How To Talk About Your Feelings
I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 5 of 100.
I believed that I talked about feelings ALL THE TIME. As a baby, I “talked about feelings” by crying over my (alleged) constipation. As a five-year-old, I “talked about feelings” by crying over chicken being made out of chicken. In elementary school I “talked about feelings” (cried) so much that I was no longer allowed to play horses with the other girls during recess. In seventh grade, I received an email from my ex-best friend that said, among other things, “You are so sensitive about everything and you cry all the time. It’s not fun to be around you.”* I talked about my feelings with every boyfriend I ever had, and at some point, the boyfriends tired of the "feelings conversations” (cry-fests) and broke up with me. When I was a teacher, I “talked about feelings” to my students by sulking at the front of the room and openly crying whenever I decided they were being bad.
As you have likely discerned, I wasn’t actually all that good at talking about feelings. I was good at crying about things.
The truth is that I was experiencing a lot of feelings and I wasn’t 100% sure where to put them, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let them stay bottled up inside. I learned from movies and television that suppressing emotions leads to things like throwing diet pills all around the music store where you work, and inappropriately crying all over Dean** even though he is married. So I cried a lot in my daily life; and to be fair, I still do.
Talking feelings is actually deceptively difficult. While I grew up talking through my tears and using “I feel” statements, I never learned what was supposed to go after “I feel.” Here are some of the sentences I often used during the cry-times:
- I feel like you hate me.
- I feel like everyone hates me.
- I feel like you’re going to judge me if I do the thing I like to do.
- I feel like he’s purposefully ignoring me whenever I do the thing I like to do.
- I feel like the whole world is against me all of the time, whether I am doing the thing I like to do or dutifully faking my entire reality.
Recently, I learned that “I feel like you—" is not a feeling statement. To make a true feeling statement, you have to say an actual feeling.
For several years in New Orleans, I taught arts-integrated emotional literacy for students who held diagnoses of Emotional Behavioral Disorder. The whole goal of the class was to teach kids the vocabulary words for different emotions, and to get them to use those words when challenging emotions came up. We spent like six weeks just doing “comfortable” and “uncomfortable,” because honestly, it is incredibly difficult to know exactly what emotion you are feeling — especially when you’re deeply uncomfortable. You can know you’re uncomfortable, but the question of whether you are scared, angry, sad, nervous, jealous, disgusted, or some combination of all six is trickier. It’s crazy that adults expect five-year-olds to master such a skill before moving on to first grade. It is, indeed, probably the most difficult skill required of humans, period.
The reason that it’s tough to talk feelings isn’t entirely identification-driven, though. We don’t participate in a culture where discussing feelings — I mean really discussing them — is normalized, and naming an emotion actually makes a person vulnerable — often to her detriment.
It is a difficult subject to write about, because putting feeling words into a blog post in any sort of earnest way makes me a little more vulnerable than I’d like to be. Plus, when I think about the times I’ve REALLY talked about my emotions over the course of my life, I think of private moments that don’t belong to the public. They’re moments that I rarely even trust with my diary. These are the deep, dark, terrifying scenes I often wish would disappear entirely into the folds of my memory.
My sister is visiting right now. Two nights ago, I overheard her asking Luke, “Do you like to talk about feelings?” And Luke said, “Uhhhh, no not really, I guess. I mean, I’ll do it; but, I don’t know. I don’t really have a lot of feelings. I’m mostly a happy guy.”
In the kitchen, where I was attempting vegan caramel,*** I nodded my head. This was true: Luke is mostly a happy guy. He does, however, regularly feel stressed or frustrated with something going on at work; and whether or not Luke likes to talk about feelings, he is absolutely skilled at it. "Talking about feelings" does not only refer to talking about your own feelings — although that can be a big part of it. Luke is good at “reflecting and validating” (a term I am borrowing from him): that is, after I go on a feelings tear, Luke makes affirmative sounds and then says, “It makes sense that you’re feeling [insert feeling word] because [insert reason].” He doesn’t offer a solution. He just says that the thing I am feeling makes sense. I’m constantly amazed at how much that is enough.
It may be difficult to talk to the people we love about our feelings partially because the reflecting-validating response is so uncommon. For example, “I’m feeling scared because you’ve been coming home late all week and my brain is inventing all kinds of crazy and terrible things you are doing with those extra two hours” is rarely met with, “That makes sense.” Our socialized default is to get defensive — as though an emotion is equivalent to an accusation. We respond, “You need to trust me. I’ve been having to work late for the last few nights because I’m on this huge project. What, do you want me to send you a picture of my project with a time-stamp on the corner? Would that fix this?”
Early in my polyamorous life, I was unable to meet vulnerability with understanding; the underlying implication that I might be doing something wrong was too great. When someone felt jealous (and that’s the big emotion that gets paraded around in non-monogamous relationship structures), I’d spend a great deal of time explaining why they shouldn’t feel jealous. I often wonder what would have happened had I stopped and said only, “It make sense that you’re feeling jealous, because [insert reason; probably something like “I keep talking about how great Keith’s tongue ring is” or whatever].”
Alexis told me that it is difficult for her to hear me explain an uncomfortable emotion in which she is implicated, because she she tends experience a set of events differently than I do. For example, if I felt hurt because Alexis took the last corn-pop and I was stuck with a pepper-pop, Alexis might want me to know that she only took the corn-pop because she thought I wanted the pepper pop; in fact, believe it or not, ALEXIS PREFERS PEPPER-POPS OVER CORN ONES!
But feelings can’t be wrong. I went to a workshop recently where the leader asserted that “there is no such thing as too sensitive,” and that simple idea completely revolutionized my life.
In the corn-pop/pepper-pop debacle described above, I first need Alexis to validate that my pain makes sense. “You love corn-pops and I took the last one without asking. It makes sense that you feel hurt.” And then Alexis can say her emotion: “I feel frustrated in this situation because I like pepper-pops better; neither of us communicated what we wanted.” And that’s all. No, “Why are you so sad? It’s JUST A CORN POP!” No, “What do you want me to do? I can’t go back in time and replace the pop you wanted.” Just, “That makes sense” and, “Here’s how I feel,” and that’s all.
Yesterday I experienced a set of irrational emotions and I had a big cry in the bathtub. (As I felt this cry building up inside me I described it as “having cry-errhea,” and I thought that was very clever and Alexis said that yeah, that was something I should publish somewhere.) I lay in bed in my old-person’s nightgown quivering like my constipated baby self. And when I told Alexis, “I feel sad that you didn’t like the arepas place where I took you,” Alexis said, “It makes sense that you feel that way.” (Even though, as I secretly kind of knew, Alexis DID like the arepas place JUST FINE.) Everything in my body relaxed. I often can't believe how deep the need for understanding is. But then, you see it all over the news: People needing to be understood; demanding to be understood; surrounded by other people who refuse to listen because they want the same thing. It becomes easy to understand how hurt leads to hurt.
I am still learning feelings conversations, but trust me on this: I am GREAT at Mecha Marathon. I believe myself to hold the WORLD RECORD for this game. This cannot be proven, but my heart knows it to be true.
*This email also contained the following gem: “Isn’t it kind of your own fault that you’re so fat?”
**I could only find the scene with Lorelai crying in front of Luke from the same episode. The world of YouTube cares less about Rory's sadness.
***If you eat honey, heat half a cup of honey plus half a cup of peanut butter over the stove stirring constantly until caramelly strings form. If you don’t eat honey, substitute exorbitantly expensive brown rice syrup.