As a therapist, I will tell you a big secret – the most important question I ask is “How did that make you feel?” Yeah—a running joke for we’ve all heard—all you have to do is say that phrase on repeat to be a therapist. But in practice it is the hardest question for most people to answer. When I ask, most people tell me what they think about the situation, but in our work together people learn to identify and trust their feelings.
The reason why getting to the feeling is so much more important is that feelings connect to the most authentic part of one’s experience. When someone identifies how they feel, and then looks at what it is attached to them, big change is possible because then they really get what is happening for them.
So how do you answer this question, when most of us have not been taught much about how to tune in to our feelings?
How to answer the question, “How do I feel about this?”
1. Slow down and just notice, without judging, analyzing or trying to change anything.
Most people will explain all the reasons why something happened, what they thought about it, and how they make meaning out of it now. I am honored by this kind of sharing, and it is also important. However, at the end of this kind of talk clients can look defeated, confused, or indifferent.
In contrast, when I help a person notice what is happening in their body—the place of emotions—they often have deeper feelings well up. From there, there is a deeper knowing than they were able to get to before. People can be surprised how such a “small” event (their words not mine) could have such a big impact when felt and understood. Moving from confusion and overload to deep knowing—this happens through the power of feelings.
2. Next, name the feeling or feelings and where they are located in the body.
You can start with simple terms: happy, mad, sad, glad, or scared. Or you can choose more sophisticated words. Then, notice where you feel it. What is the sensation? How intense is it from 0-10? When you notice, what happens? Often, the shape and location can tell us so much more. It’s normal to go in and out of feeling as a way of not getting overwhelmed and protecting yourself. However, if you feel nothing, you may be dissociating or cutting yourself off from your feeling-self to avoid deep pain inside. This is when working with a professional can help you navigate this inner world in a way that feels safe.
3. Ask yourself what is under or around this feeling:.
Where do you think this comes from? Have you felt this before? In what circumstances?
Feelings aren’t just disconnected pieces of information, they usually are connected to the way we see ourselves and our place in this world. Often times, we connect situations through feelings. For example, “when she does this, it means that, so I felt this.” We may be afraid of being hurt, abandoned, abused, manipulated, undervalued, disempowered, or controlled. Maybe we are being triggered and trying not to fall into the same trap. It is important to know when you are being triggered back to an old hurt.
4. What does this mean about you?
Often times, feelings can bring up shame, guilt, inferiority, powerlessness, alienation, or worthlessness. These may be old hurts we are trying to heal or a way we are trying to stop a new situation from impinging on our spirit.
5. Finally, figuring out what to do with the information.
When I work with people, we often go through this process many times. This process takes us deeper into individual truth. But it’s important to be compassionate with yourself and give yourself time to sit with and process your feelings. I encourage the people I work with to write in a journal about their feelings as a way to create more insight.
I have learned that asking the question, “how did that make you feel? gets us directly in to the heart of the matter.