If you find it scary, confusing, or difficult to share your feelings with friends, family, or your romantic partner you're not alone. In fact, this is one of the main struggles my individual clients tell me they'd like to work on. Fortunately, sharing feelings is something that anyone can improve in, and the more you practice the better you'll become at it.
It takes time and effort, but if you're ready, these helpful tips will point you in the right direction.
Tip #1 - Identify feelings first
It sounds pretty straightforward, but if you don't know what you're feeling and cannot yet put it into words it will be much more difficult to share them with others. Identifying feelings can be tricky at first, especially since we can have more than one feeling simultaneously. One thing my clients have found helpful is the Wheel of Emotions, which lists categories and subcategories of emotions into an easy-to-understand color wheel.
Tip #2 - redefine your beliefs about feelings
One major obstacle that stops people from expressing their feelings is their relationship to those feelings. For example, when I ask my clients how they view anger, many of them will use words like "Violence, rage, yelling, out of control, etc." Or when I ask my clients how they view sadness, many of them will use words like "weakness, cry baby, pathetic, etc." These are often perspectives about feelings that were modeled for them from a young age.
The reason it's important to change these beliefs is that if we continue to believe that anger equates to "yelling" and sadness equates to "pathetic" we will subconsciously prohibit ourselves from expressing these feelings openly.
One thing that I have found to be helpful for clients is to make the distinction between feelings, words, and behaviors. Let's break it down using anger as an example:
This is the FEELING in the body. Each feeling has its own "symptoms." Usually, with anger our heart rate increases, and we experience more tension and heat in the body. We may also experience a tightening of the muscles in the neck, back, and chest.
Punching A Hole In The Wall
This is one of the thousands of BEHAVIORS one could engage in when experiencing the FEELING of anger, however, the feeling and the behavior are two separate things. The feeling of anger does not force someone to punch a hole in the wall.
"Just shut your mouth, idiot!"
These are some WORDS that one could say when angry, among millions of other word combinations. But again, the feeling of anger and the words used to express anger are two completely separate things.
With this separateness between feelings, behaviors, and words, we can now begin to reprocess the feeling itself. So instead of thinking that feeling anger must always lead to violence or abusive language, we can begin to see that anger is just the sensation in the body, and we can decide how to appropriately communicate this sensation to others. None of the feelings are bad. The REACTIONS (behaviors and words) we have to these feelings can either be productive or destructive.
Tip #3 - start practicing
There are many ways to practice expressing our feelings. One simple way to begin practicing is to write down what we feel on paper as if we were saying it to a close friend. Another way to practice is to stand in front of the mirror and share our feelings with ourselves. It will still feel uncomfortable but is a good stepping stone to practice being emotionally vulnerable in front of others. We could also ask someone we trust to help us go through pretend scenarios wherein we express anger, sadness, fear, etc, appropriately. This is great because there's no pressure and if we mess up we can just try again in the moment.
Tip #4 - the "how-to"
So once you're able to identify your feelings (using the feelings wheel if you'd like), and once you have redefined your relationship to your feelings, you can now begin to express these feelings to others. There are a few things you can do to make sure your feelings come across clearly:
Use "I" statements. This is important because when we say things like, "you hurt me" it comes off as an accusation rather than an expression of our own feelings. The goal is to share what's in our hearts, not to seek justice or revenge.
Take a minute. When our feelings are at their most elevated it is often not the best moment to express them. It is best practice to let the intensity of feelings subside a bit and to choose to express when you feel clear-headed and calm.
Express feelings about feelings. Being able to tell someone that it's challenging or uncomfortable to express feelings can help people to have more empathy and grace with you as you learn. Using phrases like, "It's really hard for me to express these feelings right now," or, "I'm really struggling to not shut down my feelings right now," will help others to understand that this is not a casual, easy thing for you to do. Consequently, people are usually more supportive and understanding.
Open and close gently. Jumping right into an expression of a feeling, especially if it's a complaint to someone you care about, may create defensiveness in the listener. Instead, use a gentle start-up to warm them up to the idea that you are about to express some feelings to them. This can be done by simply introducing the topic and asking if it is a good time to go into the issue now.
Tip #5 - know your audience
This final tip is less about how you express your feelings and more about how others respond to your feelings. Just as it can be difficult and uncomfortable to express feelings, it can be difficult and uncomfortable to listen to someone else's feelings. Consequently, not everyone is going to handle your expression of feelings well. Some may try to change the subject, others may respond defensively, and still, others may use sarcasm and humor to reduce the emotional tone of the conversation. The takeaway here is this: Just because some people do not handle expressions of feelings well does not mean you should not express your feelings. Remember that many people will respond well to your emotions, and if they don't it is not your responsibility to change them. Don't be discouraged. As you continue to express your feelings you will begin to set an example for those around you, and you will be more likely to attract people who are receptive to the expression of feelings.
putting it all together
Beginning your journey to express feelings to others starts with one small step at a time. First, get in touch with your feelings. Then, work to see feelings as just sensations in the body, not attached to any word or behavior. With that in mind, begin to practice expressing these feelings to others by writing them down or rehearsing. When you finally begin to express feelings to others be mindful of your word choices, tone of voice, timing, etc. And lastly, remember that no matter how skillful you may be at expressing your feelings, some people are just not going to respond well to them.
This guide is a great starting point, but if you feel that you are still going to need additional help there is no shame in seeking out a counselor. Websites like psychologytoday.com are great directories to find therapists in your area. And if you happen to live in or near Phoenix, Arizona you can visit my website here to set up an appointment.