Help me figure out why I'm so upset, please.
May 25, 2008 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Good tips or techniques for identifying, and articulating, negative emotions?

When a conflict arises with my spouse, I often find myself a lot more upset than the situation probably warrants, which leads me to believe I've got a lot of pent-up emotions deep inside me. In the "heat of the moment" I seem to not have much of a problem spewing out a lot of stuff that's bothering me. However, that's not always productive, and more often than not, it isn't feasible (due to my husband's work crises, our toddler son being present, etc). Yet, when I try to sit down and talk about things at a calmer time -- or even to reflect on my own -- I can't seem to find a starting point for getting the anger and resentment out. It's not really a matter of me having just gotten past whatever was upsetting me. More like I've buried the bad feelings (temporarily) and the situation blows over, but we haven't really resolved anything and it just comes up again later.

Specifically, I'd like to find some ways to help identify and explain these feelings (to myself and others). I've tried sitting down to write out what's going on in my head, but like I said, once I'm not in the midst of the conflict, the words just don't seem to come. I want to get them out because I feel like then maybe I could explain them to my husband. But for right now, I feel like I'm just stuck. My mind starts sort of racing with all kinds of stuff -- the little insignificant offenses and slights in any relationship, the bigger emotional issues, stuff from when I was a kid, etc. It gets all mixed up and the next thing I know, I feel paralyzed. So I do nothing, and nothing changes.

I know I'm a prime candidate for some therapy, but unfortunately, that honestly is not an option for me at the moment, so I would truly appreciate some suggestions that focus on self-help vs. outside help. I also, unfortunately, don't have much of a support system for things like this, so it needs to be something I can pursue alone. Even just a starting point would be better than nothing. Has anyone had any luck working through this kind of thing?
posted by justonegirl to Human Relations (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You could try an anonymous blog. It might be therapeutic to describe yourself and your problems to an audience you've never met.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:06 AM on May 25, 2008

Gosh. I could have written most of that word for word... I have am in a long term very committed relationship though we are not married. I do not have children but he has an 8 year old son that we get on holidays and in the summer but isn't around all the time. Other than that you and I sound very much alike. And I am very much in the same boat.
You said writing doesn't help you very much but I have found it helps me a little. I have a journal that I have to force myself to write in. Not because I don't want to, but because once I start all these random things start flowing out and make me upset and i write for pages and my hand cramps. I have tried it on the computer and it just doesn't work the same. Anyway since you said that writing in general doesn't work for you... have you tried writing a letter to your spouse? maybe just a letter you will tear up after you are done but that was how I got started writing in my journal... After a fight where nothing really got solved, I got up while he was sleeping and wrote a letter to him. I never gave it to him but it helped me sort out things in my mind and at least be able to get the emotions out so when/ if I did bring it up I could do it in a calm manner.

That is really all I have to offer. I am very interested in reading what others suggest. If you would like to discuss this further in email I would be happy to talk about it with you. My email is in my profile.
posted by fogonlittlecatfeet at 9:21 AM on May 25, 2008

Similar to what Popular Ethics said, try a journal.
posted by 6:1 at 9:22 AM on May 25, 2008

There is a cognitive-behavior therapy workbook called Mind Over Mood that can help with identifying your feelings and the thoughts behind your feelings, figuring out why you react the way you do and what it's triggering inside you. It gives straightforward explanations, leads you through practice exercises, and offers coping skills to try out. It's worth looking into as a starting point since it provides a framework for analyzing your reactions and emotions; it's recommended both as an assist to therapy and for self-help, so it's suitable for your purposes.
posted by Melinika at 9:27 AM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know why you are so upset, at least in general. It's because of a large part of who you are is unacknowledged - which means a large part of you is effectively alone - and you are stuck in a place where your SO feels the relationship is going along or whatever is happening and yet, you're not fully engaged and occasionally needlessly complicating things by losing it during an argument - for starters. With a toddler, you may be worried that you are repeated a pattern.

