How does that make you feel?
September 6, 2011 11:31 PM   Subscribe

How can I be more mindful and "in touch" with my feelings, and how can I articulate those feelings using words for other people?

I feel like I am mentally well-adjusted in most aspects but I've been accused of being hard to read, and not forthcoming with my feelings. When I've reflected on this and tried to do some introspection, I realized that I can't very often answer the question "how are you feeling?" with any sort of accuracy or coherency, even if I keep the answers to myself. In some ways I feel as though I almost don't have any "feelings" at all. And when I do end up figuring out how I feel about something, it's often too late to act upon it.

This question might be a bit too abstract for anyone to reasonably answer, but what are some things that I can do to be more "in my own head"? Journaling? Meditating? I feel like I'm always looking forward towards the future and I'm really good at completely ignoring sunk cost. In some ways this is a feature, but my lack of introspection and my apparent inability to articulate my basic emotional state has caused problems in past relationships, so I am wondering if anyone has any advice before I go talk to a professional.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
This may sound silly, but creating and walking around with flash cards with feeling words that you can shuffle though and select can be helpful. Looking through 100 or so of them when you're trying to consider how you feel is helpful. For example, you might select: "unappreciated", "confused", "acrimonious", etc., and at least can help you inform yourself, and get the conversation going with friends, if you choose to share your feelings with them.
posted by anitanita at 11:45 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

You sound like my husband, a bit; for him, we figured out he does not normally think in words, but more in abstractions, and yes he also tends not to have much reason to "translate" or even analyze anything because he doesn't get upset over much. I envy him for this in many respects, but it can be disorienting for someone who does not think that way.

I think it just takes practice, and in that way, journaling might help. But also explain in a sympathetic (not defensive) way when it comes up with romantic partners, and hopefully they will learn to be patient and not take it personally. Being honest while acknowleding their desire to know how you feel is reasonable should be helpful. One thing my husband had to do in the beginning, and which is more immediate now, is if I asked him how he felt and he couldn't put it into words, he really did/does attempt it and tell me later; he doesn't just say he can't, or it's hard, and then give me nothing. People want to feel heard, and like their concerns are important to their partner, so you can ask for patience so long as you have something for them later, even if it's a few days to a week or something.

Also, be open to having them ask you close-ended questions (yes/no) to help you both figure it out, if that works for you. Since I do think in words, sometimes if my husband can't figure out how/why he feels something, while I am waiting I will think of possible explanations to ask about. Sometimes one is right, or partly right, or wrong but makes him realize what the case is, and then once his mind has a verbal starting point he figures out the rest.

Also, something to be aware of, but my husband mentioned he does not think much about the past and mostly thinks about the present and near-future. That is one reason I envy him. But I say "be aware" because many people spend a lot of time thinking about the past and/or far future, and while this is often a source of bad stuff (hence my envy) it is also a source of good stuff, and relationship partners may feel hurt that you do not think much of fond memories with them, or a future with them, or at least not compared to the degree to which they use these things for happiness. It took me quite a while to not feel sad about these things; I would ask my husband what his favorite memory of us was, for example, and he would blank out, and that made me think he did not think about me because that's what that would mean if I could not do that. It took us a while for it to be clear he did remember things and think about me, but he got his happiness more from abstract present feelings and had difficulty recalling the past on command. If you think you are similar, just be prepared to talk about it and hopefully that will give you some insight into why people get upset over that. To be honest, I didn't fully understand how my husband could be happy without deriving it from memories and future hopes until I had a neurologically unusual day, so it's one of the more difficult differences to really overcome but it's possible.

Oh, also, when my husband does have a memory or hope strike him, he knows now to put it into words and tell me, because it will make me happy. For years he literally never thought to do that, because he doesn't automatically translate those things to words. So if a happy thought strikes you about a romantic partner, say it as best you can. Sometimes frustration arises not just because of the incident at hand, but from an over-all feeling that your partner doesn't have a great gauge of your feelings ever; saying when you are happy, unprompted, can go a long way in dispelling that impression.

