Why We Have Trouble Knowing Our Feelings: How to Recognize and Deal with Your Feelings (Part 2)
Remember the last time you felt something so strongly that your emotions got the better of you? Maybe you did something you regret. Maybe you spoke words that you wish you could take back. Or maybe you just gritted your teeth, trying your best to hang in there while it felt like the world was falling apart. Because in moments when strong emotions have ensnared us, it really does feel like the sky is falling.
Most of us, in moments like this, have at least some idea that we’re caught up in powerful feelings. What we don’t always know is what we’re feeling and why. As we’ll see, being aware of what you’re feeling is the first step to taking the reins back from your strong emotions.
But today, let’s focus on this question: What’s up with having trouble identifying what we feel?
Sometimes, when I ask a client how he felt about something that happened to him, I get a blank, uncertain stare. Many of us don’t know or don’t have words for what we feel. There are essentially three reasons why you might have trouble identifying and knowing what you feel.
Why We Have Trouble Knowing Our Feelings: Personality
The first is what we might call personality structure. We’ve all taken those pop quizzes on Facebook that tell us about our personality or Myers-Briggs type, and these can be useful ways of describing felt and experienced differences between you and loved ones.
For instance, in Myers-Briggs terms, I’m an “F” for Feeling, which means I ooze empathy and could talk about feelings all day. My wife is a “T” for Thinking, which means that even though she has feelings, she’s more cerebral and thinking than I am. I make decisions from my gut, and she thinks about them a lot. It’s one of the reasons we’re a good team.
Why We Have Trouble Knowing Our Feelings: Learned Experience
The second reason we can have trouble knowing our feelings is that we never learned to pay attention to our emotions in our families growing up. Instead of helping us learn to turn inward and be interested in our feelings, maybe feelings were a weakness or a sign or vulnerability in your family. Maybe you were taught that you can’t show weakness and that it’s better to ignore feelings, repress them, or self-medicate instead.
When our caregivers don’t give us the vocabulary to talk about feelings (e.g., linking “sad,” “mad,” “glad,” and other basic feelings with bodily and mind states), it’s hard to know what’s going on inside.
Why We Have Trouble Knowing Our Feelings: Trauma
A third reason we might have trouble with knowing what we feel is because of the trauma that we’ve experienced. Trauma is simply a way to refer to anything that happens to us that causes an injury, whether it’s physical, emotional, or (as it usually is) both.
Sometimes trauma can be brief but devastating: a car wreck, a break up, living through a natural disaster, a violent assault. Other trauma is much more subtle but, when it happens repeatedly over time, can be just as damaging as more acute trauma.
Whatever the case, when something traumatic or painful happens to us, our minds call in the hazmat team for damage control. In order to ensure emotional survival, we quarantine the painful feelings; the worse the emotional pain, the more likely that those feelings will be punted from our awareness so that we don’t have to deal with those feelings.
Sounds good, right? Well, not really. Those hurt, vulnerable parts of ourselves that are lost to us tend to show up in ways we don’t really expect or understand. For instance, they’re the reason that addiction can be so hard to change, because we’ll self-medicate ourselves to death instead of having to feel that pain again. This “punting” from our awareness is adaptive in that it works for a time to help us function and deal with our environment, but it often leads to more pain down the road.
So What Now?
If we want to change how we feel, how we are in relationships, it’s so important to first to get to know what’s going on inside of us. We need to get acquainted with the feelings we feel. We need to call back home those parts of us that were orphaned and forgotten to us.
This is a hard process and one that takes place over the entire course of our lives, but it’s the only path to becoming a whole, integrated self. It’s most difficult roller coaster you’ll ever love, one that we all must ride.
Next time, we’ll talk about how to actually learn to pay attention to your feelings.
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