My advice is to try writing, again. But don't try writing about what you're upset about or your childhood, or the top ten things your wish he would change because, as we know from your post, you can't reach those things.

Instead, should sneak up on them. Try writing about 10 things your like about your man or 5 good things that happened today and then, as you write, wait the until some of your sentences veer off to the "but." If you are writing, and you are writing truthfully, eventually you will drift into unsafe territory. For instance, you might be spieling out something like "It's great that Ward has a job that allows him to fully express his love of the crumhorn, BUT it's hard for me when he gets worked up over political in-fighting at work and comes home and treats me with zero respect by ...." Or, if you are writing out what you did in a day, it might go something like "I had an extra 15 minutes before leaving for work so I was able to go around the house collecting dishes for the dishwasher and I'm glad I got a load started early, BUT, Jeebus H Christ why can't he ever at least take a dish back into the kitchen? I heard him walk back and forth from the living room to the kitchen 4 times last night while I was putting toddler to be and not once could he be bothered to take his chips and salsa bowls and pilsner glasses to the sink - and why does he need a new glass for each beer? That is a lot of my time that he could have saved and ..."

Not that I know what your issues are. I'm just saying that if you start writing about your life and your situation, there will be BUTs. And then you can start to corral the source of those feelings and work with them.

Good luck.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:50 AM on May 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

I've got a lot of pent-up emotions deep inside me.

On the face of it, a statement like this seems to make sense. I mean, after all, emotions are something which can be stored, right? Right?

But on second thought I'm not so sure this is the case. Think it's very tempting to think of emotions as commodities which can be stocked and stored, which can overflow or spill out... but I'm not entirely sure that's how emotions work at all.

Emotions are not things in the traditional sense, and thinking of them as such can lead you down an entirely wrong path. Emotions are transitional states, which often have just as much to do with brain chemistry as with anything else.

Not to spend to much time on what may ultimately be just the turn of a phrase, but I think the language you use illustrates the complexity of what you're trying to cope with. That this problem is most apparent during confrontations with loved ones, is just a singular example of what is probably some on going personal struggle that manifests itself in many other ways.

The point is this: emotional health is complex, hard for even professionals to understand, and takes some of us a lifetime to master.

You can try the self-help book route, but you may find it more of a trap than anything. (I personally despise most self-help books and other media as it's largely a racket designed to part people in need from their hard earned cash.)

You could step away from the emotional improvement and look at other segments of your life as avenues for change. Lifestyle in particular is a good place to start where small changes in habit can reap huge rewards in mental and physical well being. You may find that your emotional health improves greatly just by changing diet, exercise, watching less tv, getting out more, etc.

Then there is professional help, which you mention, but purposefully steer respondents away from. I think this is a grave mistake on your part...

Even just a starting point would be better than nothing. Has anyone had any luck working through this kind of thing?

The thing is I think you're so far off track to begin with that the only conceivable option is seeking therapy. For many, particularly those without health care, this can be a costly avenue, but if you look around in your community you may find very affordable alternatives.

I know that's not the answer you want, but I think you realize that it is the most obvious course of action.

You can try the books, you can try other lifestyle changes, but at the end of the day when that falls short you're going to have to seek out real professional counseling.

Don't beat around the bush about it. Good luck.
posted by wfrgms at 9:58 AM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go against the grain here and say NOT to do a blog about your emotions. I've been there, done that. What I found happening is that I created an echo chamber of loving and supportive friends who gave me a lot of sympathy and support in what I was feeling, but no understanding in growing BEYOND those feelings. I ended up destroying one relationship through that "I'm right, he's wrong" echo chamber, and I almost did it again. Not to say that it was all my friends' fault, it wasn't, just the nature of the medium... you're going to get a lot of support in your emotions and that will feel really good and you will feel vindicated for a while. But you won't really GROW beyond those emotions.

