Why do Therapists Tell You to “Sit with Your Feelings”?

This is one of those therapy clichés that never worked for me.  Since it refers to negative feelings, it always sounded unreasonable to ask people to sit there feeling angry or sad and not try to do something to feel better.  And yet it is routinely said to our sex addict patients and to patients in general.

If we are going to tell someone to sit with their feelings I think we owe it to them to tell them what this means and why it might help.  Sometimes it’s good to escape from your feelings and sometimes it’s better to delve more deeply into them.

When to escape your feelings

Feeling bad feelings is not helpful in and of itself.  In fact it may be stressful and if it continues could potentially take a toll on your functioning, your sex addiction treatment, your relationships and your heath.

If feeling miserable has become a way of life and you have allowed being unhappy to become part of your identity then there is probably something that needs to change. The same is true for feeling resentful or rebellious all the time.  Negative feelings are not productive if you let them become part of the definition of who you are. In these cases escape means getting help.

On an everyday level feelings are just feelings.  They come and they go and it doesn’t do any good to get alarmed by them or to get down on yourself about them.  By and large you can escape the minor irritations and disappointments that occur by just getting involved with something else or waiting until they pass.  You didn’t get to the phone in time, you burned the toast.  Oh well, you say, and you get on with your day.  Managing the ebb and flow of feelings is part of having good adaptive skills.

If you are saddened by the suffering in the world it may motivate you to become active in a cause.  But if you cannot escape the feelings of despondency and the preoccupation that feeds them you will be harming yourself. You will not be helping others by leading a miserable or unfulfilling life.

When to become more deeply aware of your feelings

One way to think of addictions like drugs,  gambling or sex is that they serve the function of numbing negative feelings.  All addictions start out as ways to avoid or eliminate pain and unpleasant emotions.

When someone is in sex addiction treatment, one of the treatment strategies is to get them to be willing to become aware of the feelings (like fear, resentment, self-loathing) that they are trying to medicate through the addiction.  We do this by getting them to give up the addictive drug or behavior and connecting the dots that will allow them to understand and let go of the feelings.  To do this they need to feel the feeling however painful.

Apart from working through ghosts of the past, this process also allows you to see that feelings won’t kill you and that you can in fact do quite well without medicating them in your usual way.

But there are other good reasons outside of the therapy situation, to allow yourself to fully feel whatever it is that you are feeling.

Knowing what you feel right now, good or bad, is part of knowing who you are at this moment.  It is the most basic way to be mindful, and mindful presence is what allows you to be fully yourself in the moment.

Being honest with yourself is better for you.  Trying to suppress what you really feel involves effort and stress.  Allowing yourself to just experience what you feel whether or not you express it or do anything about it is actually physically more healthful.

Being “in denial” about what you feel is harmful in another way.  Denial is a kind of self delusion and the delusion doesn’t just stop with denying your feelings; it tends to spread to other areas of life and it means that you don’t fully live in reality.

Last but not least, feeling negative feelings allows us to connect not only with ourselves but with other people.  We can connect romantically or intellectually but it is connecting on the level of our deepest feelings that allows us to truly know and be known.  Furthermore it is the basis of empathy.  The closer we get to our feelings the more we are on solid ground as far as our relation to our partner and all of those we care about.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource.