Joan Cusack Handler Ph.D.

Of Art and Science

Identifying Your Feelings

Sometimes I don't even know how I feel.

Posted Jan 19, 2018

The cornerstone of psychological health is communication, hence the reference to psychotherapy as the talking cure — the process by which one person reveals him/herself to an empathic professional. 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.

We often don’t. We seldom take our emotional temperature and assume that what we feel is what we’re consciously aware of. What we know is all there is: 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. (The second prong – How do I share these feelings with another? – we will address in our next post.)

You’ve heard me speak often of the significance of therapy in decoding what’s going on unconsciously with us—what’s beneath the surface (our surface). But what of the millions of people who will never have that experience, will never enter therapy—they can’t afford it, don’t believe in it, prefer to figure things out themselves, see it as a symptom of weakness, (it’s hogwash, I’m not crazy, I don’t need some shrink telling me what to do. [Despite the fact that this last is the last thing a professional would do, many people just don’t believe us. They’re convinced that we’re behind that door dictating the ‘right’ steps the person should take to solve their problem. Just do what I say.  Not so. Our goal is to assist clients/patients in discovering the parts of the self that are yet unknown and helping them to find their own path—what is right for them—not dictated by yet another authority figure).

So let’s assume that we can all benefit from soul searching (and we can) and that we’re part of that group that may never pursue therapy. How can we discover and make sense of what we feel and what part that plays in dictating our behavior?

Start by taking one’s emotional temperature: What feelings am I aware of having (there are often many)? What is the most prominent? Try to describe it to yourself. When did you become aware of this feeling? Don’t be afraid to push yourself (i.e. answers like ‘fine’, ‘okay’ are vague; continue by asking what ‘fine’ means; we often resist even our own probing). I recommend having a notebook to record your questions and answers. Don’t rush through it, describe each feeling thoroughly (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 the stressors: What might be triggering this feeling? What’s happening (or not happening) in our daily lives? It helps to deconstruct one’s day, week, month. Pay particular attention to events (thoughts, dreams, etc) 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 our answer is I don’t even know how I feel. One direction to take in such situations is to examine our behavior and daily life. This can help to tease out feelings not recognized initially. 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?

Watch for judgement: you 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 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—the 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 who are so defended that the logic of “why assume the worst?” works for them; they do not focus on it – sometimes don’t think of it at all, there are more I suspect that it doesn’t work for. 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, be we counselor, partner, friend, or oneself, that they shouldn’t be thinking of the negatives is fruitless and in fact, potentially dangerous. The person ends up believing that they’re inability to dismiss the fear is a failure and a sign of weakness. (That’s a really bad position to be in when one is trying to do something to help oneself). 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 it’s intensity – feelings function like a pressure cooker; pressure increases without release; once released, the intensity is reduced. The corollary to that is the fact that feelings that are denied or dismissed, do NOT diminish in size or disappear, they are intensified. Think of knee pain. It gets louder and more insistent, the more and 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. 

Thanks for listening. Feel free to ask questions or propose topics that interest you. These posts are for you. In our next, we’ll address steps to sharing feelings.

All the best in this New Year and beyond, Joan

*** Additional questions related to identifying one’s emotions and behavior patterns:

  • What does my behavior tell me?
  • Is my life working?
  • Where, when and with whom am I happy? Sad? Frustrated? Mad? Worried?
  • What are the patterns of my life? How do I spend my day?
  • Do I allow time for fun and pleasure? Regularly? What activities do I enjoy? When is the last time I did each one?
  • What about physical issues—sleep, rest, fun, intimacy. What do I eat? How healthy is that? Could food (the lack of it or the wrong kind) be making me sick or adding to my emotional life?

Come up with some of your own. (The possibilities seem limitless). Consider sharing them with us. Let’s start a dialogue.

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