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Identifying Your Feelings

How to discover and make sense of what you feel.

The cornerstone of psychological health is communication. That's why we refer to psychotherapy as the "talking cure," or the process by which a person reveals themselves to an empathic professional. So, how does this happen?

It’s a two-stage process — opening up to oneself and then learning how to speak about those feelings to another. However, given how effectively our defense mechanisms work to hide emotions from consciousness, it’s often a challenge to know what one feels.

In fact, we often don’t. We seldom take our emotional temperature, and simply assume that what we feel is only what we’re consciously aware of: I’m in a good/bad mood today; work’s stressing me; I’m not angry, I just don’t feel like talking; I don’t really feel anything. We’re satisfied with that answer and accept it as something we just have to live with. It’s our karma.

But we don’t have to just live with it. There are tools that we can learn to help us identify what feelings are cooking beneath the surface that have more to do with our current state of affairs than we’d imagine.

You’ve heard me speak often of the significance of therapy in decoding what’s going on with us unconsciously. But what about the millions of people who will never have that experience, or will never enter therapy—because they can’t afford it, don’t believe in it, prefer to figure things out themselves, or see it as a symptom of weakness?

For the moment, let's assume that we can all benefit from soul searching, and that we’re all part of that group that may never pursue therapy. How can we discover and make sense of what we feel? And how can we determine how our feelings dictate our behavior?

Start by taking your emotional temperature.

Ask yourself:

  • What feelings am I aware of having? (There are often many.)
  • What is the most prominent? (Try to describe it to yourself. Also, don’t be afraid to push yourself past answers like "fine" or "okay." Continue by asking what "fine" means. We often resist even our own probing.)
  • When did I become aware of this feeling?

I recommend having a notebook to record your questions and answers. Don’t rush through it. Describe each feeling thoroughly, and be sure to include pleasurable ones. It’s important to know what enhances your life; these are vital in providing some measure of balance when life is difficult.

These questions will lead to others and likely take you to different places—perhaps ones you haven’t traveled before. You may surprise yourself with details or memories that haven’t been available before.

Identify your stressors.

Ask yourself:

  • What might be triggering this feeling?
  • What’s happening (or not happening) in my daily life? (It helps to deconstruct one’s day, week, month. Pay particular attention to events, thoughts, or dreams that you have no control of and perhaps have decided ‘not to pay attention to’ because you cannot change them. This is a common pitfall. The fact that we have no control itself brings an emotional reaction.)

Perhaps your answer is, "I don’t even know how I feel." One direction to take in that situation is to examine your behavior and daily life. This can help to tease out feelings not recognized initially. So, ask:

  • How is my home life?
  • Am I getting along with my partner? My children? My parents and siblings?
  • How am I doing at work? Am I enjoying my work? Am I getting along with my co-workers? My boss? What are they telling me about me and their feelings about me? Can I see validity in what they’re saying?

Look for patterns that may be forming. Explore them. What do they tell you?

Notice if you start judging what you feel.

"I don’t have any reason to feel bad (anxious, depressed)," you may say. Wait for an outcome before assuming the worst. We tend to chastise ourselves (as if feelings follow reason!). The reality is that life events generate feelings. They simply are. Though we may decide which feelings to attend to, we don’t decide to feel or not feel. It’s our project to identify them and give them room to breathe.

This is particularly important when it comes to the threat of illness: for instance, your doctor notices that you or a loved one has an unidentified mass on one of your organs, your blood work is erratic, etc. While there are certainly many people for whom the logic of “why assume the worst?” actually works, I suspect there are more people for whom it doesn’t work. They can’t help but be frightened. Efforts on their part to dismiss the anxious or depressed feelings are fruitless. Threat looms large and gets in the way of other events/realities/pleasures in the person’s life.

Telling that person that they "shouldn’t be thinking of the negatives" is fruitless, and in fact, potentially dangerous. The person ends up believing that their inability to dismiss the fear is a failure and a sign of weakness. (And that’s a really bad position to be in when one is trying to do something to help oneself.)

Speak about your feelings, and let go of the fear.

The fact is that the more that we admit our terrors to ourselves and our loved ones, the more likely they are to diminish in size. And it makes sense. The more stifled a feeling, the greater its intensity. Feelings function like a pressure cooker: Pressure increases without release. Then, once released, the intensity is reduced. The corollary is the fact that feelings that are denied or dismissed do NOT diminish in size or disappear, but are intensified. Think of knee pain. It gets louder and more insistent the longer we neglect it.

Finally, by way of reassurance, it’s important to note that people are often afraid to face a feeling because of what it will lead to. They needn’t be. Confronting a feeling is a very different thing than our response to it. These are two very separate realities. Contrary to what we may imagine, facing one’s anger does not mean that we will act out on it and do something destructive. Except in cases of severe pathology or drug-altered states, our response to a feeling remains in our control.

More from Joan Cusack Handler Ph.D.
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