How to Process Your Emotions

What does it mean to process your feelings?

“I don’t know how I feel, I am just processing my feelings about it all still.”

You may have heard someone say something like this before. Typically, what people actually mean when they say this, is that they are ruminating. They are interpreting a situation or mauling over various motives, thoughts, and issues about an event or interaction. They are typically reinforcing their familiar worldview in some way by organizing experiences to fit this preexisting mold (for better or worse). This isn’t processing, this is analysis at best and obsession at worst. They are analyzing something that went down and delaying the necessary precursory step of feeling.

We all have a cluster of defense mechanisms that protect us from deep anxieties and emotions. The exact manner in which these cluster together is generally considered one’s personality type. Personality is simply a person’s fixed way of managing emotions, particularly threatening ones, and the subsequent impact on others or how they experience us. Our defense mechanisms keep us safe but at the cost of obscuring reality. For example, for the obsessive type, thinking is a protective mechanism used to distance themselves from their feelings. Going into the mind is safer than being in one’s feelings. Other common defense mechanisms include projection (what is inside is misunderstood as coming from the outside), flight into fantasy, denial, splitting or black-and-white thinking, displacement, turning against the self, or converting a threatening feeling into its opposite (reaction formation). This is not at all an exhaustive list but just to give you a sense of the cleverness of our emotional protective systems.

“Processing”, at least in a healthy, therapeutic sense is actually a much different thing. When a psychologist thinks of healthy emotional processing it usually means something along the lines of to “sit with it.” Therapists are adept at helping patients avoid going into their unique defensive strategies, at a level and pace they can tolerate, and getting to the deeper aspects of their emotional life.

Processing really means allowing the feeling, giving it permission, being mindfully open to it, and noticing the quality and experience of the feeling without judging it or trying to manipulate it or make it go away. To experience and express without the elaboration of thought.

Emotions are not deadly (although they can feel that way at times) and research shows that the shelf life for any emotion is really actually pretty short unless it is dealt with in an unhealthy manner – this is where the mind is either friend or foe. For example, sadness or grief can be prolonged and made unhealthy when combined with thoughts like “They shouldn’t have died! It should have been me instead” “I can’t ever get a fair deal. I guess I am just doomed” or “I’ll never be happy again.” Anxiety is a totally normal emotion and part of life but probably the most difficult when it comes to working with attending thoughts. Those with unresolved issues around childhood instability, early parentification, or trauma are particularly vulnerable to pathological anxiety as adults. This is where our unique approach of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Psychodynamic Therapy tend to come into play and target the issue best. Anxiety can absolutely be transformed from a daily burden to a comfortable informant. 

The Wisdom of processing emotion is to trust, allow, and experience fully. Approaching feelings this way allows them to be integrated in the right way. Your body and mind know how to digest an emotion if you give it the chance.  There is much to be said about how to do this and this is the benefit of having a therapist as a guide. The goal really is to move your attention into your body, where emotion arises and lives.  A skilled clinician knows how to guide this process and unlock greater levels of awareness and emotional experience.

Onto the “processing” part. Each person has a unique “feelings history”. One trick to access the archetypes of your emotional life is to become aware of the associations in your mind when experiencing an emotion. Go into the feeling and allow your mind to wander. Imagine you are sitting back and just observing the contents of your mind while simultaneously feeling fully. Meditation and mindfulness practice are incredibly helpful in evolving the capacity to observe thought and make these important discoveries. In fact, maybe even a vital prerequisite. While doing so you may notice an image, a childhood experience, a person, or another similar situation comes floating into awareness. These are the breadcrumbs that lead you back in time to your emotional past. If emotion is laced with anxiety or fear – this is a clue that some work is to be done here. If the intensity of an emotion is out of proportion to the situation you are dealing with the past, not the present, a sign more therapeutic work is required here.

A good rule of thumb is – If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.

Bring these associations and insights into therapy, these are grist for the mill when it comes to quality therapeutic work. Untangling these wires is a key to healing and growth in psychotherapy and is an expertise of ours. We look forward to helping you on this journey! Please reach out anytime and we can explore together how therapy could be helpful to you. 

Dr. Mitch Keil
Dr. Mitch Keil

Dr. Mitch Keil is a licensed clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, CA. His specialities in treatment cover a wide range of difficulties including depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, and grief/loss for teens, young adults, and adults. As a part of his dedication to the field, Dr. Keil receives regular supervision, support, continuing education, and training for his private practice. He is a lifelong learner and practitioner who is passionate about mental health, philosophy, and psychology.

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