The title of this article is a question that bewilders many. By introducing the following structure, I hope to bring clarity to this question and suggest a simple structure that makes the steps to processing feelings more explicit.
A step-wise approach can be taken as summarized below and each step will be explored in more detail in this article.
The 5 A’s of processing feelings:
The first step in processing feelings is to acknowledge that feelings are present for you. So often, we move through life either oblivious to our feelings, minimising their presence or impact on us or in denial of them. When people are especially out of touch with their feelings, they may have a tendency to somatize; this is when through our mind-body connection, unexpressed emotions can generate real physical symptoms such as pain, numbness, fatigue, weakness, etc.
With this first step of acknowledging the feelings, you don’t even need to know exactly what those feelings are, but simply be aware that some feeling or combination of feelings are present for you.
The second step is to allow yourself to feel whatever is coming up for you. Avoiding judging your feelings or internal experience as being “good” or “bad” is an essential part of this step. Often times people will talk about being able to “sit with your feelings.” Sitting with your feelings means being able to notice your feelings as they arise without judging them.
When we judge our feelings it compounds our suffering as we can feel “bad” about feeling “bad” or can feel “shame” about feeling “shame”—and the brain can generate common scripts to ruminate on such as:
“Why do I feel this way? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just get over this already? Why can’t I let this go?”
This leads us into the third step which is to accept the feelings that are present and this involves accepting that the feelings will move through you at their own pace. Not trying to “fight” your feelings is important as when we “resist” our feelings, they will often tend to persist and this drives a lot of unnecessary frustration as well as suffering for many.
The more we try to control our feelings through fighting them such as by telling yourself, “I don’t want to feel this way,” and trying to block the feelings out or by avoiding dealing with your feelings, the more people will notice that the impacts of the feelings compound and become more unmanageable or overwhelming.
The fourth step involves “checking-in” with yourself and you can assess your internal environment by asking yourself, “What/How am I feeling?” Or, “Is this situation I find myself in bringing up something from my past?” It is also helpful to ask yourself, “What do I need to support myself through this experience?”
Emotions and feelings are a natural part of living for all of us.
Rather than getting caught up in trying to not experience them, can you instead focus on how you can build capacity within yourself to more effectively deal with them?
What kind of support do you need to manage your feelings right now?
The fifth and final step is to attend to yourself by intentionally taking the time and space to connect more with yourself and your needs in the moment. Helpful practices to assist with connecting more with yourself which also help with processing feelings include: journaling, reading, talking about feelings, meditation, spiritual practices, yoga, creative outlets, breathing exercises, and spending time in nature.
Ask yourself, what self-care practices and what aspects of my health (physical, psychological, social, or spiritual) do I need to nourish to help myself move through this feeling or experience I currently find myself with?
The intention with following the above steps is to be able to support yourself in being able to gradually increase your capacity to identify, feel, express, tolerate, and release your feelings, rather than get stuck in the common trap of avoiding, stuffing, suppressing, and numbing feelings which drives unmanageability as well as vacillating between the extremes of emotional constipation (disconnection) and emotional flooding (overwhelm).
Processing feelings can be surprisingly simple, yet it is not always easy.
It is the intentional and consistent practice of applying this framework on a daily basis that will light the path to emotional freedom for yourself.
Awareness is not enough.