back into the ocean, and I stayed in my dream, sitting and laughing on the beach.

Why Feelings Matter

So now the feelings: How many of us are willing to face our feelings head-on and allow them to wash through us? And what’s the value in that?

You know that insatiable vacuum we walk around with in our chests? That sense that something is missing or not quite whole? Our feelings hold the clue to what will truly fill and satisfy that void.

Behind every feeling is a met or unmet need.

Christina Cline Schneider from The Parenting Shift first introduced me to this concept when she said, “Behind every feeling is a met or unmet need.” While she originally said those words to me during an interview about co-parenting, that same revolutionary concept applies to our adult selves as we strive to love our inner child into wholeness.

Tune In

Lest we turn this into another intellectual exercise by mechanically pairing feelings with needs, let’s acknowledge the key to identifying those needs: feel the feels.

Feelings don’t live in our minds. They may arise from the mind, but they live in the body. For example, if I notice I’m feeling sad, the logical remedy might involve a chick flick or girls’ night out to cheer myself up. But when I sink in and sit with the sad, I notice a heavy feeling in my chest and an overall lack of energy. Maybe what I really need is to get something off my chest or take a day of rest.

Tuning into our bodies allows us to truly feel our feelings and have a more fulfilling response.

How are You Feeling?

One of the most basic acts of self love is to notice how we feel. This is something we help children learn by reflecting their feelings back to them in concrete language. When they throw a fit in the middle of math homework, we say “You seem frustrated.” When they hang upside down from their chair at the dinner table, we say “You have a lot of energy today!”

One of the most basic acts of self love is to notice how we feel.

As adults we can fine-tune our capacity for feeling even more by observing the body and trying on different words for the sensations we feel. If we can recognize feelings and needs in our children or pets, we can do it for ourselves, too.

Start Practicing

So how do we do that? It takes practice. Not only do we have to tune into the body and feel our feelings—we also have to learn to identify the needs those feelings are pointing us toward and find creative, tangible ways to meet them.

If you’re struggling with how it all works, I invite you to start with these three action steps.

1. Feel Your Feelings.

Don’t be content with just happy or sad. Tune into the sensations in your body to go deeper and get more specific. Clear time and space to allow the feelings to fully move into and through you. Try on words like angry, anxious, confused, content, depressed, embarrassed, energetic, fearful, lonely, overwhelmed.

For a more thorough menu of sample feelings, visit the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s Feelings Inventory.

2. Identify Your Needs.

Every feeling has at least one corresponding need. Now that you’ve had the courage to feel your feelings, what is it that you really need? Consider community, exercise, humor, income, love, purpose, safety, sleep, touch, truth. Which of these needs resonates with you most?

For a more thorough menu of sample needs, visit the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s Needs Inventory.

3. Give It to Yourself.

You don’t have to wait on another person to take care of you. Give yourself what you really want by trying out some of these suggestions. Which ones speak to the needs you identified in step two?

  • Affirmations
  • Bedtime Routine
  • Budget
  • Child Care
  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Nap
  • New Friends
  • Therapy
  • Nature
  • Travel
  • Reading
  • Yoga

If it’s not possible to give yourself what you really want in this moment, practice opening to the idea that what you need is available, just waiting for you to receive. We become our own best caretakers when we tune in to the body’s wisdom and open to its gifts.

What feeling are you most afraid of actually feeling? What need might that feeling highlight for you if you took the time to feel it?

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Last updated July 31, 2019


  1. Karen Allen says:

    So true Melissa! Was actually thinking about this today as I was feeling the feels. Beautifully written! 💗💗💗

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