The meaning and use of “(sich) fühlen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time, we’ll take a closer look at


It’s not a big reveal that fühlen is to feel.
The problem is that you can’t just translate them one to one and mistakes with fühlen are actually super common. I mean, in a grammatical sense.
Here’s the thing: there are three somewhat distinct uses for the English to feel. The first one is talking about what we feel (perceiving something), then there’s the one about how we feel (perceiving ourselves)  and last but not least the one that’s about how something feels (something is perceived). 
Here’s an example for each one:

  1. I feel an itch.
  2. I feel happy.
  3. The towel feels soft.

Now, why are we making these three groups? Well, because they are different. At least different enough for German to be like “Oh, oh, oh, hooooold up. I soooooo need three different verbs here.”
People all around the globe were like “What the hell man?”.
God and all the Gods were like “What the hell, man?!”.
“What the hell, ‘man?” howled the wind
“What the hell, ‘man?” growled the bear.
“What the hell, ‘man?” sang the birds, high up in the air.
And finally German sighed and said
“Fine. I’ll try, I’ll try it with one. But I need three structures, a prefix and a reflexive to get it done.”
And that’s the mess we’ll look at today,
so follow me. I know the way.
“Uh… will that all be in rhymes now, Emanuel?”
Nah, don’t worry. Just old fashioned ‘splaining. 

Let’s start with the bare version.


Fühlen just by itself is the counterpart of the first use of to feel: feeling something. The “what”.
It doesn’t really matter what that something is. It can be something external like heat or wind but it can also something internal like anger or compassion. Or even just an “idea” or fart… er… I mean fact.

  • Thomas  fühlt den Wind auf seiner Haut.
  • Thomas feels the wind on his skin.
  • Ich fühle die Wut in mir hochsteigen.
  • I feel the rage rising inside me.
  • Das wird eine gute Party, ich kann es fühlen.
  • That is gonna be a good party, I can feel it.

  • Ich fühle, dass du sauer bist.
  • I feel that you’re angry.

Simple enough right? But there’s a catch!
No, not some crazy grammar twist. The thing with this use of fühlen is simply that it’s usually not very idiomatic.
As if the three different fühlen-phrasings weren’t enough, German also has spüren, which is ALSO to feel. Yeah… I can sense your frustration :).
Spüren is the more primal, raw, direct side of to feel. Kind of like to sense, only that sensing sounds more like a Zen master while spüren sounds like a hunter… no idea if that makes sense.
Anyway, we’ll talk about spüren in detail some other time so we won’t go into detail now. But at least to my ears spüren would sound better in all the examples that we just had (German native speakers please don’t hesitate to call me out if you disagree :).
Bottom line is: the stand-alone fühlen is only used in the sense of what we feel. And because spüren is usually the more idiomatic pick for that idea the stand-alone fühlen is kind of… not so useful.
That changes completely once we add a self reference.

sich fühlen

Self references are annoying, but this one kind of makes sense. You might have guessed. Sich fühlen is what you need if you want to talk about HOW you feel.

  • “[Wie] fühlst du dich?”
    “Ich fühl mich [___].”
  • “[How] do you feel?”
    “I feel [ ___ ]

That’s the core phrasing and insert anything from just a word to a full phrase.

  • Ich fühl’ mich heute [super].
  • I feel [great] today.
  • Sorry, aber bei dem Service fühl’ ich mich [ein bisschen verarscht].
  • Sorry, but with this kind of customer service I feel like I’m being had/I feel cheated.
  • Thomas  fühlt sich, [als ob er den ganzen Tag nichts gegessen hat.]
  • Thomas feel [as if he hasn’t eaten all day.]
  • “Ich fühl mich [wie ein Einhorn], dass seit zwei Wochen kein Nougatcroissant gegessen hat.”
    “Ohhh, da kann ich mich total reinversetzen.”
  • “I feel [like a unicorn] that hasn’t eaten a nougat croissant in two weeks.”
    “Ohhh,  I can totally relate.”

Oh boy, these examples.
Anyway, this last phrasing, the “I feel like” is  interesting because it can actually express two things about you. Look at these two examples:

  • I feel like shit.
  • I feel like soup.

The first one is a comparison, the second one on the other hand is expressing that you WANT soup. And as usual, English doesn’t bother making a distinction.  “No time! Captain Context will take care of it.”
German on the other hand, well, you know how German is with this stuff…  “Oh Gooood. Oh gaaaawwwwd. Two ideas. TWO!!  I need to make that explicit. I need to mark that.”
And so we have two different prepositions. Wie is for comparisons and nach is for wants.

  • Ich fühl’ mich wie ein 20-jähriger.
  • I  feel like a twenty year old.
  • Ich fühl’ mich nach Suppe.
  • I feel like soup.

Now, soup is a thing, an entity. But we can also want “activities”.

  • I don’t feel like going to the gym.

And at least the veteran learners among you will have an inkling that we can’t just use nach here. We need the da-word danach.

  • Ich fühl’ mich nicht danach, ins Fitnessstudio zu gehen.

The good news is,  you don’t really need to use this complicated phrasing. Because for the idea of wanting,  Lust haben or Bock haben are the more common options anyway.

  • Ich hab’ Lust auf Suppe.
  • Ich hab’ keinen Bock ins Fitnessstudio zu gehen.

And while we’re at exceptions… to feel about, the idea of opinion,  would be translated using denken. Fühlen wouldn’t make any sense here.

  • “How do you feel about sand?”
    “What kind of question is that?”
  • “Was denkst du über Sand?”
    “Was ist das für eine Frage?

So this is how you talk about HOW you feel; you use fühlen with a self reference.  And just in case you’re wondering: unfortunately it does sound pretty wrong and confusing to a native speaker if the self reference is missing.