Blogging/journaling your emotional state is a lot like creating a reality TV show - you can't possibly show a realistic view of everything that's going on.

The truth of the matter is that your emotional state is only a portion of what's really going on, too. Your patterns are getting triggered, most likely by his patterns. You probably grew up like I did being taught that it isn't proper to express negative emotions, and you're still in a place where you don't feel safe doing so. While expressing anger/resentment in the heat of the moment might feel inappropriate and unproductive to you, it is a start. It's what you know you CAN do, so you have to give yourself the space to do it. Tell your s.o. all of this. If he loves you, he'll give you some space to let it out. The more you let it out "inappropriately" the more it will start to flow in more appropriate ways.
posted by kat at 10:01 AM on May 25, 2008

I recognize this too. I used to (and still do in some situations) feel all knotted up inside in similar situations. A book I've found very useful is "Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most". It was recommended in a similar thread and has been recommended in a number of different threads about similar subjects.

The approach is to recognize that disagreements and difficult conversations are happening on a number of different levels and understanding those, and to some extent addressing them separately can really help. As others have said, it's okay to express the emotions you're having. Just recognize that that is what you are doing, i.e. this is how you are feeling and you want to express that as a step to having a productive conversation.

Best of luck. It's a struggle and a journey, and it's not easy, but you can do it.
posted by idb at 10:14 AM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Google "Thich Naht Hahn" and read some of his essays on mindfulness.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 10:37 AM on May 25, 2008

[reads through OP's other questions...]

The only way you'll feel better about yourself is by taking action. I mean that you should do whatever it is you're afraid of doing (or say whatever you're afraid of saying). All of this thinking is not doing you any good.
posted by mpls2 at 11:08 AM on May 25, 2008

Response by poster: mpls2, if it isn't too much trouble, could you possibly email me with a little clarification, or even post here if it isn't going to be too embarrassing for me? I'm just not entirely sure what you're getting at and obviously can use whatever advice people are willing to offer. Thanks :)
posted by justonegirl at 11:39 AM on May 25, 2008

A few distinctions that might help you to conceptualise your emotions (from a professional emotions researcher):

1. When you experience emotions do you tend to focus on the situation or your bodily feelings/actions? (this will guide you towards what self-manipulations will be most effective)

2. Do you ever engage with pictures/books/music to 'explore' an emotion (e.g. sad music when you are sad), or do you use artworks only to cheer yourself up? (Try out different methods of mood regulation).

3. When you are having an emotion, do you mentally step back and realise what is happening, or are so involved that you can't think of anything except 'the wrong'? (ask what is happening)

4. Finally, try breaking down your emotions into the following categories: powerful-weak, free-constrained, upcoming-passing away, attraction-repulsion, general-focused, sudden-enduring, socially sensitive-indifferent, socially matching-contrasting. (Don't bother with the 'negative-positive' distinction. It's too vague to have any value.) If the dominant factor is constraint for instance, try doing various things (not necessarily direct) to make yourself feel more free in general.

It is a common myth that expressing an emotion can 'release it' (as was noted above) as if it's some kind of liquid that can escape you. However, all empirical evidence indicates that expressing emotion (e.g. hitting something when you are angry) just increases the feelings. I'd suggest playing some sport or music instead.

Obviously life-problems have to be resolved, but as you indicate a lot of the time the issue at hand is just an excuse for larger forces to work their magic. Without very much information, I'd say you have general insecurities. You are also probably replicating emotional cycles with your partner over and over again just because of the ways your personalities match up. Love is like a dance in that way. But all different kinds of balances can work.

It's unlikely you can change your cycles or your long term emotional personality, but you might be able to make emotional episodes a little less volatile by generally increasing your sense of freedom, and trying to be a bit more aware of what is happening, so that as feelings/situations develop you can defuse them. Most of the time just acknowledging that they are happening can give you enough perspective to begin calming down.

