How To Feel a Feeling

Apr 04, 2022

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As a child, I hated talking about feelings. Yet here I am, years later, talking about feelings all the time. The reason is because I adhere to the idea that feelings are why we do what we do. Whether we’re motivated by fear, anxiety, grief, love, compassion, connection, exhilaration… whatever it is, we act based on feelings.

Our natural tendency is to mostly avoid feelings, especially negative ones. We push them away or even allow them to override our better judgment. Ultimately, this can yield unwanted and unintentional results, and can create a cycle of feelings that come again and again. But there is a way to help break such cycles. Even in the moment, you can intentionally process your feelings. It takes practice but it is possible. So let’s talk about how to feel a feeling. (My young self would never have imagined I’d say that!)

“Learning how to allow your feelings also gives you a lot more access to them and then authority over them. When you aren’t afraid of them, when you don’t worry that they might take over and never leave you, negative emotions lose a lot of their power.”  – Dr. Sara Dill

What You’ll Learn 

  • 4 ways we respond to feelings
    • Resistance
    • Reaction
    • Avoidance
    • Allowance
  • Stripping negative emotions of their power 
  • Identification, localization 
  • Moving into the observer position 
  • Intentionally creating feelings
  • 1 Minute Emotional Makeover
    • Describe
    • Name
    • Identify
    • Change

Contact Info and Recommended Resources

Connect with Sara Dill, MD, The Doctor’s Coach


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Want to know more about me and how I learned to stress less? I recorded a trailer for my podcast that includes some of these details. I’ve also included a short bio below. 

Meet Dr. Sara Dill

Welcome to my podcast, Stress-Less Physician. I’m Sara Dill, MD, board-certified dermatologist and pediatric dermatologist. Like nearly all physicians, I used to believe the way to be a good and successful doctor was to work hard, always say yes, and put patients (and everyone else) first. I was successful following that pattern but (as is typically the case) I felt perpetually stressed out, overworked and unhappy. 

Compelled by the truth that I’d worked too long and hard to simply accept stress as inevitable, I was determined to find the answer. In order to fully devote myself to discovering a solution, I took a sabbatical from my practice and studied life coaching. I completed two life coach training programs, numerous other courses, read 100s of books, and used coaching to transform my own relationship to work.

What I learned was that stress is a symptom. It all has less to do with the actual hours you work than with your thoughts about your work.

With this knowledge, I took control of my life. So can you! But you don't have to take years or go on sabbatical. I did it so you don't have to. And I’m here to help.


I’m Dr. Sara Dill, and this is the Stress-Less Physician Podcast, episode number eight. Welcome to the Stress-Less Physician podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Sara Dill, MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work, and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feel good to you, you are in the right place.

Hey, everyone, welcome back to the podcast. So, today’s probably going to be short and sweet. I wanted to talk a little bit more about feelings. And this is so funny because I hated feelings. Growing up, I spent half a year in this sort of alternative school. I grew up in California, and my parents didn’t really love my –I think it was my third-grade teacher, my sister was in kindergarten, they didn’t love her teacher. So, we went to this sort of alternative hippie school.

But every Friday, we had to do what was called The Circle, where we’d go and we talk about feelings, and I cried every time. And I was a child that didn’t cry. I didn’t like crying. I still am not a huge fan of crying, to be perfectly honest. And I remember asking my mom, if we could maybe just get into a little car accident on the way to the circle, so I wouldn’t have to go and talk about my feelings. And yet, here I am on this podcast, here I am in coaching, talking about feelings all the time.

And the reason for that, and if you’ve listened to any of my previous episodes, is because I really buy into this idea—and you could check it out for yourself—that feelings are really why we do everything we do, and why we don’t do the things we don’t do. So, we maybe don’t go after a big goal because we’re afraid of feeling failure, or we’re afraid of feeling embarrassed, or we’re afraid of maybe fear, or the uncertainty or the discomfort that comes along with it. The things we want to go after: maybe having a successful career, taking care of patients, being in love, and in a relationship with a partner or a spouse. Those are all because of how we feel in those situations. Maybe we feel compassionate, connected, useful. We feel of service, we feel love, we feel happiness. So, feelings are super important.

