In an episode of The Simpsons, this conversation took place:
Bart–Wow, my father an astronaut, I feel so full of…what’s the opposite of shame?
Bart–No, not that far from shame.
As mentioned previously, I am beginning a series of articles on treatments for fear and anxiety, starting with a review of different forms of therapy next week, and then a few posts on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Some CBT exercises require that we, just like Bart in the above quote, identify and communicate our feelings. So I decided to spend some time today talking about naming our feelings.
Naming the feelings
If someone who really cared about you, were to ask how you are feeling today, how would you reply? You might say that you are just fine. Or you might say something more specific, for instance, that you are feeling joyful and excited but not quite euphoric. Or sad but not depressed.
There are many feelings-related words in our language. For example:
Happy: glad, satisfied, cheerful, joyful, delighted, ecstatic, merry, upbeat….
Sad: blue, empty, gloomy, depressed, hopeless, disconsolate, discouraged, miserable….
Angry: annoyed, irritated, grumpy, furious, enraged, indignant, resentful, upset….
Afraid: tense, jumpy, shaken, panicky, worried, horrified, alarmed, agitated….
These words not only indicate different kinds of emotions, they also indicate different intensities of emotions. For instance, depending on the intensity of your fear and anxiety, you might say that you are feeling uneasy, scared, or even horrified.
Some people, however, have alexithymia, which refers to difficulty in identifying or communicating one’s feelings.¹
Though alexithymia occurs in many mental disorders (such as autism), it is not itself a mental illness. But it does create difficulties in self-understanding and communicating with others.
For example, consider the case of Jane (not her real name).
One of her best friends, Fiona, invited Jane over for dinner. While they were enjoying their dinner, Fiona mentioned that she is planning to move to another city in two weeks.
Jane suddenly stopped eating and looked upset. Noticing this, Fiona asked Jane what was wrong. But Jane, who was unable to communicate what she was feeling, just lied and said that she was late for an appointment, and left Fiona’s home right away. During the following days, Jane refused to answer Fiona’s calls.
What do you think Jane might have been feeling?
I will return to Jane’s example in a little while (and in my following posts), but first let me describe an exercise in naming your feelings. If naming your feelings interests you, then throughout next two weeks, whenever you are feeling powerful emotions, take out a piece of paper and write down what you are feeling.
You might experience strong emotions after an argument with your coworker, hearing some unexpected happy news, while reading a poem, etc. The particular activity is irrelevant at this point–just your emotions.
Try to be as specific as possible about what you are feeling. Use a dictionary or thesaurus if need be.
You do not need to use a single word to describe your emotions. You may be experiencing several different emotions, especially if you are reacting to a complex situation. So write them all down.
Just to give you an idea, this is what Jane could have written after Fiona told her that she is moving: “I feel sad that I will never see you again. How can I ever find anybody as good as you? I also feel angry that you are leaving me. Very angry. You are moving in two weeks and you tell me now? Don’t you care about my feelings? I feel deeply hurt and rejected.”
There is no right or wrong way to feel about an event. People might react very differently to the same event. So do not judge yourself for feeling a certain way.
Note whether you find this exercise easy or difficult. If you find it easy or at least it gets easier over time, then you will find the CBT exercises that we will discuss later, easier too. This means that you will more likely complete those exercises and obtain the associated benefits.
1. Sifneos, P. E. (1973). The prevalence of ‘alexithymic’ characteristics in psychosomatic patients. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 22, 255-262