Catching A Cold Sucks. But Catching Feelings? That Actually Rules
You should never feel ashamed about having a crush.
After Mallory*, 26, hooked up with someone she met through a mutual friend, she was curious to see where things might go with him romantically. When she casually mentioned this to her friend a few days after the hookup, she thought they’d be on board. “I expected the usual excitement you get when you tell a friend you’re interested in someone,” Mallory recalls. Instead, “they got all awkward and told me not to make things weird.”
Mallory was frustrated at her friend’s immediate dismissal of her feelings. “I was a little disappointed they didn’t seem to take it seriously,” she tells Elite Daily. She didn’t want to be perceived as having “caught feelings,” lest her friends (and hookup partner) start thinking she was overly attached. “It feels like any interaction I have with this guy post-hookup will be taken out of context to mean more than it does,” she says — although she wasn’t even sure she wanted to date him. She just wanted to explore their connection.
Now, looking back on the situation, Mallory feels like she got stuck in an unfortunate stereotype. “I think the idea of ‘catching feelings’ gets exaggerated to an extreme, when in reality there’s a huge difference between catching feelings and full-on falling in love,” she tells Elite Daily. “If I show interest in a guy after hooking up, the stereotype says that I’ve suddenly become this obsessed, clingy girl, when in reality, maybe I just felt a good vibe and want to see if there’s something more.”
Blame it on the prevalence of hookup culture or the ambiguity of modern dating — whatever the cause, it can be really freaking hard to admit that you have feelings for someone. The term “catching feelings,” which sounds more like catching a cold than anything fun or romantic, doesn’t make this any easier. In fact, it can do the opposite, stigmatizing the extremely normal phenomenon of… literally just having a crush.
What Does It Mean To “Catch Feelings”?
The term “catching feelings” is used to describe a situation in which one person (usually accidentally) gets emotionally invested in a relationship that started out casually. Say you’ve been hooking up with someone on the DL, and even though it might have started out as a no-strings-attached fling, you develop an interest in something more. The “catch” part implies that it happened against your will — like a fire, these feelings came out of nowhere, and now you have to figure out how to put them out.
According to Dictionary.com, the term has roots in hip hop music dating back to the 1990s. Rappers like Kodak Black and Lil Wayne used the phrase “catching feelings” in a negative sense — take Lil Wayne’s verse in 2017’s “Bank Account,” where he states in no uncertain terms, “When they catch feelings, I’m gone.” Since then, the term has grown to become synonymous with an FWB situation that gets messy when someone confesses an interest in the other person. Per this definition, catching feelings is something to avoid or risk ruining the existing dynamic.
If endless options are considered the default, then anything requiring a more substantive commitment can be seen as asking for too much.
Experts say there’s a biological component to the way we respond after a hookup, casual or otherwise. Sex therapist Moushumi Ghose describes “catching feelings” as the “hormonal shift that occurs when we begin a new intimate relationship that is typically physical.” You may have heard a thing or two about oxytocin, the hormone released during sex that heightens feelings of bonding and trust. This isn’t to say that having sex with someone will always make you want to date them (the prevalence of people having satisfying, pleasurable casual sex proves this isn’t the case), but it does help explain why you might feel unexpectedly emotionally vulnerable around someone you’ve been intimate with. As Mallory says, “If there’s enough attraction between two people to hook up, is it really that [much of a stretch] to consider there might be more of a connection?”
This is compounded by spending extended time with this person — say, an FWB you see regularly and hang out with outside of just hooking up. “This can be an emotional relationship, too, where we are spending time together and the bonding [or] attachment feelings start to creep in,” Ghose says. Before you know it, you’re imagining what a relationship with them could look like, especially if what you’re doing now isn’t so different from regular relationship stuff.
“Even when people have walls up and don’t intend to develop feelings for someone else, it can happen, and it does,” Kristen Lilla, LCSW, tells Elite Daily. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you certainly shouldn’t have to push down your feelings. “I think it’s best to communicate with someone you are catching feelings for,” she says. “It encourages a conversation to see if the other person feels the same way and how to navigate this development.” Sharing your feelings can be scary, especially if you have no idea how the other person might respond — but no matter the outcome, you can be proud you honored yourself by speaking up.
