Are you confused about what you’re feeling? That’s far more common than you might realize.
Emotions aren’t always these crystal clear pointers and reactions to what we’re experiencing in life.
Sometimes they’re muddied. Sometimes they’re entangled up with other stresses or emotions.
And sometimes, it may be an entirely new and different feeling that we haven’t experienced before! To feel an emotion that you haven’t experienced before can be almost surreal. You think you know yourself, and then all of a sudden, completely out of nowhere is this new emotion shaking loose from the depths of your brain.
The ability to identify and articulate your emotions is an important skill to work on if it’s not something you’re good at. The better you can clarify what you feel and why you feel it, the better you’ll be able to move through life, have healthy relationships, and take care of your mental health.
In this article, we’ll first look at some reasons why you might not know how you feel. Then we’ll move on to the strategies you may use to identify your emotions.
You might wish to consider going through this process with a trained counselor if your emotions are interfering with how you live your life or if you believe there might be difficult issues to address. If so, you can click here to find and connect to a counselor near you or one who can help you remotely.
6 Reasons Why You Don’t Know How You Feel
What’s stopping you from getting a handle on what you are feeling? Why might you not be able to pinpoint the emotion?
1. You may be experiencing more than one emotion, and they’re tangled.
Emotions aren’t always clear or clean. Sometimes they may be entangled with one another in a confusing and disorienting way because of what you’re experiencing.
Consider the following example:
Stephanie tragically lost her father unexpectedly a few years ago. The two were greatly looking forward to the tradition of the father walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding.
But as Stephanie’s wedding date grows near, she’s not only experiencing a lot of stress because of how stressful weddings can be; she’s also experiencing the happiness of the event and a sense of deep sadness that her father isn’t there to walk her down the aisle.
In this example, the wedding is touching on those feelings of her loss and grief for her father, as well as the joy of moving into this new stage of her life. Those feelings can be all mixed up together with the joy and sadness of the event.
2. You may have been conditioned not to feel that particular emotion.
The experiences we have in life often influence the way we subsequently move through it. Certain experiences can cause us to make decisions because we’ve learned that they bring certain outcomes.
As a positive example, maybe you enjoy going down to the park and drinking an iced tea because you realize it makes you happy to be out in nature with fresh air.
On the other hand, consider a child who grows up in an abusive home. That child may learn that expressing anger or frustration quickly draws negative attention from their parent. They are conditioned to avoid expressing their anger or frustration as a way to keep themselves safe in a dangerous situation. And that isn’t easy to unlearn as an adult.
Those emotions don’t necessarily disappear completely or forever. They may be unhealthily stifled and then come out in other ways, such as explosive anger or substance abuse. And when you finally do cut through the explosive anger or substance abuse, you may be finding the real, much different emotions that were smothered underneath.
3. It may be a feeling that doesn’t have an English word to describe it.
It’s pretty interesting to look through historical words. You can see words that were once used and have since fallen out of favor or evolved into something else. There are a lot of emotions that aren’t well-represented in the modern English language. And one of those words may be used to describe an extremely specific feeling.
Here are just a few examples:
Sonder – The full realization that other people are living a life as complex as your own. They have their own problems, ambitions, heartbreaks, triumphs, and relationships to keep up with. And all of that depth is hard to grasp or appreciate because we are so busy with our own lives.
Chrysalism – The feeling of tranquility and peace from being indoors during a thunderstorm, enjoying the sound of the rain on the roof and thunder rolling in the distance.
Ambedo – A type of trance where a person becomes enthralled with sensory details where they really feel the depth of existence and life. Like standing outside on a warm summer day when, suddenly, you have a moment of stark realization with the warmth of the sun on your face, the trees blowing gently in the wind, and the sounds of birds singing that all of this is life.
4. You may not have experienced this emotion before.
Sometimes an emotion is just new and foreign. We don’t know how to identify it because we’re not yet familiar with it.
Consider a person with chronic depression. They sunk into depression as a teenager, self-medicated with drugs, alcohol, and bad decisions until they were almost 40 years old. They decide to finally get past their fear, which they masked with alcohol and being stubborn, are diagnosed, and start on an antidepressant.
And once they start that antidepressant, their brain starts doing things that it has not done in decades, allowing them to feel and experience emotions that their mental illness and substance abuse had been strangling all that time.
It’s an adjustment to learn how to be okay with those new feelings. Even the positive ones feel scary and alien because they’re just foreign, like the first time a pinprick of light pierces the darkness of a long-forgotten cave buried deep underground.
5. You’re dissociated from the emotions.
Dissociation is a common defensive mechanism for coping with overwhelming feelings. For many people, this starts in childhood, and not always with abusive parents.
Parents who are not emotionally intelligent may not understand how to help their children healthily experience their emotions. The child gets overwhelmed, and their mind shuts down to avoid dealing with all of the emotional stimuli they are exposed to.
This isn’t necessarily an unhealthy thing. Sometimes we need that momentary reprieve. However, in many situations, dissociation is an unhealthy thing because they aren’t actually dealing with their emotions.
Dissociation enables them to avoid the emotions, pushing them further away, and making them harder to deal with in the future.
6. Your feelings may just not be clear yet.
Sometimes we may experience emotions that have not yet had enough time to clarify their origin or where they are coming from. Maybe you’re in a situation where you feel discomfort, but you can’t quite put your finger on why you feel that discomfort.