For most of us, we aren’t that good at either identifying them, or really processing them or feeling them. So today, I wanted to talk about how to feel a feeling, which, to me, always seemed really basic, but I actually had no idea how to just feel a feeling. I was very good at resisting feelings. I was very good at ignoring them, sort of suppressing them and pushing them away. And so I want to just start… I love quotes. I like this quote it’s from—I think he’s a meditation teacher, spiritual teacher, Mooji. And he says, “Feelings are just visitors; let them come and go.” And that’s really how I think about them.

So, when we allow ourselves to recognize what we’re feeling, maybe name it, feel it, and then let it go, the whole process gets over very quickly. It’s when we resist them, or push them away, when we’re afraid of them, when we try not to feel them. And even sometimes when we react to them, when we get into them and sort of over express them, you know, thinking about when you feel angry, and maybe you yell or shout or behave in a way that you later regret. I think those all tend to make feelings bigger, and maybe they come around again.

So today, I just wanted to talk about how to feel a feeling. And this can be very helpful to listen to, especially when you might be feeling a very uncomfortable emotion. I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety lately. And so this is actually something that I go through very frequently. And so I’m going to just start here and talk about how to feel a feeling. It seems sort of silly, but a lot of us, again, really don’t know how to feel a feeling. Learning to allow your emotions and to process them is a skill most of us physicians probably could use some help with, and probably some non-physicians too.

And learning how to allow your feelings also gives you a lot more access to them, and then authority over them. When you aren’t afraid of them, when you don’t worry that they might take over and never leave you, negative emotions lose a lot of their power, at least in my experience. So, feeling your feelings does not mean you have to act on them or express them, or even share them. You get to decide how you want to process your feelings, how you want to feel them, all of it. It’s an internal process that you can do at any time in any situation. It’s sort of like doing a Kegel exercise, right? No one has to know what you’re doing.

And so I just want to highlight again, typically, we can deal with or respond to feelings in four different ways. We can resist them, we can react to them, we can avoid them, and we can allow them. The first three of these responses are not particularly useful or helpful, in my opinion, but they tend to be the most common responses that I see in my clients and in other people in general. So, the first one, many of us respond to negative feelings. I’m going to really focus on negative feelings here, because those are the ones we tend to need to process. So, the first way many of us respond to negative feelings is to resist them. Resisting an emotion is like trying to hold a big inflatable beach ball under the surface of the water, it takes a lot of energy. And in the end, that beach ball just pops up to the surface anyway.

Think about it when you’re in a pool, maybe you want to try to float on a ball, you can push it under the water, but it takes a lot of effort. So, resistance, resisting an emotion might look like feeling angry, while telling yourself you shouldn’t feel angry and pretending you don’t. It might look like feeling impatient and yet trying to act as if you have all the patients in the world. It actually makes the emotion feel bigger.

So, I remember with sadness, this is what I would do, I would try to resist it. But then it just felt like sadness was always there. And it also felt like if I let it come out, or I let it come up, it would just take over and it would never leave. We often resist an emotion again, because we worry it will overwhelm us if we allow it. And yet, I have found that the opposite is true. By resisting it, we give it so much more energy and perpetuate it, rather than lasting 90 seconds, which is typically the lifespan of emotion, and then it fades away. When we resist a negative emotion, it usually persists much, much longer, and again, often will keep recurring.

So, the first unhelpful way to respond to emotions is resistance. The second common way we respond to an unwanted or negative emotion is to react. So, reacting to emotions may include acting on them or expressing them, often in ways that we know, perhaps we would prefer not to when we are no longer in that situation. So, this is typically not useful or helpful. Yelling or screaming is not the same thing as feeling our feelings. It may seem that we are, “releasing” something or processing our emotions, but really, we are simply acting them out. Often in ways that later we wish we hadn’t or find inappropriate, we may find ourselves identifying even more with them and making our feelings into a really big deal.

Processing or feeling an emotion doesn’t look like acting them out or expressing them. Rather, it’s something, again, that happens internally, when you’re experiencing those physical sensations or vibrations of that particular emotional state. Again, I like to think about it as a neurochemical cascade, starting in the brain, going through neurons, releasing different chemicals that cause a variety of sensations in the body.

