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6 Reasons Why You May Not Know What You're Feeling

Here are some eye-opening explanations for feelings you can't identify.

Key points

  • Not being able to express a feeling may indicate it is a mix of feelings that hasn't been identified yet.
  • A traumatic event can trigger someone into "freeze" mode where they shut down and avoid feeling.
  • Some people internally "disallow" certain emotions as a result of childhood experiences.
CCO Public Domain/Pixabay
Source: CCO Public Domain/Pixabay

It might seem almost unfathomable that someone might not recognize what they’re feeling. But the phenomenon is much more common than most people realize. This post will suggest no fewer than six causes to clarify why individuals can remain in the dark about what’s going on with them emotionally.

The one safe generalization that can be made about all emotions is that they don’t start out as feelings at all but as physiological sensations. So even when a person can’t comprehend their feeling experience, they’re typically aware of what’s happening to them physically. And this is true even when what they’re feeling is a “blank”—a strange numbness within them. For these “non-feeling,” dissociative experiences also warrant being understood emotionally.

So, standing “stone-cold” with expressionless eyes peering at a deceased relative in an open casket, apparently devoid of emotion, still represents a state of feeling. Moreover, apathy may literally mean “without feeling.” Yet, unquestionably, we’ve all experienced this curious “feelingless feeling” at some point in our lives.

Let’s take a closer look at why certain feelings can be difficult, or even impossible, to discern:

1. The feeling hasn’t yet crystallized. In these instances, you’re just beginning to feel something but it hasn’t yet come into focus. It’s not yet identifiable. You may feel something in your body—say, your throat tightening, a trembling in your limbs, an accelerated heartbeat. But in the moment you’ve yet to connect such physical activation to what provoked it.

2. You’re experiencing more than a single feeling, and they’re oddly “fused.” Here you’re beset by more than one emotion at once, and it may feel confusing for you can’t separate or distinguish between them. I’ve written two earlier posts on this subject: “Angry Tears” describes being enraged and, simultaneously, extremely hurt by some keenly felt injustice. One emotion signifies a disturbing sense of unfairness about the provocation, the other a sense of helplessness or dejection in reaction to it. Consequently, your face (and likely other parts of the body) registers both emotions.

The second piece I’ve done on this occurrence is titled: “Can You Feel Two Emotions at Once?” And if you’ve ever had a bittersweet feeling about something (who hasn’t?) then you already know something about what I call “bipolar emotions.” In such instances, you’re likely to vacillate between the two emotions. And having emotions “vie” with one another for dominance can also lead not only to a state of ambivalence but (understandingly enough) to procrastination as well.

3. It’s a feeling—or amalgam of feelings—that can’t be identified because the English language has no name for it. The “what’s-this-feeling?” phenomenon is somewhat new to the literature on emotions, but it’s become increasingly widespread. Consider these representative titles (and there are several):

“10 Extremely Precise Words for Emotions You Didn’t Even Know You Had” (Melissa Dahl, June 15, 2016);

“21 Emotions for Which There Are No English Words” (Emily Elert, Jan. 4, 2013);

“40 Words for Emotions You’ve Felt, But Couldn’t Explain” (Brianna Wiest, Feb. 16, 2016); and

“23 New Words for Emotions That We All Feel, but Can’t Explain” (Justin Gammill, June 7, 2015).

Take, for example, the Indonesian word malu, which—as defined by Tiffany Watt Smith in her scholarly work, The Book of Human Emotions (2016)—means “the sudden experience of feeling constricted, inferior and awkward around people of higher status.”

Or such neologisms as kenopsia: “The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend . . . an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative. . . .” And also, opia: The ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable” (from John Koenig’s semantically creative website "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows").

4. You’ve never had this feeling before. Children often can’t recognize what they’re feeling because they’ve not yet reached a level of development where they can transcribe their physical sensations into understandable feeling names.