Also, do not be too down on yourself if you find some partners are impatient. In the end, there's no right or wrong way to think, and some people really need to be with someone who thinks similarly. You may also find yourself with someone who thinks as you do! Compromise is good, but don't get to a point where you feel you essentially have to be a different person to have a relationship; if you find yourself thinking that, remind yourself that some of it is luck and general compatibility.
posted by Nattie at 12:13 AM on September 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm kinda like this, and I will try to address the meditation aspect.

I can't "name" my feelings most of the time. However, on a meditation retreat I brought this point up and the teacher said "what do you feel in your body right now?" And I felt something in my chest and jaw was clenched because I was a bit nervous meeting him individually. The point is, at the time I didn't really know how to name my feeling, but I felt it in my body which is fine. Simply recognizing and being aware of your feeling (in your mind or in your body) is the first step.

Feelings are a connection between your mind and body. You should start viewing it as a mind-body complex that are interconnected. This idea can be seen in acting, meditation, body language, NLP, and other areas that I keep discovering. I have been summing it up as follows:
Think differently < > Feel differently < > Act differently
That is, your thoughts shape your feelings which shape your actions, and the other way around is also true. They are all interconnected.

Perhaps another practice you could try is RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-identify, as I explained in a previous post.

Two important things that I discovered about mindfulness practice are:
1) You have to keep practicing on a regular basis to gain any real benefit. And try to carry that practice over into your real every day life. It doesn't really matter if you practice for 10 minutes a day or 40 minutes once a week, just keep doing it.
2) You won't really know its working until you look back. That is, it slowly penetrates your life like walking out into the fog and you don't realize you're wet until your inside your house.

You might want to look into Mindfulness practice:
*Mindfulness in Plain English
*Awareness Alone is Not Enough (scroll ~60% down)
*Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life
*Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program
*Search for Vipassana/Insight Meditation in your area (or really any meditation). Go to several different groups or sanghas until you find the "right" fit.
*Look for daylong retreats covering "beginner meditation" at a meditation retreat center near your closest major city

Other Resources:
*Emotional Intelligence 2.0
*Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 12:19 AM on September 7, 2011

If it seems to you that your feelings are all flattened out and in some sense the same--you respond to a treat the same as you respond to a mishap--then by all means see a professional. There should be a fairly clear difference between being happy, being upset, and being neither.

If the problem really is one of self-expression, though, then you should consider the likelihood that it's everyone else that believes too strongly in the accuracy of their introspection. You may simply be over-thinking the ambiguities others routinely ignore while persuading themselves regarding their own mental states.

Exactly what introspection is and how fallible it is has philosophical implications, some of which impact the practical issue of being happy. But if your goal is just to talk about emotions more, keep the possibilities in mind and just toss them out there sometimes without bean-plating it too much.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:21 AM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure this is the case, but having equanimity is a good thing. For example, not taking good things for granted, and understanding that wisdom can be found in bad things.
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 12:28 AM on September 7, 2011

Good literature can take you "inside the head" of someone else. Having their mental state and tought processes put into words on paper can give you a bit of vocabulary to describe your own.
posted by Harald74 at 12:49 AM on September 7, 2011

When someone asks you how you are, say 'I'm fine, how about you?' and then focus on them and their feelings. They'll think you're wonderfully empathetic as you'll be one of the rare people who spends their time in a conversation listening rather than waiting to talk and the more you focus on uncovering other people's emotional states the easier you'll find divining your own.
posted by joannemullen at 2:28 AM on September 7, 2011

Journaling helped me some, but honestly, it was the "talking to a professional" that got me much, Much better at recognizing what I was feeling - and that emotions were tools for helping to see what I needed. Having her provide me with the basic vocabulary, and then help tease out my my more complex emotions has provided me with the experience so that I can now do a much better job of it myself. And that has made me immeasurably happier.
posted by ldthomps at 5:25 AM on September 7, 2011

Meditation has helped me recognize my feelings in the moment. I'll suddenly be struck with the thought, "I'm feeling quite content," or "I'm very stressed out right now," or "Gosh, look at how angry I am," or "Wow, that remark really hurt me," or "I feel very defensive, but I can choose not to be."

