For many of us, feelings are the wild and uncontrolled winds of our internal experiences. Are we aware of them? Are we driven by them? Do we have the right amount of them?
Unlike thoughts – which speak in a language we can understand – emotions may jump around our skin, flickering and hiding, overwhelming and blinding. We aim to translate them to each other and to ourselves, but are stumped by the best method – through art? Yelling? Presents or presence? Silence?
Attending the show of our feelings is made extra difficult by the various social and cultural rules we may be subject to. Do you belong to an identity that is often seen as being too emotional (so you may underplay them), or one that is labelled unemotional (so you avoid them)? How much do you follow these rules in your life? Does the character of your career require you to funnel emotions, and which ones do you resist?
How did your parents use their feelings to create the climate in which you grew? Do you want to recreate that environment, are you looking for the relief of rain from a desert childhood?
Being able to express one’s emotions requires a quick self awareness to pin them down, followed by a muscular stubbornness to pry open the doors of your heart and march them past the heaps of shame and guilt that would try to stop you.
For those of us with mental illness and trauma, this process may be even harder. I have felt that with each twist I took to look back upon my aching, a great wave was ever rising to engulf me – it may feel that once noted, our emotions will consume us, that we will be buried in the dust storm of grief and aloneness (to this I’ve found it helpful to consider that I “am the sky, everything else is just the weather”).
And yet, being able to express your feelings is integral to living a happy life, dealing with conflicts, strengthening relationships, and getting what you really want.
The truth is that your body and mind are reacting to the memories of your life whether you notice them or not. No matter the stoic robot we may like to personify – our hearts will be moved by the warm sunset of love, and the shocking night of loss.
To this end, I would suggest that finding strategies to express your emotions is a way to learn to surf, and in a stable instability, to reach out and find a friend. Here are some of the strategies that I use:
Start With Your Body
Since “feel” is a verb with multiple meanings, it can be easiest to use its less complicated one to begin. Perhaps I cannot find what I am feeling feeling, but I can tell you if my head hurts.
Focusing on the messages of the body can be a very useful way to anchor oneself during a mental storm. If you are in a particular fog, and cannot think clearly – aim your attention back to your limbs, your shoulders, your jaw. What is your body feeling right now? Are you hungry? Well rested? Do your knees ache?
Focusing on the body may allow greater internal awareness – but can also improve external communication. Since it is more easily accepted to describe our physical needs in society (than our emotional ones), we can practice expressing “how we feel” in this way.
The more you can practice saying “my chest is feeling tight right now,” the smoother it will feel to say “I am terrified.” And this can lead you to being more comfortable directly telling people how they are making you react.
Use New Words
Some resistance to expressions of emotion can come from the words themselves. We may feel deep love for a friend, but are worried about how uncomfortable using the word “love” can make things. Or (as is my case), the words of caring and affection may have been used by someone who was not loving towards us, and so we are guarded against them, considering them to lose their value and having a distrust towards those that say them.
In these cases I think a thesaurus may be very useful! There are a wide range of descriptions for how we are feeling that don’t get used enough. Keeping a long list of words for emotions can be a very helpful tool for us to express ourselves more accurately. As well, in reading the list we may be able to identify what we are actually feeling.
Moving beyond these words, we can make use of the symptoms of our feelings. Sometimes when I am overwhelmed with gratitude and love for my boyfriend or a friend, I will only be able to express it by saying what I think about who they are, or how I am changed by who they are. Things like, “I start walking faster when I get off the subway because I can feel that I am closer to you,” or “the way that you take the time to send me new music whenever you find it really shows how cool, thoughtful, and filled with good taste you are.”
If you are caught in the discomfort of the deep heavy words of an existential crisis, finding new ways to describe what exactly you are feeling, or how those feelings are making you act can better help you get the support you need.
Reasoning Not Required
To express an emotion, you do not need to provide cause and receipt. I warn that there are those in our lives who will always question the validity of our experiences (to avoid their own discomfort). But, I hope there are also those who know that emotions (like thoughts) arise from a strange range of reasons – but that their arrival is its own validation. Each feeling has a reason, we may not know what it is, and we do not need to investigate it for the feeling to exist.
Unfortunately this tends to create a sense that emotions and reason are seperate, and that we must “pick sides.”
But, I have found that the closer I looked towards my reason – the more feelings I revealed, and that when I welcome the full range of my emotions – I can finally access a sense of logic.
If you have been able to finish the sentence of “I feel…” with some careful and significant word, then that is enough. We may push you to understand why – especially when we are worried for you – but the answer can always be “I don’t know.”
