Blog written by Paige Haney, MS, MFT

“And How does That Make You Feel?” 

Phrases that are often said but not always explained, whether inside or outside of the therapy room, are “feel your feelings” or “sit with your emotions”. For many people entering therapy, they may come in with the expectation that their therapist will throw the somewhat infamous “And how does that make you feel?” question out there in response to practically everything they say. It is a common concern that talking about emotions may just be a vague idea that does not actually help clients reach closer to their goals. Let’s talk about what it actually means to sit with your emotions, why this can be a beneficial and insightful process, and how to put it into practice. 

What Are Emotions?

First, to understand what it means to sit with your emotions, we have to understand what emotions are in the first place. Emotions are a subjective response or reaction to the environment (e.g., an event, situation, interaction, person, object, etc). There are several important aspects of emotions- they are subjective, they can generate a physiological response, and they can lead to a behavioral response, or the expression of emotions. 

Emotions Are Subjective

Emotions involve a subjective experience. This means that different people may not all react the same way to similar situations. For example, one person may describe their primary reaction to losing a job by emphasizing their feeling of anger, while another person may describe the deep sense of sadness they feel. Oftentimes, our experience of emotions may also not be best identified by labeling one core emotion, but rather by a mixture of different emotions, like the sense of both joy and loss that might come from watching your child move to college. 

Additionally, people may experience similar emotions in different ways. While one person may identify that they are feeling angry because they noticed they are lashing out at others, another person may know they are angry when they shut down. Reflecting on your personal experience with your emotions may also showcase how emotions were experienced in your family. For some people, emotions were freely expressed and encouraged to be shared in their families, while for others, experiencing and expressing emotions was considered a weakness to be avoided. This can have a significant impact on the attitudes you develop about your own emotions and the way you go about expressing them. Because emotions involve a subjective experience, increasing your understanding of how you experience emotions can provide perspective on how you personally relate to the world. 

Physiological Response to Emotion

Along with being subjective, an essential aspect of emotions is the physiological responses they can create. Whether it is feeling your face get hot with anger or feeling a pit in your stomach from fear, the body often physically responds to emotions. A lot of these responses are regulated by the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which is tasked with putting the body on alert during dangerous or stressful experiences. Even if you aren’t sure exactly what emotion you are feeling, paying attention to your body can give you some valuable clues that something is going on- if you notice your heart rate increasing or your palms getting sweaty, for instance, your body may be helping you prepare for a stressful situation. The challenging thing about these physiological responses is that they are automatic, meaning they may happen or even go into overdrive without our awareness. Because of this, paying attention to your emotions and your body’s response to them is essential for being able to recognize when it may be helpful to focus on taking a moment to relax your body.

Behavioral Responses to Emotions

Lastly, experiencing emotions often leads to the expression of emotions- our behavioral response. We may laugh or smile when we feel happy or yell and cry when we feel angry. This expression of emotions serves as a message to others about what we may be feeling, what our boundaries are, and what our needs are. Our ability to express our emotions in a clear way allows for more understanding and connection in our relationships. 

Knowing what the integral aspects of emotions are, take some time to reflect on your own relationship with your emotions. How were emotions talked about and expressed in your family? Do you notice yourself having an easier time identifying when you experience some emotions compared to others? Do you notice your body responding in certain ways to certain emotions? What does your behavior typically look like when you experience certain emotions? Do some emotions feel harder to express than others?

How To Sit With Your Emotions

There is no pressure to have all the answers to these questions at this time. In fact, making it a goal to sit with your emotions can be incredibly helpful in discovering your unique responses to them. Sitting with your emotions does not mean that you should simply wallow in how uncomfortable or unpleasant it is to feel sad, angry, disgusted, lonely, or afraid. Sitting with your emotions involves the process of identifying what it is you are actually experiencing and how you want to go about managing the emotion. Rather than reacting automatically to emotions, sitting with your emotions gives you the power to name what you are feeling and make a mindful choice of what to do with your feelings. Emotions are like waves in the ocean. They are temporary, and they ebb and flow. Not all emotions need to be acted on in the same way, or even acted on at all. Sitting with your emotions gives you the opportunity to ask yourself, “What is this emotion and what is the best thing for me to do with it in this moment?”. It allows you to ride the wave, rather than feel overcome by it. 

So if sitting with emotions is as helpful as it sounds, how can you do it? Here are some steps to practice:

1.First, focus on giving a name or names to what you are feeling. Sometimes an emotion might feel better characterized by more specific words than “happy” or “sad”, so it can be helpful to use a use a tool like a Feelings Wheel (find one by doing a quick Google search!) to really dig deep into what words best fit the emotions you are experiencing in the moment. Being able to identify the emotion you are feeling is a huge step in itself, and sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what word best describes how you are feeling. It is okay to really take some time with this step to consider different emotions and which one resonates the most.


2.Reflect on how you are personally experiencing the emotion in terms of the three core aspects of emotions that were explained earlier. Practice asking some non judgmental, exploratory questions to learn more about the function of your current emotion:

Questions to ask about your subjective experience of the emotion:

Is there a situation, person, object, or experience that this emotion is a reaction to?

Do I feel comfortable with this emotion?

Is this an emotion I am familiar with feeling?

How would I rate the intensity of the emotion on a scale of one to ten?

Did the emotion seem to come on all of a sudden or more gradually?

If I visualized this emotion, what would it look like? Feel like? Taste like?

Questions to ask about your physiological experience of the emotion:

Where am I feeling this emotion in my body?

Do I feel the emotion more strongly in some areas of my body than others?

How would I describe how the emotion feels in my body?

How would I rate how strongly I physically feel the emotion on a scale of one to ten?

Questions to ask about your behavioral response to the emotion:

Is this emotion making me want to react in a particular way?

In the past, have I had similar reactions to this emotion?

How would I rate how strongly I want to act on this emotion from a scale of one to ten?

What are the potential advantages and disadvantages of acting on this emotion?


3. The next step involves making a decision involving what to do with your emotion. As mentioned before, emotions are like waves, and it is okay to simply allow yourself to identify and experience the emotion and let it pass you by. In other situations, after reflecting on your emotion, it may feel very helpful to act on the emotion. For example, if you are feeling lonely after a long day where you were isolated from others, you can make the choice to act on your emotion by reaching out to a loved one. 

The next time your therapist, a friend, family member, or coworker asks you the simple but oh-so complex question, “how you are feeling?”, remember that you can learn a lot about yourself and your needs by paying attention to the loving messenger that is your emotions. While it sometimes seems like it should be easy to simply “feel your feelings”, it can take a lot of effort and energy to do this mindful exploration and can sometimes be very challenging, especially if you do not typically stop and think much about your emotions. Engaging in this process with support along the way can be immensely helpful. Please know that our team at Fleming Family Therapy is here alongside you to support you in riding the waves!

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