trust your instincts

Trust Your Instincts: Using Feelings as a Guide

Understanding how to use feelings as a guide may be the key to unlocking a more fulfilling life. It sounds like a simple task: to notice what you are feeling, use that information to identify your needs, and take an action toward getting your needs met. We drink when we feel thirsty; it is instinctual. Things get complicated, however, when we start dealing with emotions. Each of us had to adjust to difficult life situations, so we learned to accept and identify with emotional experiences and needs that were supported in our childhoods. At the same time, we learned to judge ourselves, be ashamed of or feel guilty for needs and experiences that were not supported, leaving us with “inappropriate” needs and “negative” feelings. As a result, we carry old maps as we attempt to navigate new landscapes; this can lead to feeling confused, disoriented, and unsatisfied.

Trust your instincts with these five steps to orient yourself to the present situation:

1. Notice what you are feeling.

Shift focus to your body. Notice any sensations that come to your awareness. No need to change anything. Just sense and observe. Breathing is an effective tool to heighten body experience. Shallow or diminished breathing, however, deadens your sensations. Focus on your body experience long enough to allow sensations to become clear, take a shape, and emerge as emotion or feeling.

2. Experience the feeling.

For many people, it may be difficult to tolerate and manage certain feelings (see our blog Make Friends with Your Feelings).  Some may carry a well of sadness, yet try to distract themselves by keeping busy. Others numb their anger, or turn it against themselves and grow resentful. Those overcome by shame spend their days trying to stay under the radar for fear of getting themselves into a shame-producing situation. One essential tool here is to remind ourselves that every feeling, no matter how painful, comes as a wave (read more here). Feelings rise, peak, diminish, and dissipate – if uninterrupted. You cannot stop these waves but you can learn to ride them. Paradoxically, the only way to keep a feeling in a state of rising intensity is to block it.

3. Identify a need that drives the feeling.

As we stay with the feeling, without distracting or numbing ourselves, we start becoming aware of a need behind that feeling. Once we know what we need, we have a choice. Interrupting or ignoring a feeling, prevents us from accessing a need, leaving the need unmet, and leaving us stuck. Feeling sad may indicate a need to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. Upsurges of anger give information about needing to protect our boundaries. Longing informs us about a need to be cared for and nurtured. Feeling overwhelmed or exhausted indicates a need to say “no” and disengage.

4. Separate present from the past.

Some feelings are fresh and new. They are evoked by the present situation and they signal us about an emerging need. Other feelings are our old companions that follow us wherever we go. Their presence informs us about some unfinished business from the past, a need that remains unmet. Immediate feelings require expression and action (e.g., saying “yes” or “no”, reaching out, or distancing yourself). Unfinished business requires exploration of the ways we keep ourselves from getting what we need; it is crucial to identify fixed ideas about ourselves and others that were creative solutions in the past but now stand in the way of living a satisfying life.

5. Do not look for milk in a hardware store.

Knowing what you need is important. Knowing how to organize getting your needs met is equally important. Sometimes we have a tendency to look for what we need in familiar places and faces, regardless of whether or not we have a chance of finding anything of value there. Frustration and feeling stuck is a good indication that we are looking in a wrong place.

What are the feelings that are difficult for you to experience? How can you support yourself through staying with those feelings? Is there a certain feeling that travels with you wherever you go? What does that feeling want?

Elena Ryabtseva, MHC-LP

Elena Ryabtseva, MHC-LP

Psychotherapist at myTherapyNYC
Offers individual and couples counseling in NYC. Specializes in relationship Issues, LGBTQ, Trauma, Intimacy Issues, Body Dissatisfaction, and Eating Disorders
Elena Ryabtseva, MHC-LP

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3 replies
  1. Zach
    Zach says:

    Fantastic blog, Elena! It’s so important to recognize the needs behind certain feelings—particularly when these needs are rooted so far in the past.

  2. James
    James says:

    Great blog! I really like the concept of making friends with your feelings. As you cannot understand what you refuse to acknowledge. Awesome!

  3. Jenny Williams
    Jenny Williams says:

    Milk in a hardware store! Trying to get maple syrup from an oak tree! Thank you for this wise and insightful post that addresses so many aspects of connecting to emotion.


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