Feeling Our Way

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How to Tell What Someone Feels (Don’t Ask)

People can be only as good at reporting emotions as they have learned to be.

A crucial skill in becoming a therapist, or a person, is to find out what another person’s experience has been like. Was an interpretation useful? Did she enjoy the dinner? What was it like for him when I came late?

Because we feel so privileged with respect to knowledge about our private affairs, and because we resent it as undignified if someone else presumes to tell us what we feel, we generally observe the social norms of tact and distance. We ask people what an experience was like for them instead of telling them. The person herself is in a good position to observe her emotional reactions and her thoughts, but she’s not exactly objective. Also, if there’s any sort of political, social, or economic agenda at play, she’s likely to distort her description to serve those needs. In other words, she won’t want to irritate you if you have power over her, and she won’t want to be seen as rude or to cost herself anything.

Even if she is completely committed to honesty, she can only be as good an observer and reporter of her emotions and reactions as she has learned to be. We learn to report our emotions as children by living with people who infer our emotions by observing us, and then they teach us the name of the emotion. If they see a child trying unsuccessfully to unwrap a piece of candy, they tell her she’s frustrated. (If they’re behaviorists, they tell her she’s in extinction, and then they wonder why their kids are so odd.) If they see her brother snatch the candy from her, they tell her she’s angry. Much later, when she tells you she’s frustrated that you started a session late (or showed up late for a dinner), she means that it’s like not being able to unwrap candy. If she tells you she’s angry, she means it’s like having something snatched away.

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Many girls are not told that they are angry when something is snatched away. Many girls are told that they are tired. So if you are late and she tells you it’s not a big deal because she’s tired and can’t make a long night of it, what are you to make of that? Another problem is that we can only report our thoughts about what happened if we have had the experience of sharing our thoughts and finding that they are welcome. If certain kinds of thoughts are punished or rejected by parents, we will learn not to have them (or not to share them). We can only be as good reporters of our thoughts as we have learned to be.

Besides the assumption of shared vocabulary when asking someone how they experienced you or any other situation, another problem is that the vocabulary word (the name of the emotion) cannot possibly convey as much interesting and useful information as the analogy conveys. It would be much better if she told you, “It reminds me of my brother snatching my candy for some reason,” or, “It reminds me of not being able to unwrap Kisses.” That’s a point agreed on by psychoanalysts (“let’s see where your thoughts go from here”), behaviorists (verbal behavior is controlled, like any behavior, by discriminative stimuli and escapes punishment via metaphor) and systems theorists (patterns matter more than names of patterns).

So why not skip the step of asking? (Or, if necessary for politeness, ask from politeness but don’t overly credit the answer.) Instead, observe the other person—and get her talking. If our lateness was important to her, she is bound to respond to it, either by behaving differently or by communicating about it metaphorically. I call the former, theater, and the latter, poetry. She will show us or tell us all we need to know about her reactions, if only we are willing to listen. Of course, when the thing she is reacting to is some imperfection of ours, the last thing we want to do is listen. To want to do so, we need to have experience with the fullness and richness of relationships built on truthful mutuality. You can only get that with another person.

The next step is to stop asking ourselves what we think and feel. Instead, if we observe ourselves with an affectionate, challenging, sturdy, curious attitude, we can discover our own bits of theater and poetry and find out how we really feel about things and not be so subject to our master narratives and party lines. That’s called freedom.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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