During couples therapy, I often hear one partner turn to the other partner and say “I feel…” followed by things like “…you are not listening to me,” or “…you shouldn’t do that.” “That isn’t a feeling, – that’s a thought,” I’d comment. They’d look at me, confused about the difference and why the distinction is important.
What is a feeling?
As with couples I see, many people do not understand the difference between an emotion and a thought. However, it’s important to know the difference for your emotional and physical health. A thought is a concept, notion, or opinion, but an emotion is something that you experience. When you feel something, you experience changes in your body, such as your warmth or heat, constriction or tightness, a pounding heart, clammy hands, or heaviness in your chest. When you’re not being heard, or if your partner keeps doing something that you are uncomfortable with, then you will most likely feel irritated, hurt, angry, or some combination of the three, along with the physical sensations.
In general, common emotions are: sad, angry, hurt, horny, frustrated, confused, and happy. More complex and often harder to identify emotions include aggravated, provoked, irked, exasperated, distressed, blue, flustered, and agitated.
You can also have two or more different emotions at the same time. When you say that you have “mixed feelings” about something, it implies that it is confusing or it doesn’t make sense. But when you look closer, many emotions can occur at the same time. To illustrate, when you graduate from school, it isn’t uncommon to feel exhilarated, disappointed, sad, and apprehensive. You’re proud of your sense of accomplishment, disappointed and sad to leave friends behind, and anxious because you are uncertain about the future. In fact, some students fail in senior year because of an unconscious fear of leaving.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to distinguish between different feelings. The emotions excitement and fear are two emotions that have a lot of crossover (think roller coasters and scary movies). That’s partly because very different feelings can have the same physical sensations. With both, you can have a lump in your throat and break out in a sweat when you are learning to skydive (fright) and when you see someone who you’re attracted to (anticipation and elation).
If you don’t state your emotions directly, you run the risk of acting them out. For example, if you give your partner a dirty look, an eye roll, or the Silent Treatment, you are expressing anger at something. No matter what the emotion is, if you don’t state it directly, it has to come out one way or another.
Anxiety: A Different view
Many people talk about having anxiety. I approach anxiety (and to a similar degree, depression) as being made of up a bunch of feelings, many of which we may be unaware.
Let’s say you have a job interview coming up. You talk about being anxious as if it’s what you’re feeling about the interview. But let’s break it down. Part of the anxiety could be related to the uncertainty: you don’t know who you’re going to speak to or what they’re going to ask.
Maybe you’re afraid. What if you don’t get the job? What is someone is a better candidate than you are? Related to this feeling of fear is worry. What if I take the position but it doesn’t work out?Finally, maybe you’re excited about the job, but it gets rolled into this thing we call anxiety. It pays well, you have a better commute, etc. The thought of starting is actually exciting!
Many other feelings can make up what we call anxiety. The ones that come to mind are in the fear family – worry, stress, tension, trepidation, and so on. But guilt and anger are two other emotions that can bind up into our anxiety. What matters is how you feel about having those feelings in the first place. If you’re in a situation that in which you don’t feel entitled to your emotions, anxiety can result. The other way anxiety creeps in is when all of these emotions bind up, leaving you feel frustrated and overwhelmed. These too are feelings that arise and contribute to the feeling of anxiety.
Why it’s important to express your feelings
No matter what the reason is, allowing yourself to experience your emotions – even if you can’t label them – is critical to your well-being. Revealing your emotions can give you the strength to not use unhealthy strategies. Expressing your emotions can also put you in a better mood, alleviate depression and anxiety, and lead to a better functioning immune system.
We can all work to become better at expressing our emotions and at the same time rely less on unhealthy coping strategies to deal with them. The other point to remember, however, is that you will never ever be perfect at it. To realize your imperfection is to recognize your humanity. It’s part of life to live with some broken-ness or imperfection. This can lead to another important emotion – compassion for others.
When it comes to what we call depression or anxiety, part of what helps is when we break them down into their component parts. As you can see from the section on anxiety (above), we all have a combination of emotions based on our experiences and our perceptions of them. When we break them down into smaller parts, perhaps the overwhelm and other strong emotions will become a little easier to manage, thus making it easier to deal with the emotions that fuel both depression and anxiety.
Becoming comfortable with your imperfection may not be easy because it involves tolerating some very unpleasant emotions. The good news is that once you become comfortable in sharing your emotions, you are on the road to being fully human and capable of loving yourself and others.