I once had a client who said when I asked what feelings he felt, “I don’t seem to have feelings”. This dismayed him and his eyes began to fill up. Slowly it dawned on him that he did indeed have feelings and that he experienced them so rarely that he thought he had no feelings at all. This was normal for him.
On the other hand I have also had clients who seem to have so much feeling that they come in weeping or angry and have difficulty talking without exploding in tears or rage. Usually it is tears as we are not all that comfortable to express rage in front of others.
Feelings are an important dimension of being human and they are present in all of us. If we are biologically human we have feelings. I am sometimes asked, “But if I have feelings, tell me what they are because I can’t feel them?” Examples of feelings include love, sadness, anger, rage, gratitude, guilt, grief, and anxiety.
How we experience our feelings can vary from person to person. In some households you may find that there is so much feeling expressed that it seems chaotic and out of control, even unpredictable. This brings us to a distinction. There is a difference between EXPRESSING and EXPERIENCING.
Expressing is when we do or say something with our feelings, i.e., Cry when we are sad, or hit or shout when we are angry. This becomes aggression. Anger is the feeling and aggression is the action or words. Experiencing on the other hand is when we have the physical experience of the feeling inside our bodies, without expressing it.
To help understand feelings better here we can identify three parts to a feeling. There is the COGNITIVE label or thought that goes with a feeling, i.e., we know we are angry and recognise it.
The second part is the physical experience of the feeling in our body. This is slightly different for each feeling. Sadness, feels heavy, comes into our chests and causes us to fill up with tears and crying so our nose runs and we have tears. Anger on the other hand is hot and it rises from our stomachs into our chest and up our spine into our shoulders and arms, We form fists and clench. We feel stronger and breather faster in readiness for action.
Anxiety is different again. In anxiety we have a sense of something coming from above and pushing down, raised heart rate in palpitations, dry mouth, shakes, tight chest causing sighing, increased need to go to the toilet to pee, and muscle tension in various body areas. Anxiety can also go to our gastro-intestinal tract, causing pain, nausea and bloating. If anxiety becomes chronic the muscles can become stuck in a tense state causing significant pain. Third, anxiety can affect our senses so we have temporary visual problems, hearing difficulty, or a sense of feeling drifty or in some cases blank out altogether for brief periods, leaving us with no memory for parts of conversations. Other words for anxiety include stress and tension.
The third part of a feeling is the IMPULSE. This is an urge we have to act in a way that releases the rising energy generated by the physical and cognitive parts of the feeling. This may be the impulse to cry, to hit, to shout, to hug, to walk up close to someone you love, look them in the eyes and tell them you love them.
When a feeling is experienced it is all internal, not communicated to others and is not expressed. All feelings can be experienced without expressing them.
When a feeling is expressed it is discharged or exploded out and others can see it or hear it in the actions that we have the urge to do or words we want to say.
An example is anger. This is the feeling. It is internal to the person and is experienced as heat rising like a volcano. As described above it causes a rising sense of strength and the impulse is to strike out, to grab, to throttle or to kick. We rarely give expression to this impulse so most of the time people around us are safe. However, some people have trouble containing the impulse to act and they express the feeling in aggressive or even violent actions, i.e., road rage.
Some households have a lot of expressed emotion flying around. They shout at each other, swearing and calling each other names when they feel anger toward each other. These are rarely emotionally safe places to grow up. Children form defensive shells around themselves, learn how to handle feelings and intimacy from watching their parents and other adults and do the same themselves. They are often punished for it by the very parents they are modelling.
Couples can sometimes engage in expressing feelings to each other and this can be destructive if it is done in the heat of the feeling and without respectful concern for the emotional safety of the other person.
Expressing feelings is not as healthy for us as experiencing the feelings, knowing what they are and understanding the meaning of the feeling for us. This is all internal and only then does it lead to external actions toward other such as raising a concern, sharing thoughts and having a discussion together to reach an understanding of an issue that concerns you both.
For example, people will say to me, “But what do I do with it once I experience it?” The answer is understand it. If a couple are angry with each other and discharge their anger by shouting and calling each other names, swearing at each other or making statements about their past behaviour in anger or rage, the feeling is expressed but is this helpful? Not likely. The most likely result is that there is increased distance between the people and they do not communicate easily. There is silence and hurt. This can create loneliness and isolation.
The other alternative may be if both parties notice they feel angry, experience it internally, understand why they feel angry, understand the importance that the other person’s actions or words have had for them and only then once the feeling is understood, they engage with the other person to share their thoughts and that they have felt angry.
This is much more emotionally safe for each person. Words are not said in anger and people are not hurt intentionally because the love we have for the person is also felt alongside the anger. It is true that we can experience more than one emotion at a time. I have had clients say to me, “If I get angry that means I don’t love them anymore.” We can feel angry at the people we love most in the world.
Experiencing feelings first is more emotionally safe, better for relationships and better for us individually than expressing emotion without the experience.
See what feelings you can recognize in yourself. Monitor your own inner emotional life more closely by noticing what changes in your body when you have interactions with others. How do you feel when you are waiting for your partner to come home? Love? Anger? Sadness? Joy? Gratitude? All of the above? Nothing?
Expressing or discharging emotions does not communicate feelings and create understanding. Rather it pushes people away and creates hurt and loneliness.
Experiencing feelings enables us to create intimacy and closeness with others that is respectful, safe, and enjoyable. It also enables us to be productive in our work because our energy is available for creativity and effort. Finally it enables us to experience pleasure and enjoyment in our lives.