Feelings Part 2: Identifying Feelings

As mentioned in my previous post on feeling, many people go through much of their lives ignoring or suppressing their feelings. This can be for a multitude of reasons including fear of falling apart through experiencing strong emotions and messages from childhood that labeled certain feelings as bad or unacceptable. Because suppressing feelings becomes so automatic for many, many report that they don’t even know what they are feeling. By learning to recognize the characteristics of suppressed feelings and tuning into your body, you can become much more adept at identifying what you are feeling. 

Even though feelings are suppressed, they typically don’t just go away. They often manifest in a number of bodily and psychological symptoms.

Free-floating anxiety: Anxiety is a very normal and common reaction to any multitude of situations. However, if you are feeling anxious and uneasy for no identifiable reason, it may be due to unexpressed feelings. If this is a state you are familiar with, try to observe if this free-floating anxiety arises the next time you hold in your anger toward someone. 

Depression: Depression can arise when we hold in grief or feelings of sadness over a loss. Indeed, a grief reaction that is not fully expressed can evolve into a depressive episode. Getting in touch with our grief, crying and fully mourning often allows us to feel better and begin the healing process. If you have not experienced a recent loss, your depression may be anger directed towards yourself. This is particularly true if your find yourself attacking and criticizing yourself. 

Psychosomatic symptoms: Frequent headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, high blood pressure and asthma often occur as a result of chronically withheld feelings. Holding in feelings over the course of many years is a form of stress that takes a toll on bodily systems. Often people find that when they learn to identify and express strong feelings, their physical symptoms abate.

Muscle Tension: Tense muscles are a particularly effective cue that feelings are being chronically withheld. We tend to hold tension in different body groups depending on what feeling we are suppressing. Anger tends to lead to the tightening of the neck and shoulders, while grief and sadness often results in tightening muscles in the chest and around the eyes. Fear typically reveals itself through the tightening in the stomach and diaphragm. While these are typical patterns of muscle tightening, these are not absolute. That’s why it is important to get to know your own particular physical experience of various feelings.

Tune Into Your Body

Thinking about your worries and concerns keeps your primarily in your head. It is necessary to shift focus from your mind to your body. The following steps have been adapted from Eugene Gendlin’s work on experiential focusing can be quite helpful in getting in touch with your physical experience of feelings.

  1. Physically relax. Spend five to ten minutes using a relaxation technique such as progressive muscle relaxation or meditation to slow down the mind and relax the muscles of the body.

  2. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?”

  3. Tune into the place in your body where you usually experience emotional sensations such as anger, fear and sadness. Often observing the area of your hear or gut will reveal some sensations, but this may be different for you. Try to identify your particular place where feelings arise in your body.

  4. Observe what you sense when you tune into your body. Don’t try to analyze, figure out, or judge what arises. Just allow your self to wait and observe any feelings that are surfacing.

  5. Many find that they get stuck in steps 3 and 4 and are inundated with racing thoughts. If this occurs for you, simply begin at step 1 as this may mean that you need some more time to relax. You might try a few minutes of slow deep breathing.

  6. Once you have come into contact with a sense of what you are feeling, ask yourself:

    • Where in my body is the feeling?

    • What is the shape and size of this feeling?

    • If the feeling had color what would it be?

Hopefully, this exercise will help you begin to get in greater contact with your physical experience of various feelings. If you are still having a hard time identifying what you are feeling, you might find the feeling list below helpful. 

Positive Feelings                Negative Feelings

Affectionate        Great                                                            Afraid            Hostile

Alive                   Happy                                                             Angry            Humiliated

Amused             Hopeful                                                         Anxious        Hurt    

Accepted        Joyful                                                               Apprehensive        Ignored        

Beautiful        Lovable                                                            Ashamed        Impatient

Brave            Loved                                                                  Awkward        Inadequate

Calm            Loving                                                                  Bitter            Incompetent

Capable        Loyal                                                                  Bored            Indecisive

Caring            Passionate                                                      Confused        Inferior

Cheerful        Peaceful                                                           Contemptuous        Inhibited

Cherished        Playful                                                           Defeated        Insecure    

Comfortable        Pleased                                                   Dejected        Irritated

Competent        Proud                                                        Dependent        Isolated

Concerned        Quiet                                                          Depressed        Jealous

Confident        Relaxed                                                       Despairing        Lonely

Content        Relieved                                                         Desperate        Melancholy

Courageous        Respected                                            Devastated        Miserable

Curious        Safe                                                                 Disappointed        Misunderstood

Delighted        Satisfied                                                    Discouraged        Muddled    

Desirable        Secure                                                        Disgusted        Needy

Eager            Self-reliant                                                   Distrustful        Outraged

Energized        Sexy                                                           Embarrassed        Overwhelmed

Excited        Silly                                                                 Exacerbated        Panicky

Forgiving        Special                                                       Fearful            Tired

Friendly        Strong                                                          Foolish            Touchy

Fulfilled        Supportive                                                 Frantic            Trapped

Generous        Sympathetic                                          Frustrated        Troubled

Glad            Tender                                                          Furious        Unappreciated

Good                                                                                  Guilty            Unattractive

Grateful                                                                             Hateful            Uncertain

                                                                                            Helpless        Uncomfortable

                                                                                            Hopeless        Uneasy

                                                                                            Horrified        Unfulfilled

In my next post, I will be providing some suggestions for expressing and communicating your feelings, so they no longer have to remain suppressed. 

Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.

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