Consider this poignant description of anxiety arousal in an 8-year-old:

It’s 8 a.m. and my heart’s racing. It’s that terrible, full-body sort of beat that makes your whole body shake and occasionally flutter from time to time from over-stimulation. For a second, it almost feels like excitement, until the belly flips start, my face heats up, and my neck starts to hurt and I feel a little dizzy. My breathing’s heavy and my palms and scalp are starting to sweat for reasons unbeknownst to me.

And the author, further describing this emotionally alarming experience, explains:

When you’re young, anxiety is like a smoke monster: It lurks behind you, this intangible thing that makes your heart beat and your head akimbo. It makes you wonder, nervously, “Why am I like this? What’s making me feel this way? How do I make it stop?” (“Here’s What Anxiety Feels Like When You Have No Idea What Anxiety Is,” Alicia Lutes, June 2, 2015)

CCO Public Domain/Pixabay
Source: CCO Public Domain/Pixabay

5. You’re experiencing dissociation: a total detachment from your feelings. When you effectively disengage from a feeling, you’re “dead” to it. Of all of Freud’s many defense mechanisms, dissociation is one of the most primitive. That’s why it typically originates in childhood. Not yet having developed the emotional resources to successfully cope with perceived threats, children are all too easily overwhelmed by external circumstances.

Unable to rationally talk themselves down from what feels perilous, and often not able to leave the troubling situation either, they’re left with no option other than disconnecting from their immediate reality. Desperately needing to flee from feelings experienced as intolerable, they contrive (however unconsciously) to escape the outer world through somehow prompting their “essence” to wander off to another time or place—even as, physically, they’re obliged to remain in the scene.

But whether you’re a child or not, when you dissociate you can’t feel anything. For all intents and purposes, you’re simply no longer there. So if you’ve just been traumatized, or life’s challenges have become more than you can bear, when you simply feel too vulnerable to actively cope with whatever is going on, your last-ditch ploy for protecting yourself is shutting down completely. And going numb renders you oblivious to the feelings masked by such emotional paralysis. In the moment, you’re not even capable of identifying what underlies this self-defensively applied anesthesia. And it’s all automatic—in a sense, effortless. In some of its many “applications,” it’s also universal.

The best example here might be suddenly learning, without the slightest warning, that your beloved, long-term partner has just been killed in a car crash. In that devastating moment, the excruciating pain of your loss would go markedly beyond your ability to take in. So you simply dissociate: drop into denial or freeze mode. And in such dire circumstances, what could possibly be a more powerful mechanism for emotional survival? There are times when, psychologically, such radical avoidance of reality can be essential.

Major depression involves a kind of numbing as well, so much so that some individuals, by dissociating from their emotional distress—better described here as apathy—may not even realize they’re depressed. Additionally, people who “lose” themselves in compulsive, addictive activities frequently do so in order to dissociate from burdensome feelings that otherwise might overwhelm their coping capacities.

6. The feeling has been internally censored: Even when you try to access it, you draw a blank. It’s not hard to imagine why many of us learn to “blacklist” certain feelings. If, for example, you grew up in a home where expressions of anger were forbidden and losing your temper could lead to substantial punishment, you learned—almost at a cellular level—that any outward displays of antagonism could threaten your all-important parental bond.

Or, if your family gave you the clear message that you weren’t to show sadness (and certainly not to cry), you might have felt compelled to push all sorrowful feelings underground. Feelings of fear and anxiety can be repressed as well if your caretakers let you know that such responses were signs of weakness or inadequacy, and therefore unacceptable.

Since nothing is more vital to a child than feeling securely connected to their parents, emotions that are disallowed must somehow be disguised or obliterated. I’ve seen therapy clients chuckle when they were sad, or appear nonchalant when it was obvious that, inwardly, they were trembling with fear.