So, the third way that many of us deal with negative emotions that I think also is unhelpful is to simply try to avoid them, or avoid experiencing them. Common ways we avoid emotions are by overeating, over drinking, overworking, watching Netflix, distracting ourselves, over anything. You can over exercise, even to pretty much try to avoid how you’re feeling.

Other avoidance techniques, again, can look like anything done to excess or to, “distract” yourself, especially those that trigger a dopamine rush in our pleasure and reward centers in our brain. So again, maybe clicking on social media, getting on Facebook, all of those things give us this dopamine hit and can sort of help us to avoid how we’re otherwise feeling. It can also include things like shopping, again, watching TV, binge watching TV, or movies, pornography, or simply being too busy all the time. That’s a very common distraction that I see.

However, what I recommend learning to do is to allow any amount You might be feeling. So, this is the fourth way to respond to emotions. Again, the first three that I would say are more common, but less helpful are resisting, reacting, and avoiding. Allowing emotion is how we feel our feelings and process them in a healthy and empowering way. So, what does allowing look like? It’s simple, but not always easy. So let me walk you through one way of allowing or processing emotion without resisting it, reacting to it, or avoiding it.

So right now, I want you to ask yourself, what am I feeling? That should be a one-word answer, what am I feeling? This requires you to actually go into your body and identify some sort of sensation. So again, one word, what am I feeling? The next question to ask yourself, is, where is it in my body? So, you might notice, do you feel it in your chest? Do you feel sensations in your throat? Maybe in your stomach, or solar plexus? Those are very common areas. Sometimes people feel different emotions, though, in their hands, or legs, or all sorts of places. So just getting curious, asking yourself again, what am I feeling? Where is it in my body?

How do I know I’m feeling this feeling versus a different feeling? This is actually interesting to think about, because I think some feelings are very similar. For example, excitement feels very similar to me as fear. Excitement and fear are very close together. I’ve heard the difference described as excitement is fear with breathing, right? Or fear is excitement without the breath. So, you could notice if you feel tighter if you feel it in the same area.

So again, asking how do I know I’m feeling this feeling versus a different feeling? What is specific about this feeling? Ask yourself, if you can give it more room. Can you relax into it, notice where your shoulders are? My shoulders are usually up by my ears, so I consciously try to relax my shoulders, dropping them down? Can you breathe into whatever you’re feeling? Again, giving it more space, leaning into it, getting closer to it, getting curious to it, studying it. It will actually create a little more space between you and whatever sensations you’re experiencing whatever feeling you’re feeling, when you start to get curious about it and ask these questions. And yet, it’s like you’re sort of getting closer to it. And then you can notice, is it changing as I spend more time paying attention to it? Does it feel different? You can ask other questions too: what color is the feeling? Does it have a color? Does it feel hard or soft? Is it fast or slow? Is there movement? Or does it feel like heavy? How does this feeling make you want to react? 

So again, you can just get curious and ask all of these questions. I would encourage you to try this a few times. Don’t rush through it. This is something you can, and I would say, should practice. And again, you may notice that as you move into this observer state, this watcher state, where you’re sort of like an anthropologist taking notes, you no longer are your emotion, but rather you become the one experiencing it. So I even like to really notice… I never like to tell myself I’m angry. I like to say, I am the one experiencing the anger. I notice I’m feeling angry right now. Not that I am angry.

Again, even those extra words in there can give you a little bit of space between you and the feeling you’re experiencing. It’s like allowing anger or fear or anxiety, or whatever emotion you’re feeling to have its own room in your house. You can open the door and go in and experience the feeling while always knowing you can leave at any time. This skill means, and especially as you practice the skill, the skill of processing and allowing and recognizing your feelings, it means that you can handle any emotion you might experience. And once you really know that you can handle feeling whatever emotion comes up for you, even though it’s not pleasant: shame, jealousy, anger, fear, rage, discomfort.

