We psychologists are infamous for asking, “How did that make you feel?” But we ask for an important reason: Because people often don’t know what they feel. Often bright and successful people come in to see me and when I ask how they feel about something they reply not with a feeling but with a thought. Here’s an example of one of those exchanges:
Patient: My boss just had to tell me that I forgot to include an important document in the middle of the meeting in front of everyone!
CF: How did you feel when she did that?
Pt: That she could have told me in private before the meeting and given me a chance to fix it instead of reaming me out in front of everyone.
CF: Well that’s what you think she should have done instead, but how did you feel about what she actually did?
PT: That she’s an idiot.
CF: Ok, that’s what you think about her, but how did you feel?
(This can go on longer, so before it gets painful for either of us I might supply a few feeling words to choose from if someone clearly has a hard time expressing feelings.)
CF: Did you feel angry or happy or sad or embarrassed or humiliated or something else?
PT: Oh. I felt angry and embarrassed.
CF: And what did you do?
PT: I nodded and pretended it didn’t bother me.
You see there was a lot going on in the situation that the person described. There were feelings (anger and embarrassment,) thoughts (She’s an idiot,) and behavior (I nodded and pretended it didn’t bother me.) They are important to tease apart and see how your thoughts affect your feelings, your feelings affect your thoughts, and how they, in turn, affect your behavior. They are all linked.
Everyone has had the experience of doing something that they regretted, whether it’s an unexpected reaction or a repeated behavior. The best way to stop it from reoccurring is to look at what you did and what led to it and break it up into smaller, easier to see pieces of thoughts and feelings – sort of like instant replay – that help you to make sense of your behavior. Most people aren’t so good at knowing what they are feeling and then expressing it coherently. Versions of the above conversation have happened with incredibly bright people, and not being able to label their feelings certainly didn’t make them any less bright. The fact is our society really values being intellectual and minimizes the value of expressing feelings, and often for good reason. You don’t want the ER surgeon to be overwhelmed with sadness and grief; she has to put those feelings aside for a while and get to work saving a life. Lawyers also are not paid to put their feelings into a legal motion. Just the facts please, no one wants to hear if a lawyer felt frustrated because he thought his client was uncooperative.
But it is especially important in a romantic relationship to be able to share your feelings with your partner. Be as intellectual as you like at work, but your partner wants to know more, he/she wants to know some of your internal world, which includes your feelings about things and how things affect you emotionally – and your feelings about them and how they affect you emotionally. These are the juicy bits that don’t get shared with everyone else, which they feel privileged to hear.
Now don’t worry that therapy with turn you into a teary mess and you’ll lose your intellectual prowess and start spouting off feelings and poems uncontrollably. Therapy will help you to acknowledge, understand, and express your feelings more easily – if and when you choose to. Your first language may be more intellectual and you’ll always be more proficient and comfortable in it, but you’ll learn a second language that you can slip into whenever you need to and whenever you want to communicate more effectively in your relationship.
How do you feel about expressing your feelings? Just kidding. Do you have trouble teasing apart your thoughts and feelings? Do you have a harder time expressing “negative” feelings, like anger, than “positive” feelings, like happiness?