Writing in 1884, the psychologist William James asked what an emotion would feel like if you stripped it of its physical sensations. What would fear be like without a racing heart? Rage, without the blood rushing to your face? These states probably wouldn’t be recognizable as emotions as we typically know them.
“We find we have nothing left behind, no ‘mind-stuff’ out of which the emotion can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains,” James wrote.
This thought experiment was evidence to James that the essence of emotion is bodily sensation, and that the thoughts and names we ascribe to them come later. Over 130 years later, a woman on TikTok proposed the same in a video on the importance of “feeling your feelings.”
“Our emotions are just bodily sensations, literal physical sensations in our bodies, and we use our analytical mind to attach words to it, to put a narrative around it, so we can communicate it to others,” she said. She also had a warning: “When we’re only psychoanalyzing ourselves, only living in our analytical world, we’re ignoring the other half of the lived experience of feeling.”
“That’s William James right there,” said Yulia Chentsova Dutton, a cultural psychologist at Georgetown University, when she watched the video.
If you’ve spent any time on mental health TikTok lately, you may have come across this advice: Feel your feelings, rather than just think or talk about them; without feeling them, you’re not tapping into true emotional experiences but some cheaper, distanced version. “If you’re talking about your feelings but you feel nothing, you feel very stepped-back, very closed off, you might be intellectualizing your emotions, not feeling them,” one video said.
“You realize being able to psychoanalyze yourself and intellectualize your feelings doesn’t mean you’re good at therapy, and you’re actually using it as a tool to avoid feeling your feelings?” said another. One TikTok video described how this phenomenon occurs in people who love “talking about emotions, intellectualizing, philosophizing, and they trick themselves into thinking that they feel their emotions when all they do is talk about them.”
But spend too long on “feeling your feelings” TikTok, and the suggestion starts to morph from profound to hopelessly ambiguous. What does it mean in practice to not think about your emotions but only feel them? What was I feeling before, if not my feelings?
Some creators are now making videos poking fun at the ubiquity of the phrase, and how the posters don’t give consistent answers when it’s time to say what it actually means to “feel your feelings.” In some videos, people advise others to focus on the body; some say to label your emotions; and some say to accept what you're feeling without adding narratives or stories.
“You have to feel your feelings, not just intellectualize them,” one video reads, paired with the audio of a Schitt’s Creek episode where Moira tells David to “fold in the cheese” but offers no explanation.
“What does that mean? What does ‘feel your feelings’ mean?” the woman in the video asks.
“You feel them.”
“I understand that, but how do you feel them? Do you just sit there and wait for them to come? Do I have to journal more? What do you do?”
“I cannot teach you everything.”
There’s a reason why the adage of “feel your feelings” is so complex: It gets at the multiple components that make up our emotions, from thoughts to interpretation, language, and physical sensations. By asking what piece of the emotion is really the “true” emotion, this trend picks up on a philosophical and scientific debate that has lasted hundreds, if not thousands, of years (and about which there is still disagreement).
The implicit idea in “feeling your feelings” is that talking about your emotions—“intellectualizing” them to your therapist or to yourself—is not the same thing as feeling them. The umbrella term prioritizes the physical and subjective aspect of emotions over the cognitive. The trouble is that these aspects may be difficult to tease apart, and attempting to do so isn’t a hard-and-fast rule for a healthy emotional life depending on what your emotional habits are already and the culture you live in.
The advice to feel your feelings can be a good reminder not to spend too much time in your head. Ruminating, catastrophizing, and avoiding physical sensations can be a common behavior in people with anxiety or other conditions. It’s also the case that how we sense our bodies can in turn affect our feelings. But thinking is a powerful tool that influences our emotions in both negative and positive ways: It can also help reframe and reappraise situations to make us feel better. Leaving to the philosophers which part of an emotion is the “real” emotion, when it comes to well-being, utilizing all aspects of our emotions is likely the best way to feel not just our feelings but also the many dimensions of them.
In the 19th century, not many people agreed with James that emotions were primarily physical. “Within 10 years of the publication of James’s original theory, it had been systematically rebutted in almost all the leading philosophical and psychological journals,” historian of emotions Thomas Dixon wrote. Or, as the philosopher Robert Solomon wrote in 1976, “The feelings no more constitute or define the emotion than an army of fleas constitute a homeless dog.”