Sometimes people are very uncomfortable with positive emotions too. You can notice: Am I on comfortable with letting myself feel too happy? Does deep joy make me sort of uncomfortable? But as you start to learn that you can handle any emotion you might experience, you will gain a lot of competence. And this will allow you to grow and to go after your dreams and your goals. If you know how to feel any emotion that might arise, what is there to stop you from going after any goal, any dream, no matter how big. Once you realize that a feeling isn’t going to kill you, it can’t literally hurt you, it’s uncomfortable. It’s interesting to even ask why is it so uncomfortable? I like to think about it if you had to explain to an alien, or someone who couldn’t feel a feeling, what it felt like, and why it was uncomfortable, I find it very challenging. But once you realize that a feeling can’t really hurt, can’t kill you, and you know how to feel it, and you know what is really causing it, you’re thinking, you have so much more power.

And so, this also lets you experiment with practicing creating feelings that you might want to experience. And this can be a good exercise as well, is to intentionally create an emotional feeling for yourself. And this is very common when we discover coaching, and that we get into a hurry, sort of to start feeling better, right? Once we realize, “Oh, the reason I’m feeling a certain way is because of how I’m thinking about a situation,” then we’re like, “I just have to think differently and I’ll feel differently.” And it is a good practice. And I would say it’s also normal to feel some negative emotion. We are going to probably eliminate it altogether.

Once we get the hang of allowing our feelings, it’s also not such a big deal to experience negative emotion, it doesn’t feel as negative, we aren’t making it mean that there’s something wrong. Sometimes we might want to feel sad or angry or upset. That’s also totally allowed, it’s totally normal, you always get to decide. And yet, sometimes it is nice to know how to interrupt the pattern and to feel better at any time, to sort of toggle in and out.

So, I’ll just leave you with a quick recap of what I like to call a one-minute emotional makeover. This is one of my favorite tools to use and to teach my clients to use. And again, practicing this is important. You want to practice it when you don’t need it. So that when you do maybe reach for it, because you do really need to maybe get out of an emotion that is just really not serving you in the moment, you want to be sort of practiced at it. So, I would say maybe try it now or come back and try it the next time you’re feeling upset, or angry or sad.

So, the One-Minute Emotional Makeover has four steps. The first step again is describing what you are feeling in your body in detail. So again, describe the physical sensations in detail, as if you are explaining them to an alien or to a person who has never felt any emotion. So, you want to be very descriptive here, and this is actually quite challenging. Step two is to name the feeling. For example, you might say I am feeling sad, or mad or glad or afraid. Then you can look at an emotional list, sometimes that’s helpful, and you can practice noticing subtle variations. So, it’s a one-word answer, name the feeling.

Number three, identify the thought, identify the sentence in your head that is triggering or causing this feeling. So, if I’m feeling anxiety right now, if I go to my head, the thought there is I have too much to do. I have too much to do, and then I feel anxious. For you, that might make you feel overwhelmed. Slightly different emotions, right? Interesting to play around with that. One word answer, describes your feeling. So, step three, identify the thought or sentence in your head that is causing the feeling. And then step four, change the thought to one that creates a better feeling. So again, I might go to “I have a lot to do.” That might feel a little bit better, sort of lessens my anxiety, brings it down a notch.

So again, one-minute emotional makeover. Step one, describe what you are feeling in your body. Describe the physical sensations in detail like you were explaining it to someone or something that had never felt any emotion. Step two, name the feeling, this is one word. Step three, identify the thought or sentence in your head that is causing this feeling for you. And step four, change the thought to one that creates a better feeling for yourself.

So again, practicing this technique will make you better at it. It’s probably going to feel awkward at first, or seem too easy, but I would just say try it and see how it works. Test is at home, test it at work, test it out in the wild is what I like to say, and let your results encourage you to keep experimenting with creating the feelings you want to feel more often. Thank you so much for joining me. I guess this ended up being a little bit longer than I thought, as usual, so thanks for hanging in there with me. And I can’t wait to talk to you next week.

If you are a busy practicing physician ready to start feeling less stressed, enjoy work more, and learn how to create a more balanced and sustainable medical practice and life, sign up for a consult call with me at That’s It would be my privilege and pleasure to work with you.

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