There have been mornings when I have woken up in tears, glued down by a deep depression. What could be the cause? Who knows what nightmares my mind may have tormented itself with, and for what reason? When I search for the logic here I may end up choosing something that might reasonably make me feel depressed, and in telling myself that story I end up sustaining the feelings because of this new cause to be upset.
May we all get greater clarity to understand the sources of our suffering, but may we also stand in the pouring of a mood – not demanding a cause but that it rains sometimes.
Know When to Wallow
That being said, passive wallowing can be a dangerous entertainment. When a mood comes, and we express it, we may then feel tied to stick in it. If I say in November, “I’m anxious and sad,” does that have to last all winter?
One very useful thing a roommate said to me once was that I “didn’t have to be depressed.” If I were to hear this at other times I might have felt like he was saying “come on, just get over it,” (which certainly wouldn’t have helped) but in that moment it was the permission that I needed to stop wallowing.
You do not need to pay attention to your feelings at all hours. You do not even need to have feelings all the time. There are days between memories, and there are idle moments in a restful neutral.
If you find your heartache slipping out for a bit, let it go, get up, and figure out what you want to do now. If you’re not actively suppressing your emotions, then they will run their course on their own.
Here I would like to note that wallowing – or panicking – can be extremely dangerous. Emotions can be overwhelming, and when they get away from me I have been led to the literal edge of my ability to cope with them. In these cases it is important to have external pulls to drag us out from a dark feeling spell that might last years. Therapists, some types of medication, exercise, pets, friends, and changes of scenery can act as these refreshers.
Don’t Schedule Your Moods
What about those good emotions that we must wear on special days? And why do vacations with loved ones always lead to some tension? When we schedule feelings of intimacy and connectedness – we may create expectations so heavy that we spend the precious moment irritated by their weight.
Birthdays, anniversaries, dates, and weddings all have their specific instructions of things you should feel. There’s a script of what’s got to happen, and our feelings better get on board with it.
But feelings are reactions, and fighting them can cause a sense of rebellion, disappointment, and inauthenticity that may end up affecting the actual events. You will undoubtedly feel “bad feelings” on good days as well as the opposite – the meaning that you find in those moments can be independent of the conflicting feelings that sat in your bouquet.
So avoid scheduling feelings, and be honest about the pressure and expectations of certain events. Saying things like, “I know I’m supposed to be really excited to graduate, but all I can feel is fear for my future, and sadness to leave my friends” will help us get out of our heads on special days and find a way to be there more closely with the people sharing them with us.
Most of us already use social media as a way to express some bits of ourselves. Depending on our goals with it, we do this to varying degrees of authenticity and depth.
The currency with which we deal are “likes” and reactions to our expressions. So what if my feelings are annoying? What if people think I’m over-sharing, or being fake? What if I look lame as shit.
But the benefit of social media is that it can act like a testing ground for our relationship building and confidence to share. While it seems high stakes, the truth is that follower counts and likes (for most of us) have no real bearing on our lives. Even still, how often are people really interacting with your posts? When they do (in a non-viral setting), how much do their reactions affect who you are and how your life is going?
I have experimented over the years with trying to express what I’m actually feeling in the moment when I post on my social media accounts. It is spotty – and sometimes replaced by an urge to appear successful, or to get so – but I can conclude that each time I am vulnerable enough to share more authentically, I get a glimpse of endless connection (that was the promised goal of social media anyways).
After sharing my brushes with suicide years ago, I had deep and dear conversations with strangers and far-friends who felt like me. Admitting how difficult my work and school are – and how much I feel like I don’t belong – has opened me up to mentorship from others who have gone through the same thing. And by sharing what makes me insecure, I confront the fear I have of them being in the spotlight, and gain some internal power.
Guard Your Depth
That being said, as I express my feelings, they are sometimes shunned and teased. Unfortunately, we are not all in the same mood at the same time – and you may get silly replies to your seriousness, and vice versa.
At these times – it can be useful to explain where we were sitting and acknowledge the difference in tone – but more importantly to not take it personally.
If you find that your sharing leads people to be deeply offended, then this is a good lesson for you to take with you. If our opinions and feelings cause suffering to those around us, it is a message that they need to be further investigated and discussed – not that we should shrink back and grow bitter with them. It is possible that there was hate lost in translating fear, and it would be useful to speak more openly about what is really going on. Our feelings do not exist alone – and when we share them we must respect the emotions of others that may react to ours.
Through the sensitive journey with our own feelings, may we stand our authentic ground, and not lose all the distance we travelled to be honest. Our feelings will change, but our commitment to expressing them (even just to ourselves) can be more constant, and this is where we find our courage to really live.
I really believe that expressing ourselves with greater and greater authenticity will enrich our social lives, careers, and our mental health. If you feel differently, I think you should express that!
“…I want to unfold. I don’t want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie.Rainer Maria Rilke