The primacy of bodily sensations for emotions has only gained renewed focus in the last few decades, most publicly through work from Northeastern neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett and her theory of constructed emotion. Today, both camps still exist: Psychologists René Rosfort and Giovanni Stanghellini called these groups “feeling theories” versus “cognitive theories.”
“Feeling your feelings” videos manage to capture this debate nicely: They similarly break down emotional experiences into cognitive aspects versus physical or experiential and ask which is the most important, which comes first, and how these pieces influence our lived experience.
“These videos are getting at a really interesting part of emotions, which is their inner complexity,” said Erik Nook, a clinical psychologist at Yale University who studies emotions.
But they go a step further and imply a kind of Jamesian hierarchy: that your true feelings exist in your body or subjective experience, not in your thinking or analytic brain. They caution that there are consequences from thinking or talking too much about emotions: You become detached from your real feelings.
This is also not a new idea. These TikTokkers are echoing an old Freudian construct of intellectualization as a defense mechanism. Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter and a fellow psychoanalyst, wrote in 1937 about how teenagers intellectualize in order keep their hormone-driven emotions at bay. In a 2014 paper on intellectualization, psychologist Kyle Arnold offered a more contemporary example of a stereotypical person who overutilizes intellectualization: Mr. Spock from Star Trek.
“Spock is an alien who characteristically makes choices based exclusively on logical thought processes and does not permit any affective experience to enter into his awareness,” Arnold wrote. “For Mr. Spock, affect is simply not experienced at all and has no role in his decisions or relationships. Whenever he is faced with expressions of human feelings, he dismissively replies that these are ‘illogical.’”
The way we think can powerfully interact with emotions: It can distance us from the emotions but also intensify or reframe them. In the 1960s, emotions researcher Richard Lazarus had participants watch a distressing film of genital operations on puberty-age boys, but he placed some in an “intellectualization” group. Those in that group listened to an introduction before the film and a narration that ran alongside the video that took “the position of the anthropologist, who, like the viewer, was observing an interesting specimen of human behavior and describing it analytically,” Lazarus wrote. No references were made to feelings of any kind. Lazarus found that in general (but not for everyone) including such intellectualizing elements reduced the emotional response to the video, based on both physical responses and self-reporting.
But to Lazarus, a proponent of the role of cognition in emotion, intellectualization wasn’t just a defense mechanism used to shut down our feelings but rather a process of cognitive appraisal—what you think, in other words, directly shapes what you actually feel. This idea is the foundation for many effective treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy.
Yet the way that language impacts what we feel is also variable. High emotion differentiation, or the ability to specifically identify different feelings, has been shown to lead teenagers to be less affected by stressful life events. But in a recent study Nook and his colleagues tested to see if people who labeled what they felt would be better at regulating their emotions—with the hypothesis that it would. “We found the opposite every single time,” Nook said. “People who labeled their emotions had a much harder time at regulating.”
The study shows how, in some circumstances, cognitive labeling can backfire. Nook said that one explanation might be that naming an emotion “might ‘crystallize’ one’s affective state, making it more difficult to modify through emotion regulation,” they wrote.
“I think it’s getting at some of the juicy complexity of emotion that these videos are getting at as well,” Nook said. “In some instances, thinking about your feelings, conceptualizing it, labeling it might actually crystallize that emotion and make it a little bit harder to change—in the short term.” That doesn’t mean it’s never a good idea to label or think about emotions either. It’s probably about how people name their emotions, not just whether they do so, Nook said.
The truth is that all these emotional tools exist jumbled up together all the time. Even if you wanted to prioritize one aspect of your emotional life, it can be very hard to differentiate the feeling of the emotion, acting on emotions, regulating emotions, talking about them, and labeling them. People who rely heavily on cognition to explore their emotions still have bodies those emotions are contained in; people who center the body still use language or inner monologues to understand what they’re feeling.
“Even when you are just accepting and observing, oftentimes you are still bringing in language to describe to yourself, what is it that you are feeling?” Chentsova Dutton said. “So in some ways, I think completely removing language from emotions is a bit of a fool's errand. They are intricately connected in our lives.”