  • Ich fühl’ gut.

This looks like “I feel good” but it sounds like you’re grading your sensual perception. Like… “I can’t see very well, but I feel well.” Damn it, I can’t even demonstrate in English. I hope you understand what I mean.
But yeah, the self reference is really important and you have to have to get used to it.
And I have just the song for you. “Ich fühl mich wohl” is essentially the same as and this catchy tune will not only make the pattern feel familiar, it’ll also make you feel better. And give you the latest dance moves, Cam Newton is using. Dabbing is so last season ;)

So now all our cells are happy, let’s make face the harsh reality by moving on  move on to the last fühlen-phrasing, the one with the prefix.  And if you’re now like “Wohoo, no more self reference.” then I have news for you. The self reference stays. It’s a prefix AND a self reference.
Man, it must feel awful to learn German sometimes :)

sich anfühlen

And if you paid attention in the beginning, then you already know what this is about (don’t worry if you don’t… no one pays attention in beginnings). Sich anfühlen is the construction you need when you want to talk about how something feels. Like… how it will be perceived by someone who can actually feel.

  • Das Handtuch fühlt sich super weich an.
  • The towel feels super soft.

Why the self reference and why  an ?  Well, we could say that an comes from the idea that something is touched and sich refers back to what is perceived but honestly, just take the phrasing for what it is…  an overcomplicated mess that’ll give you a headache.
Let’s just look at some examples to get a feel for it.

  • Es hat sich komisch angefühlt, wieder im alten Büro zu sein.
  • It felt weird being in the old office again.
  • Der Oberfläche fühlt sich rau an.
  • The surface feels rough.
  • Es fühlt sich so an, als ob es erst gestern war.
  • It feels like it was only yesterday.
  • Es ist egal, wie etwas ist. Was zählt ist, wie es sich anfühlt. 
  • It doesn’t matter, how something is. What matters is how it feels.
  • Wie fühlt es sich an
  • How does it feel

Now, how wrong would it be to forget the an for example? Well, it would be quite confusing. Here’s an example:

  • The shirt from unicorn wool feels like a bath in warm milk.
  1. Das Shirt aus Einhornwolle  fühlt sich wie ein Bad in warmer Milch an.
  2. Das Shirt [    ]  fühlt sich wie ein Bad in warmer Milch an.

The first one is how you would understand the English sentence. The second one sounds like the shirt is sentient and it currently feels like it is a bath of warm milk. And shirts from unicorn wool actually ARE sentient so this is suuuuper confusing!!!! My gaaaaawd.
Okay seriously though – English relies on context and it works perfectly well, but you gotta to admit that the following two sentences express quite different things.

  • Thomas   feels good.
  • The shirt feels good.

These two sentence are NOT the same thing. Yes, the context makes it clear but German are not used to referring to context here. Each of the fühlen-phrasings has a pretty clear cut meaning to them and if one is used out of place, then that sounds really really really.
Yeah… kind of like that ;).
All right.

Now, there’s one little puzzle piece that we need to complete our picture: the noun das Gefühl. 

  • “Wie war die Prüfung?”
    “Ich weiß noch nicht, aber ich habe ein gutes Gefühl.”
  • “How was the exam?”
    “I don’t know yet, but I have a good feeling.
  • Maria hat Gefühle für ihren Chef.
  • Maria has feelings for her boss.
  • Ich vertraue auf mein Bauchgefühl.
  • I trust my gut feeling.

There are some more cool compounds with it like Mitgefühl (compassion) or the famous Sprachgefühl, but what matters for us today is the fact that das Gefühl is used to translate one particular use of the English verb to feel. Which one?
The one that talks about you having an inkling. Like… you feel like something is the case but you’re not quite sure yet. And instead of using one of the phrasings with fühlen, you would say das Gefühl haben.

  • Thomas hat das Gefühl, dass Maria mit Absicht schnarcht.
  • Thomas feels like Maria is snoring on purpose.
  • Ich hatte das Gefühl, dass du dich langweilst.
  • I felt like you were bored.

So now that we have all we need to properly translate to feel in German, it is time for … a coffee.
Lean back, sip coffee, gaze out the window for a bit. Or chat with a colleague if you’re at work. Just relax and forget about all that complicated German stuff.
And then come back here… for a little exercise.



First, a quick overview over what you need:


Expresses “what you feel”. This is the one you’ll need the least because usually spüren is more idiomatic for these contexts.

sich fühlen

Talks about “how you feel”.
If you want to say that you feel like doing something then Lust haben or Bock haben are more idiomatic.
If you talk about that you have an inkling of something you’d use “das Gefühl haben”.
And if you talk about opinion (feel about), then go with denken.

sich anfühlen wie

Talks about “how something feels” in the sense of “which sensations does it evoke”.
The solutions are at the end of the quizz and also, I’ll show them as audio.
Viel Spaß :)

And? How’d you do?  Was it easy, or did you have to think a lot? Let me know in the comments how you did or if some of them are unclear.
Oh, and don’t worry if you made mistakes. That’s normal, my exercises are usually not exactly empowering :).
Anyway, so that’s it for today and I think you’ll now make less mistakes with fühlen. There still are some uses of to feel that I didn’t talk about, so if there’s a use you’re not sure how to translate, let me know in the comments. And that goes for all other questions, too, of course.
Except my weight. That ain’t nobody’s business.
I’m out for today. Hope you enjoyed it and see you next time.
And don’t forget…

Jede Zelle meines Körpers ist glücklich,
Jede Körperzelle fühlt sich wohl. 

further reading:

Word of the Day – “der Bock”

5 6 votes
Article Rating