My favorite example of such “vanquished” feelings comes from a workshop I once did. In it, a participant wondered aloud why whenever she felt the need to cry something “came over her” and the urge disappeared. Moreover, when something exasperated her and she was about to raise her voice, that impulse, too, got immediately extinguished. When I asked her whether her parents were okay with her expressing sorrow, without even having to think about it she emphatically answered, “No!” And she responded the same way when I asked about whether her parents’ gave her any license to show anger. Obviously, she’d been left in a double bind. Even though she could feel inside her each of these emotions stirring up, she’d very early learned—self-defensively—to turn them off.

Therapists would call this abrupt emotional expulsion suppression. But going a level below this—where just being aware of the feeling is inextricably linked with parental disapproval, rejection, or abandonment—some individuals, feeling gravely threatened just by having this feeling experience, are driven to eliminate it entirely. And doing so is what’s called repression. Here not only can’t they discharge the emotion, but they also can’t even permit themselves to experience it. And that’s why, when these people vaguely sense that something is struggling to surface, they can’t even recognize what buried emotion is trying to emerge. Rather, all they feel is an inner vacuum; a peculiar, unplumbed emptiness.

Re-Associating or Re-Attaching to Feelings You’re Alienated From

All our defenses are designed to stifle intolerable feelings of vulnerability. And most of these feelings originate in childhood when we’re at our most vulnerable. Although doubtless, they’re pivotal in assisting us to experience a more secure connection to our caretakers, they can still carry some high, later-day costs to our personal welfare.

To be whole, to be fully connected to ourselves, as well as capable of forming meaningful, intimate relationships with others, we need to find ways of retrieving feelings that earlier we felt we had to deny. Additionally, when we repress a feeling we’re likely to “act it out”—as in, unreasonably blaming others, or projecting onto them our bottled-up, negative feelings; behaving deceitfully or passive-aggressively; sulking or giving others the silent treatment; or engaging in harmful addictive behaviors. And by frequently alienating those around us through such unconscious diversionary tactics, we can end up compromising—or even destroying—the relationships we most need to be meaningfully, joyfully connected to others.

It’s crucial, therefore, to realize (contrasting with what we learned earlier about escaping vulnerability) that as adults we can now learn how to make ourselves more “comfortably" vulnerable. As long as—even despite ourselves—we’ve expanded our emotional resources, we can discover that it’s really not that dangerous to let others be privy to who we are: what provokes us, saddens us, embarrasses us, frightens us, even humiliates us.

I’ve written several posts about the “how’s” of self-validation and self-soothing. And when we’ve adequately developed these more mature abilities, we can begin to summon our courage to let out much of what, until now, we’ve felt compelled to hold in. Many of us may require professional assistance in unearthing long-repressed feelings and desensitizing ourselves from the painful threats long ago linked to them. But if, on our own, we want to attempt to recover that which we once decided we had to disavow, consider the words of author and communications consultant, Peter Bregman:

How do you get to those [vulnerable] feelings [concealed by your anger]? Take a little time and space to ask yourself what you are really feeling. Keep asking until you sense something that feels a little dangerous, a little risky. That sensation is probably why you’re hesitant to feel it and a good sign that you’re now ready to communicate.

It’s counterintuitive: Wait to communicate until you feel vulnerable communicating. But it’s a good rule of thumb. (“Do You Know What You Are Feeling?” May 18, 2012.)

So, to briefly sum up, we need to access our deeper, censored feelings and find ways in our lives to make conscious, mindful “space” for them. Or else we’ll never be able to feel fully alive or develop rich, fulfilling relationships.

We can’t truly empathize with another until we’re able to identify—and have compassion for—our own feelings. Also, that in undertaking this long-delayed process of “unshackling” our disowned feelings, we’re likely, initially, to feel more vulnerable. But in staying with (vs. exiting from) this long-dormant anxiety, we’ll eventually feel much less vulnerable—as well as more powerful. . . . And at last, reunited with the child we once were.

Besides the two posts I pointed to earlier—"Angry Tears” and “Can You Feel Two Emotions at Once?”—other articles of mine closely relate to the present post: namely, “Trauma and the Freeze Response: Good, Bad, or Both?”, "The Power to Be Vulnerable" (Parts 1. 2. & 3).

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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