How do you figure out feelings?
February 20, 2012 5:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm having a lot of trouble identifying the emotions I'm feeling and why. What techniques can I use to work through this?

I've always been a pretty emotional person. I am cool in a crisis and able to tamp things down temporarily, but I "feel deeply" as my mother says.

Recently I was involved in a messy interpersonal situation with a lot of hurt feelings on all sides. Because one of the other parties was hurt and acting erratically, I put a pin in whatever I was feeling in order to make sure she made it through the situation safely.

Now that she's made it through the woods and is OK, I suddenly feel like everything I should have been feeling at the time is bubbling up. I've been doing things that I usually only do when I'm depressed (sleeping too much, procrastinating leaving my house for hours, not making plans). I know that I'm upset, but I don't know exactly what I'm feeling or why. Am I jealous? Angry? Sad? I try to think through it and figure out what actions/events relate to which feelings, but it feels like trying to grab fistfuls of sand. It doesn't help that there are other, unrelated stressors in my life at the moment, and I'm not sure if they're making me feel like the situation is worse than it really is.

I did talk therapy a few years ago when I was going through another difficult interpersonal situation -- my therapist helped me identify and commit to the right course of action, but it was also really emotionally draining to spend an hour every week rehashing what had happened and (more often than not) crying.

Are there any lightweight similar approaches I could try (fully expecting that this IS AskMeFi and many of you will suggest I go back to therapy)? Journaling? What helps you figure out your feelings when you feel overwhelmed by them?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Did you like your therapist? My therapist has been available to me after I left weekly therapy for what he calls "triage" appointments, where he helps me sort out things that, while not necessarily requiring diving back into the deeper therapeutic pool, could be hashed out in a couple of sessions. He also answers quick, "What in the heck is wrong with me today?" questions via e-mail sometimes.

If you don't want to do that, do you have a trusted friend or mentor or clergyperson you could talk to? It doesn't have to be a heavy session, but just a good, long chat about everything that happened and how you're reacting to it.
posted by xingcat at 6:09 AM on February 20, 2012

Take long walks. Write in a journal. Think about how a particular event triggered something in your life. We are always looking for ourselves in other people.

Example: Your friend insisted she was going to leave her boyfriend because he was cruel.

Your life: You had a cruel boyfriend and you stayed. Or, you were cruel.

Feeling: shame, embarrassment, guilt, etc.

Even if you can't pinpoint feelings right away, I think it's okay. The best thing to do is to break up the longs sessions of feeling badly. Do something good for yourself. Be kind to yourself and others. I tend to get self-obsessed and think about resentments, anger, sadness, etc. for long stretches of time -- entire days or hours. Like you, when I'm in this mode I isolate and procrastinate. The best thing to do when you are self-obsessing is to help others and be interested in other people and other things besides yourself. I'm not saying to be anybody's therapist, or to be a doormat but to hang out with a friend, help out a neighbor, fellow classmate or coworker, etc.

Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 6:28 AM on February 20, 2012

Can you just feel "awful"? The situation you were in - presumably some guilt, resentment that the other person both did what they did and got a pass from you when you put a pin in your feelings, grief over having a bad time with someone in your life.

I don't know if it's even useful to untangle your emotions. Do you know how you feel about this other person and how you they fit into your life now? That does need to be figured out.

Good luck. Emotional aftershocks are a trial.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:43 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

n'thing writing/journaling as an outlet, but adding that you also attempt to pinpoint what you might perceive and feel physically; you may hypothesize about what your feel physically and it MAY serve as a point of reference in the future (eg. tightness, tingling in left bicep=anger, bitterness).

Hoping you sail through this passage.
posted by wallawallasweet at 6:48 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I "run away" for a while by getting on my bike and taking long, aimless rides. The physical activity seems to get the blood and the spirit moving again. It also helps me to focus on the fact that I've been through worse, and survived. If this is actually "the" worst, I think about experiences I've been through that helped to prepare me to deal with the worst.

I also self-coach by assuming that wherever I am in the situation, I am more than halfway through, so the hard part is behind me and the end is coming up quickly.

I also tend to volunteer for helpful things, like walking dogs at the SPCA shelter, or working in the soup kitchen just to take me completely out of my ego-comfort zone, and let the emotions drain away.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:49 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do EFT (especially videos with Brad Yates) but I know this is a little new-agey and not for everyone.

I hope that everything works out regardless.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 7:13 AM on February 20, 2012

Seconding journals. Writing can really help, and so can a good therapist.
posted by bunderful at 7:23 AM on February 20, 2012

I've had a lot of experience with this, and all kinds of methods. For a while I spent a lot of time and energy trying to develop a vocabulary for my feelings. That went well, but then life brought some more trials and another stressful times when I shoved my feelings back into the sack that you elude to, that pretty much washed away the work I'd done before.