Chentsova Dutton pointed out how cultural variation influences aspects of emotion that different people focus on and attend to. “Feeling your feelings” assumes that everyone has the same emotional experience to begin with, or access to the particular kinds of emotional expression that they’re referencing—which is not the case. Even within the same culture, people have differing interoceptive abilities, when you feel your inner sensations.
“Some cultures may say it's really important to track how your body is feeling. Pay attention to that; that gives you a lot of information,” Chentsova Dutton said. ““Others may say pay attention to the subjective experience: Do you like it or do you dislike it? Others may say pay attention to what it does to your relationship with other people: Does this state make it easier or harder for you to connect to others? Others may say, look, emotions are less reliable. Notice what it does to your thoughts.”
In that sense, “feeling your feelings” can be seen as a product of a very specific cultural perspective: that of Westerners on TikTok who lean toward an overly cognitive and analytical fixation on their emotions. On TikTok, psychological jargon is everywhere. It’s part of the vernacular—to the point where it’s been criticized as over-pathologization. It could be that the advice to “feel your feelings” is reaching an audience that’s mired in the cognitive side of emotions, so it feels like very helpful advice.
In East Asian cultures, for instance, where research has shown there to be more of a focus on the body, the motto to feel your feelings might feel irrelevant. Chentsova Dutton said she’d be curious to see how these videos were received by people in cultural contexts where emotions are just not prioritized to the same extent.
“It might be like when my yoga instructor would say, ‘Class, contract your kidneys’ or something like that,” she said. “And I would think, ‘That's a really interesting instruction, but I have no idea what to do with it.’ I think in some cultural contexts, ‘feel your feelings’ is going to sound like that.”
So what part of emotions should we focus on? What we think, or what we feel? What’s the relationship between what you experience and what you think?
It’s probably all useful at different times, Nook said. There can be situations where attending to emotions without rushing to do a lot of cognitive massaging can be helpful. Other times, using our mental faculties to interpret or reappraise will be better.
Intellectualization is not a word found in clinical practice anymore, Nook said. Instead, it might be called “experiential avoidance.” “In a lot of anxiety disorders and psychopathology broadly, you'll see people having an aversion to their own physical sensations,” he said. This is where treatments that involve exposure therapy come into play, to help people feel and tolerate the sensations that come up in their body. Practices like mindfulness or breathwork can be beneficial for this as well.
“If you fit the class of people who are consistently separate from what you're feeling, disembodied, maybe this is good advice,” Nook said. “But if you're handling your emotions effectively, then it doesn't mean you're doing a bad job if you take a moment to conceptualize what you're feeling.”
Cognition and perception are both elements of the often messy phrase emotional intelligence. “Emotional intelligence is still a bit of a Rorschach,” said David Caruso, a psychologist who co-founded the Emotional Intelligence Skills Group and is a research affiliate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
Caruso and his colleagues describe emotional intelligence very specifically as four emotion abilities based on the work of psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer. Briefly, they are the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; the ability to have your emotions facilitate thought; the ability to understand emotions, alongside their specific causes and trajectories; and lastly, the ability to manage your emotions in a variety of situations. Emotional intelligence is not just perceiving emotions alone or understanding them alone, but all those skills put together.
“What emotion-regulation literature tells us is that the most important thing is that a person has a really rich toolkit of how they deal with their emotions,” Chentsova Dutton said. “They are all, in some situations, effective. What I worry about with these videos is they are saying, `Don't use that tool; use this tool.’”
Handling your emotions in one way all the time is probably a bad idea, Nook said. What these videos might do is help people to recognize emotional complexity and inquire what tools they frequently rely on—whether that means constantly getting in your head about what you’re feeling or, on the flip side, avoiding any critical thinking at all.
The prompt to “feel your feelings” not only brings conversation of emotions to the fore but also organically reproduces the same discussions about our emotions that have troubled people for a long time. Whether we have definite answers about the best way to feel, we do know that we share many of the same feelings about feelings.
“Scholars have had all these theories of emotions, and we debate about them,” Chentsova Dutton said. “But we forget that people have their private theories too, and they're always updating them. In these videos, you see them doing just that.”
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