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How to Express Your Feelings

A step-by-step guide

Sure, you likely express happiness and pleasure and maybe even enjoy doing so, but how about sadness, upset or anger? Expressing positive emotion is easier for most of us because we know that others like to hear positive responses and react favorably when they hear them. The negative emotions can be harder for most to express and, as a result, many internalize or push these emotions away.

Negative emotions have significant purpose and meaning—they are the data we need to understand our needs and the motives of others, and they are the special sauce for intimacy and true closeness with others. Pushing emotions away leads to negative consequences for ourselves and for our relationships.

Research demonstrates that suppressing emotional reactions can actually intensify negative experiences and depressive symptoms[1]. Studies also show that holding negative feelings inside increases our tendencies to ruminate or overthink and may be a factor in health-related illness and longevity.

Being able to astutely express your emotions is not something you are either born with or not. It is a skill to be cultivated. Learning to appropriately express yourself can have a far-reaching impact on your intimate relationships, professional success, and even your health.

Pick a person or people you feel relatively comfortable and safe with and start practicing.

1. Every emotion carries a physical reaction in our bodies. Sometimes we are going so fast we have little awareness of physical consequences. Yet tuning in with the physical sensations will help you to more quickly catch what you are feeling in the moment. Recognize the physical sensations of your emotions—is your chest tight, your jaw tense, your eyes heavy, your stomach dropping, your heart beating fast?

2. Take a few minutes and go inside yourself, not to overthink your feelings and remind yourself of all that upsets and hurts, but to identify what the feeling is you are experiencing. Ask yourself “What might I be feeling in this moment?” Are you angry, sad, hurt, embarrassed, ashamed, worried?

3. Feelings are not facts. There are no “right” or “wrong” feelings. Feelings just are what they are and we all have them. So stop wondering if it is okay to feel what you are feeling and stop telling yourself there is something wrong with you that you feel the way you feel. Tell yourself that it is okay to feel whatever it is you are feeling; in fact, your feelings are normal.

4. Decide how intense a particular feeling is for you in your mind. At first if you notice you are angry, you may feel simply irate, but try to put it in perspective. Are you a “10” on the feeling scale, signifying a full-on rage, or a more mild “5”? This distinction in intensity is important so that you don’t use overly dramatic language that pushes people away or that does not accurately convey what you feel. It is also important that you don’t decide your feelings are a zero and not urgent enough to express. Rate your emotion on a 1-to-10 scale of intensity: How upset are you really?

5. Internally identify and label how upset you are: “I’m somewhat anxious” vs. “I am scared as hell” or “I am concerned” vs. “I am freaking out” or “I am bummed out” vs. “I am devastated.” At first only intense language may come to mind because the emotion feels very black and white. Try to see if you can sit with it for a minute and whether the intensity comes down. Find the label that describes the intensity of your feeling.

6. Now communicate what you are feeling in a way that accurately represents the intensity of the emotion so that you can be clear and get your needs met. Say what needs to be said.

Practice makes perfect. Keep working at it and you will master the art of communicating your feelings without making matters worse for yourself and others.

In my book Building Self-Esteem, I offer more strategies for increasing happiness and positive feelings about yourself.

Facebook image: Tommy Lee Walker/Shutterstock


[1] John, O.P., & Gross, J.J. (2004). Healthy and unhealthy emotion regulations: Personality processes, individual differences, and life-span development. Journal of Personality, 72, 1301-1333.