Consider this example:
Mark starts a new job and meets his boss. Things go well for a while, but something about the situation makes Mark feel uncomfortable. And then it happens. One day, something doesn’t go right, and Mark’s boss ends up fuming and screaming at another employee.
Mark felt uncomfortable and knew something wasn’t right. What was he picking up on? Well, Mark’s dad had rage problems. And like his dad, his boss was barely concealing his rage beneath a veneer of civility. He could pick up that his boss was not a nice person, but he didn’t understand why his boss was pinging his fear and defensiveness until he revealed himself to be who he was.
Of course, it’s not always that severe or extreme. Sometimes we just need more time to let vague emotions come together to allow us to interpret what it is that we’re feeling.
How To Identify Your Emotions
Now that we’ve looked at why you may not be able to identify your feelings, let’s examine a process to clarify what you’re feeling.
The following four-step process should get you closer to understanding what you’re feeling. It may not perfectly clarify your emotions, though. As we previously discussed, sometimes you may need time to figure out what you’re feeling and why you feel it.
We highly recommend writing down your answers. Writing your emotions helps you learn how to identify and articulate them. It can also help you cope.
Furthermore, you’ll have these things written down to review and think about later, which will help you clarify those emotions as you sort through it all.
1. Identify your baseline emotions.
There needs to be a starting line for sorting out your emotions. Record what emotions you’re presently experiencing. Are some of them stronger than others? When did you start feeling these emotions?
You may find yourself resistant to exploring your emotions this way. Many of us have been conditioned to sweep all of our emotions under the rug of “fine” and “okay.” One way you can break through that wall is by describing what each emotion feels like to you.
You feel “fine.” Okay. So what does fine feel like? Why is it fine? Do you feel fine about something you shouldn’t feel fine about? Is fine what you actually feel? Or is it what you’re telling yourself so you can avoid touching the painful spots?
Take each emotion you’re feeling and break it down. What are you feeling?
2. Look for the sources of your emotions.
The next step is to identify what is causing those emotional reactions where you can. Why do you feel angry? Why do you feel sad? Why do you feel okay?
There may or may not be a direct cause and effect relationship between an action and your emotion. Make a note if you feel like you can’t identify where that emotional response is triggering from.
Let’s look at another example:
Kathy is feeling frustrated and overwhelmed with her husband. He keeps nitpicking inane things that are unimportant, and she can’t help but feel frustrated.
Though the dominant emotion she is experiencing is frustration, it may also be underlined by feeling as though she is being invalidated or not supported. Maybe her husband is nitpicking her efforts in the relationship maliciously, or maybe he has his anxiety that is causing him to excessively worry about things that are unimportant because that’s just how anxiety goes sometimes.
Either way, Kathy is looking for the source of her emotional response that is within her control.
Now, in this example, it’s tempting to point at the husband’s unhealthy behavior, and to some degree, that’s fair. However, sometimes we have to navigate emotions that we cannot escape or won’t change, and we just need to deal with them.
Maybe their relationship is otherwise happy and healthy; it’s just this one thing that really gets under her skin. Or maybe it’s something like working a job that causes a lot of stress, that can’t always be immediately discarded because of that whole food and place to live thing.
3. Avoid judging your own feelings.
The goal of getting these emotions out is to better identify and clarify them. You won’t be able to do that if you judge your own emotions as you’re getting them out.
Whatever you’re feeling is valid, even if it might not necessarily reflect reality. By valid, we mean that yes, you are experiencing them, and that is something to acknowledge.
But our emotions don’t always reflect reality. You may realize that what you’re feeling isn’t rational or reasonable for the situation, but you want to avoid imposing that kind of judgment on your feelings until you know what you’re feeling and why.
4. Talk about your feelings with the appropriate people.
The last step is to talk about those feelings with the appropriate people. If Kathy understands why her husband is making her upset, she can talk to him about it, and hopefully, he will be open to working with her to find a solution.
Maybe he needs to talk to someone himself to deal with his anxiety or find a different way to deal with his concerns. Or maybe he’s not in a situation where he can fix the problem but can do something like journaling out his anxieties so he can vent them without undermining his relationship.
Sometimes, it is better not to talk, though. Not everyone deserves to know how you feel. A lot of people just aren’t that emotionally intelligent and won’t necessarily be able to help.
That’s where a counselor should enter the picture. If you’re having problems with emotions that you can’t seem to control or understand, seeking help from a certified mental health professional is the right step to take. They can provide a safe, knowledgeable environment to help you find your way through your emotions.
If you need to speak to a counselor, you can click here to find one near you or who you can work with via phone or video chat.
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- How To Express Your Feelings In Words
- Emotional Triggers: How To Identify, Understand, And Deal With Yours
- Emotional Numbness: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment
- 12 Radical Acceptance Coping Statements To Deal With Difficult Emotions
- 20 Healthy Coping Skills: Strategies To Help With Negative Emotions
- 11 Critical Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Shut Out Your Negative Feelings
- 8 Emotional Self-Care Strategies: Take Care Of Yourself Emotionally
- How To Compartmentalize Your Emotions And Thoughts
- Stop Ignoring Your Feelings: They Are Trying To Tell You Something