I've come to believe that such a vocabulary is nice, but it's not the most important thing for me.

A couple of things have been much more helpful for me, and I keep coming back to them.

One is the concepts and excercises described in the book Redirect by Timothy D. Wilson (here is an article about it). It's an interesting and scientific approach to something a bit like journaling. The idea is that you can choose what and how you remember something, but you can frame things in such a way that they are truthful but portrayed in such a light that you can find acceptance. To me, it's the quick way of getting over something, in a way. Read the article, it's better at describing the thing than I am.

The other is the practice of Mindfulness, and getting to know it's concepts, in particular via books by Jon Kabat-Zinn. After looking into that stuff I came to realize that it is not as important to understand exactly how I'm feeling, as it is to accept that I am feeling something, and that acceptance is more important than understanding as a facilitator to letting go of difficult emotions and thoughts.

In the end, letting go is a day-by-day practice rather than a one time thing, for me. I can have cathartic experiences with addressing things that have made me feel bad, but in the end the most important thing for me is keeping the little things in life in order for a longer duration of time. Sleep, nutrition, light exercise, the company of good friends, distraction, being productive, cleaning, etc. The obvious shit, that sometimes is so hard to remember when you're in a bad place.
posted by svenni at 7:41 AM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Not just "journaling" but directed, investigative writing. Write down what was going on in the past situation you described. Write down how the woman you mentioned was feeling, and write down what you did. Can you remember what you felt (about her) at the time? Can you remember what you felt about the situation at the time? How you you expect a typical person to feel in that situation? Does it seem from your current perspective that there's a big difference? How are you feeling right now while you're remembering all this? Are you [angry with, proud of, frustrated with, embarassed over] your past self's actions? Try to use the writing exercise to help yourself think about events and emotions.

But it's all already happened. You don't have to think about this, or feel about this, forever. Spend as much time and emotional energy as you seem to be able to, and then let yourself be done with it.
posted by aimedwander at 7:58 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me, the "draining" part of getting my emotions out helps me keep my emotions where they need to be: expressing them (in all their messed-up glory) when it's appropriate, and not letting them bug me as much when it's not.

That doesn't mean that I compartmentalize my life sharply, although to some degree I try to keep things separate. What it does mean, though, is that I can more naturally deal with things in their proper place. I have space and time when I know it's okay to just be a little more nutty, and that helps me be a little less nutty at work or in important conversations. It helps me keep balance.

Therapy can be sort of a guided version of that.
posted by Madamina at 7:58 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to identify emotions you're currently feeling and why, but not get involved in intensive rehashing, then yeah, mindfulness-based approaches are perfect. A good way to start is to make a chart, where the columns are:
Try to make at least one entry per day for a week, and try to keep going until you've collected at least one incident from each of the major emotion families (happy, sad, angry, scared). Don't bother waiting for a big dramatic incident -- minor stuff can be easier to work with at first anyhow. To figure out the physical sensation, try sitting still, systematically scanning sensations especially in the torso (for me anyhow), but also try face, shoulders, hands, and everywhere. Pinpointing the specific emotion can be hard -- personally I enjoy being finicky & consulting a thesaurus. You may also find it useful to choose occasions when you KNOW what emotion you're feeling, and work backwards to figure out what sensations compose it.

Remember that you're just trying to analyze what you're feeling in the moment. It doesn't necessarily have any significance beyond that moment. It's kind of like learning to sketch, by frequently practicing sketching from life. You're developing your powers of observation and notation.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:36 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

i grew up with an abusive parent and was never allowed to express anger myself so it took a lot of time in therapy to get to the point where i allowed myself to feel anger. one of the most helpful things i did was an exercise my last therapist had me do every day—and then she would run through it with me in session.

every day i had to write down five instances in which i felt the following three emotions: joy, anger, sadness. each instance would start with "i was angry about…." "i was happy about…," "i was sad about…" and they didn't necessarily have to be like, intense happiness or major grief—the majority of times the instances would be on the very low end of the spectrum for those emotions (she also gave me sheet printed with the various descriptive verbs that would fall under each). i was always able to list joy and sadness pretty easily but it was always a struggle to come up with anger because oftentimes i would subvert anger into another category of emotion, especially if it was something insignificant that i didn't deem was worthy of getting "angry" about. but learning to identify even small instances of it really helped me give myself permission to say, "this made me angry."
posted by violetk at 12:55 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did talk therapy a few years ago when I was going through another difficult interpersonal situation -- my therapist helped me identify and commit to the right course of action, but it was also really emotionally draining to spend an hour every week rehashing what had happened and (more often than not) crying.

When we can't identify the feelings we're feeling it's often because we don't want to feel them. So focus on acknowledging the shitty feelings. To reduce the disruption to your life I'd set a particular time each day to do it. Outside that time, just acknowledge and move on.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:03 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by costanza at 2:48 PM on February 20, 2012

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