People regularly tell you that you’re too sensitive or dramatic. People regularly tell you that you need to lighten up. In fact, maybe you’ve heard this throughout your life, going as far back as your childhood. Maybe you also cry easily. Maybe it seems like everything affects you, deeply — your heart wincing at every hurt.
Acknowledging and processing our emotions is important. It’s key to our mental health. After all, suppressing our emotions has a whole host of unhelpful consequences (including hindering our health).
But we also have to know when to draw the line.
Specifically, feeling our feelings becomes problematic “when the intensity of our feelings starts to change the way we think about ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us,” said Amy Di Francia, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Burbank, Calif., who specializes in treating anxiety and helping couples find deeper connection with one another.
For instance, Di Francia said, the longer you sit with feelings of grief and loss after a breakup, the more likely you are to think I’m never going to feel OK again. I’ve never been able to have a healthy relationship and I never will. No one really cares about me.
These thoughts only deepen our pain and color our perspective—and the lens we see everything through becomes “almost entirely negative.”
These thoughts also affect our actions, because our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected. So those negative thoughts lead you to isolate yourself, reject other relationships, and stop caring for yourself, Di Francia said.
Sitting with our feelings for too long also can lead us to become detached from reality, she said: “The more we ‘wallow’ in a feeling, the more all-consuming that feeling becomes until it has become something bigger than the original stimulus for the feeling warranted.”
So how do you feel your feelings without drowning in them?
Below you’ll find four tips for effectively feeling your feelings when you tend to be a sensitive person who seemingly feels everything.
Set a time limit. Ora North, an empath, healer, and author of the new book I Don’t Want to Be an Empath Anymore, suggested scheduling a time and creating a safe space to process your feelings. Yes, actually put it on your calendar.
For instance, she said, you might carve out one hour to sit on your bed, journal, and cry. “By giving your feelings special time and space to flow, it helps them flow quicker and keeps them from seeping into every moment in your day.”
You also can set a timer. Di Francia shared the example of setting your timer for 20 minutes, so you can journal without getting lost in it (which can happen when we start exploring our emotions using pen and paper). When the timer goes off, she emphasized engaging in a different activity (more on that below).
Another great example of creating a time limit, Di Francia said, is therapy. It’s “a weekly space where you know you will be able to express yourself fully and feel the full range of your human experience. But you also know you won’t be swallowed up by those feelings because a professional is there to help you stay grounded.”
Your therapist can let you know when your feelings are negatively affecting your thoughts, and help you regulate your emotions before your session ends, she said.
Engage in other activities. After sitting with your feelings, Di Francia suggested engaging in activities that “will pull you out of the intensity of the emotion.” Examples include, she said: writing down five things you’re grateful for, listening to an upbeat playlist, watching a favorite feel-good show, and taking a short walk (“exercise is great for getting us out of our head”).
Look for the lesson. North noted that each emotion has a positive lesson—even sadness and rage. For instance, sadness might spark beautiful artwork that inspires others and connects them to their own emotions. Anger might lead you to quit an awful job, start a new business, or become a mental health advocate.
“By giving your feeling a job, you’re actually breaking the cycle of wallowing and creating positive change both in your life and in the world,” North said. So what is your emotion trying to teach you? What job can you give your sadness, anger, anxiety, jealousy, regret?
Share with a loved one. Our friends and family can create safe spaces for us to express our pain and sit with our emotions. They also can “point us back to reality when our feelings become all-consuming and start to skew the way we view the world,” Di Francia said.
Plus, saying our feelings out loud can shrink them, she said. And, of course, you don’t need another person to do that. Voicing your feelings when you’re alone can still be beneficial. Di Francia cited research that found that naming our feelings helps to soothe our brain.
Being a sensitive person who feels deeply is a great thing. As Di Francia pointed out, “feeling your feelings is a beautiful part of you that many people struggle to attain,” and it makes you a more empathic, compassionate person.
The key is to make sure that you’re not drowning in your emotions—that your emotions aren’t clouding your thoughts and behavior.
The key is to honor your feelings, while also honoring yourself.