Or you could visualise it like this: You are a smouldering volcano/caged tiger. Take a cold shower/go for a run.
posted by leibniz at 12:36 PM on May 25, 2008 [7 favorites]

This probably isn't the answer you want, since you mention that therapy is not an option, but the one single thing that helped me the most with identifying my emotions and their origins - and keeping them from spiraling out of control - was going on antidepressants. I know medication's not a silver bullet and doesn't work the same for everyone, but it worked for me.

If medication is not an option, you might want to consider taking really good care of yourself - you know, the drinking lots of water and eating healthy food, sleeping well and exercising thing that people recommend to combat depression. That could help.

Writing down your emotions could be very effective, but I'd advise a handwritten journal instead of a blog.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:07 PM on May 25, 2008

The umpteenth person in here to suggest writing about things -- but for yourself, in something that no one else will ever see.

The way writing helped me was in the act of writing itself -- writing forced me to articulate things, forced me to find words for what I was feeling. And the act of finding the words forced me to think about them, and it was that thinking that helped me.

Not that I was judging what I was writing, though. I deliberately gave myself permission to say whatever I wanted (and there are some entries that sounds absolutely damn surrealist). I also tried a couple other tricks like setting a timer and writing nonstop for five or ten minutes, without looking back or thinking too much about what I wrote, or even changing words. I just kept the pen moving, and what came out is what came out.

Another thing I tried once that had some interesting results was to start each and every one of my sentences with the words "The problem is..." until I ran out of things to say. I wrote for about 20 minutes, and my "problems" covered everything from "the problem is I don't have the skill set to get this job" to "the problem is this pen is leaking". I got through a LOT that way.

So I'd also recommend writing. Not in a blog, but in a book for yourself.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:08 PM on May 25, 2008

Everyone needs a starting point. Decoding what you are feeling and why takes practice and it can be learned. Yes, therapy is really excellent for this but not everyone has the resources to afford one-on-one therapy.

I wasn't raised in a family that processed or was able to talk about difficult emotions. I needed to learn how to do that in a way that was similar to learning a foreign language. It was not easy. I was not allowed to be angry and discouraged from being sad. Lot of pent up emotion there.

Two books that helped me to begin decoding what I was feeling and how to talk about it were Dance of Anger and Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner. Very practical, very clear. Easy to read in small bits of time. Lots of case studies and examples, with supporting reflection and interpretation. (Not woo-woo new age-y which I was trying to avoid at the time.)

I also journaled a lot. I wouldn't recommend blogging it because, even anonymously, you tend to censor yourself online in a way you don't on the page. I do, anyway. YMMV.
posted by jeanmari at 6:53 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I try on different statements to tease out what's really bothering me. Even if they don't make sense, I run through them in my head. For example, if he doesn't take out the garbage and I get more upset than the situation seems to warrant:

1. I'm hurt because he doesn't care that the house is clean.
2. I'm jealous of the time he spent playing video games instead of helping me.
3. I'm angry because it seems like I always have to pick up the slack.
4. I'm resentful because I always have to remind him; he never remembers on his own.
5. I'm angry that he won't take out the garbage when I spent all day doing his laundry.
6. He never buys me flowers anymore.
7. Our life is full of mundane things.
8. I'm bored with our marriage.
9. He won't even take out the garbage, why does he expect me to have sex with him?

All of these may make sense to you, but one of them will trigger a gut-level response in you. Keep going until you hit that gut response; that's what needs discussing in an "I feel... when you... " statement.

Also - and this is counterintuitive, but if he's a yeller and you're the silent type, try to say the first thing that comes to mind. Even if it's stupid. Just get it out there; don't even think about it. Let him KNOW you're angry. He might respond with something equally stupid, but eventually you'll come to a point where you can have a rational discussion about your anger. If he cares about you, he doesn't want you to be angry, and your expression of it will help him know what he's doing to provoke it. In any case it's MUCH better than seething resentment.
posted by desjardins at 11:57 AM on May 27, 2008

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