What About Catching Feelings For A Friend?
It’s not just sexual relationships that can spark unexpected romantic feelings — this can also happen with a friend. Claira, 21, was 19 when she started developing feelings for Montana, whom she had known platonically for years. After a lifetime of denying her queer identity because she feared her community wouldn’t accept her, these feelings were a “shock” to her at the time. “It took having to be face-to-face with feelings for someone to even be able to admit my own queerness to myself,” she says.
Montana confessed her own feelings for Claira in a letter, which sparked a relationship that has been going strong ever since. “Falling in love was like falling into myself for the first time,” Claira says. Catching feelings for Montana helped her recognize a part of herself she had been holding back.
With friendships, it can be especially nerve-wracking to have a conversation about your potential romantic interest. “Although we may have strong boundaries around what we hope our relationship with a particular person might look like, we can't always control the journey the relationship winds up taking,” queer dating coach Ariella Serur tells Elite Daily. LGBTQ+ friendships, she explains, are particularly likely to exist in a gray area in this regard. It’s not uncommon for platonic friendship feelings to grow into something more — after all, you already share a strong bond with this person — and once again, it’s nothing to be ashamed of if it happens.
Why Is “Catching Feelings” Usually Labeled As Bad?
Unfortunately, the social stigma around the idea of catching feelings can make it difficult to admit (or even recognize) when it’s happening to you. For Avery*, 26, it took months of hooking up with someone before she acknowledged her own developing feelings for him. “[I] told literally everyone I didn’t have feelings and it was just for fun, and looking back, it was definitely a defense mechanism,” she recalls. “I think I knew I had feelings but didn’t want it to be serious [because] feelings equal potential rejection.”
Now, Avery is stuck at a “crossroads” where she knows her feelings are too strong to keep things casual, but she still hasn’t told him how she feels. “It’s just like this weird thing hanging in the air,” she says. “I mentioned having a conversation [with him] but we haven’t had it yet.” She’s nervous about being vulnerable — something she thinks is particularly difficult thanks to the instant gratification and tyranny of choice provided by dating apps. If a culture of endless options is considered the default, then anything requiring a more substantive commitment can be seen as asking for too much.
But there’s nothing inherently wrong with feelings — they’re literally what make us human. “I wish more people would embrace feelings,” Lilla says. “It is what sets us apart from being robots, and it’s a privilege to experience a full range of feelings and emotions. Some feelings are more fun to feel, but we wouldn’t appreciate the highs if we never experienced the lows.” If you’ve developed a crush on someone, it means you like spending time with them and see potential for a deeper connection. Is that really so bad?
Ghose echoes this. “Our dating lives can be so ambiguous,” she says. “Catching feelings is a sign that you want this relationship to go at least to a deeper level, if not long-term.” Whether or not that was the original intent, there’s nothing to be ashamed of if this happens. Honesty, as scary as it can be, is usually the best policy. “The sooner the truth is out there, the sooner we can move on to the good stuff, whether it's with this person or with someone else who will reciprocate,” Ghose says. You deserve to be with someone who can give to you fully in return. It may not be the person you’re currently hooking up with, but recognizing your feelings is the first step toward figuring out whether this relationship is healthy for you.
Still, it’s reasonable to feel nervous about taking that step, to try not to be too hard on yourself. “There’s this weighing of power when you’re out there dating,” Mallory observes. “No one ever wants to admit that they have feelings because it makes you vulnerable. I’m definitely guilty of falling into this pattern, but I also know that you have to be real about how you feel if you ever want to make a genuine connection.” Rejection is possible, yes, but even that can ultimately help you reclaim your own needs and desires. If the other person isn’t ready to match your energy, the most loving thing you can do (for yourself and for them) is to walk away. Those feelings you “caught” are your power — they show you the kind of connection you’re capable of with someone you really like. Don’t settle for anything less.
*Name has been changed.
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Moushumi Ghose, MFT, sex therapist
Kristen Lilla, LCSW, sex therapist
Ariella Serur, queer dating coach