I wouldn't say that I ever had trouble articulating my emotions before, though, but meditation has helped me to pausing and recognize what I'm really feeling rather than rolling forward with whatever emotion is sweeping me along.
posted by BrashTech at 7:10 AM on September 7, 2011

About 10 years ago, people told me exactly the same thing, complete with details about what it was like talking to me. One problem that came up was that I would pause too long before answering when someone asked about my feelings or thoughts. Sometimes they thought I went into some sort of fugue state and when I did finally say, my responses did not sound spontaneous. (FWIW, I'm female and I accumulated self-expression issues from interactions with my father.)

So, now, 10 years later, I'm happy to report my friends stuck with me for this and I just got really high praise yesterday for my warmth in public speaking for something I said last week.

How did I go about making this transformation? It wasn't easy, but I can give you some ideas. First, I'll give you the hard path I first tried, then the shortcut.

Get comfortable with your own narrative.
Hard path: The first step for me was to write fiction where one of the characters was based on me. I saw my role in events and my flaws more clearly in the process of doing that -- not really practical and I'm not sure I recommend it. It wasn't pretty nor particularly self-affirming.

Shortcut: I found several things helpful, though. I took a class in Digital Storytelling where you try to cram a story into less than 3 minutes, complete with photos, music and video. The main component of these stories is an audio track in your own voice about something moving or important to you. I recommend writing two or three such scripts even if you never record them. You should, however, practice reading them out loud.

Talk more
Hard path: I had a lot of anger at the time and I found a good friend to talk through by taking an on-line writing class. He told he wouldn't talk to me and didn't want to hear me vent and suggested go into psychoanalysis (aka "the talking cure"). I tried this for a while, but found it not to my liking. Dreams are just dreams, you know?

Shortcut: Take the 13-week Dale Carnegie class on Human Relations. A big part of that program is injecting emotion in what you are saying and you practice connecting with people through your words and body language and how things affect you. This is great, fantastic practice in a supportive environment for people who need to practice expressing what they feel. If you don't get enough the first time through, you can volunteer to be a teaching assistant, like I did. You get even more practice by demonstrating the techniques to the next rounds of students. Also, the materials present little formulas for how to talk to people.

Good luck. It's a great first step that you are asking the question -- and your friends and lovers must care about you a lot to tell you this. You must be very special. I hope eventually every minute you spend on learning to express yourself will be worth the time.
posted by rw at 7:42 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem, often not knowing exactly how I'm feeling. A therapist recommended I do an exercise where I place my hand over my chest, and literally "check in with my viscera." Which kind of makes sense when we think that "visceral" means relating to deep inward feelings. In other words, you can determine how you really feel about something by trying to feel for, say, a tightening of the chest, a sour feeling in the stomach, or a light feeling throughout. It takes practice, and I admit that sometimes I can't really tell what I'm feeling, but presumably it works for some people, so it may be worth trying.
posted by rkriger at 9:30 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, I know this feeling.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy, as much as it helped with so many parts of my life, really helped me understand my emotions better than anything prior. In fact, I was 25 or 26 before I realized that I am (was?) a very angry person. All the time. Angry, and justifiably so.

Of course, the therapy part had a lot to do with these realizations.

I'm pretty open about my belief that everyone could benefit from having a good relationship with a therapist who fits them, but I'm going to suggest starting with the worksheets.

Start with Mindfulness

Then move on to Emotion Regulation

These links go to one of the many (many!) available explanations of these concepts. PDF documents of the original Marsha Linehan worksheets are available online, but you can also buy the workbook for DBT. You can probably ignore the front of the book, which is for therapists and describes Borderline Personality Disorder. The worksheets are great. If you get started, and you decide you want an unbiased third party to help you through the process, don't be ashamed. So many "normal" people have never learned this stuff. In fact, our group therapy leaders were always telling us how much they got out of learning these skills!

So, if you do opt for therapy, my money is on DBT because the "naming and experiencing our emotions" is such a big aspect of it. But there are also lots of great interpersonal skills, and also distress tolerance.
posted by bilabial at 12:31 PM on September 8, 2011

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