When we sweep our emotions under the rug, they’re invisible to the outside world. But the more emotions we stuff down, the bigger the pile becomes. And eventually it starts seeping out, shaping our relationships with ourselves and with others.
Clinical psychologist Aimee Martinez, Psy.D, uses this analogy with her clients to underscore the power of checking in with ourselves and processing our feelings—something that’s vital to do on a regular basis.
You might not even realize that your emotions are affecting your actions. Suddenly, you snap at your spouse. Suddenly, you yell at your kids. Suddenly, you make a rude remark to a stranger at the store. As psychological assistant Lena Dicken, Psy.D, said, “It has very little to do with what that person said or did, but rather, all the built-up feelings that [we haven’t] dealt with yet.”
We also might not realize that we’re repeating the same behavioral patterns, which aren’t at all helpful to us. Martinez shared this example: You experience breakup after breakup. Initially, the last relationship feels different from the previous one. And yet it isn’t. You find yourself “repeating a pattern and dating someone ‘just like’ [your] father or mother.”
Checking in with ourselves connects us to our needs—and helps us to meet them, said Dicken, founder of Saltwater Sessions. For instance, you realize that you’re feeling overwhelmed about everything you have to do, so you sit down to revise and delegate your tasks. You realize you’re feeling lonely, so you schedule quality time with a close friend. You realize that you’re exhausted, so you make sure to get to bed an hour earlier and say no to additional commitments. You realize you feel disconnected from yourself, so you take a gentle yoga class and start journaling, again.
“Time to reflect is a gift,” said Rebecca Ray, a clinical psychologist, writer and founder of Happi Habits. “It’s the gift of assessing where we are at and the gift of editing what’s not working.” Instead of focusing on external things, like income, weight and Instagram likes, we focus on “how we are doing life,” she said. We focus on important questions: Are we doing what fulfills us? Are we doing what truly matters to us?
One way to explore this is through the following exercise: Imagine that you’re 80 years old, and on your birthday, you begin examining how you’ve lived your life, Ray said. “What do you want to say you focused on? What do you want to say you did with your time? Who do you want that time to be spent with?”
Ray also suggested imagining your closest loved one giving your eulogy. What do you want them to say about you? What do you want them to say about what you stood for? How do you want them to describe you?
Then consider if you’re living in a way that’s consistent with your responses. If you’re not, consider what you need to change, she said.
Martinez recommended asking: “What am I feeling in this moment?” Sometimes, you won’t know, which is why it can help to start with the location of the feeling. For instance, maybe you feel something in your stomach, chest or head. Describe the sensation you’re experiencing, such as tension, heaviness, shakiness. Next ask yourself: “When have I felt this way before?” “Often experiences occur that can create feelings similar to ones, both positive and painful, we have had previously in our lives.”
Dicken suggested exploring these various questions: “What are the things that light me up inside and make me feel excited? When do I feel the best? How do I prefer to spend my free time? Am I expressing myself clearly and verbalizing my needs and desires? Am I doing work that feels meaningful to me? Am I confident in and do I feel heard in my relationships?”
Asking these kinds of probing questions helps us to better understand ourselves and to build meaningful, fulfilling lives on our own terms. The key is to proceed with curiosity and self-compassion, and without judgment or sky-high expectations, Ray said.
Honor whatever feelings arise. Listen to what’s bothering you, and what’s delighting you. Listen to what you need physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Regularly explore whether you’re living your values—and whether those values are still significant to you. Because this may change. Because you may change. Which is why it’s vital to prioritize the time to self-reflect and return to these questions—or similar questions—and listen. Always listen to yourself. As Dicken said, “Your inner voice and intuition will get more clear the more you listen to it.”