When I first started journaling, I was just writing short snippets about what happened that day, so that I could read it later in order to trigger my memories of that day. This was great for remembering stuff, but what really made a big difference was when I started making a point of journaling about how I felt every day. Like I’d still write what happened, but I’d also write things like “I felt (feeling word) when that happened”.
Practicing putting my feelings into words regularly helped a lot to make get better at it, and to feel better in general. There’s a study here that confirms that when a person put their feelings into words, their emotional distress went down. If you’ve been as out of touch with your feelings as I was though, actually finding the words for your feelings might be hard though. This is referred to as Alexithymia.
Alexithymia is defined as an inability to talk about feelings. It means you have difficulty identifying, understanding and communicating your own feelings and emotional aspects of social interactions.
To me it felt a lot like having brain fog when thinking about words for feelings. Like there was this thick fog in my mind, and I knew that there were words in existence for what I was feeling, but the fog was too thick and I couldn’t find my way to them through the fog. It’s very similar to that feeling where you have a word “on the tip of your tongue” but you just can’t find the actual word. Imagine having that all the time for nearly every feeling word (and possibly other stuff as well).
Something that helped me learn how to access my feelings was to look at lists of feeling words, and pick ones that seem to fit how I’m feeling. Somehow I could look at words and know which ones apply to me, but if I didn’t have the list of words, I couldn’t think of the words by myself.
By this point I had been visiting Steve Hein’s EQI.org website for a while, and had been finding it very helpful. He talks about Emotional Literacy, which is defined as: The ability to express feelings with specific feeling words, in 3 word sentences.
For example, these are examples of 3 word sentences that count as emotionally literate:
- “I feel loved”
- “I feel rejected”
- “I feel curious”
Here are examples of phrases that are not emotionally literate:
- “I feel like … “
- “I feel that …”
These statements don’t have a feeling word at the end of them, and are actually more like thinking statements rather than feeling statements. People might use these kinds of statements, thinking that they’re talking about their feelings, but they are actually talking about their thoughts instead.
For example, saying “I feel like they didn’t listen to me” could just as well be said “I think they didn’t listen to me” and it means the same thing. Saying “I feel ignored” would be an emotionally literate way to say how I feel, instead of saying what I’m thinking.
If I say “I think they didn’t listen”, it makes me feel worse. But saying “I feel ignored” gets directly to the feeling, and acknowledging it for what it is makes me feel better even if it changes absolutely nothing about the situation that caused me to feel that way. It is pure truth. Try it right now, if you can, and try to notice how the “I feel (something)” statement makes you feel when you say it, compared to how you feel when you talk about your thoughts about what happened.
Ideally, you’d be able to use feeling words in 3 word sentences when talking to people, and they’d be able to talk about their feelings as well. But not many people know how to do this, unfortunately. I really hope that people can learn more about their feelings so that they can communicate better. It’s been really helpful for me.
I’ve also found that I have to be careful when talking about my feelings with certain people – there are some people who will just react badly no matter what. Some people will take any information you give them and use it against you, even emotionally literate 3 word sentences. Some people (like narcissists and psychopaths) just lack empathy for others.
Communicating with “I” messages and “you” messages
“I feel happy” is an I message
“You make me happy” is a you message
“I feel frustrated” – I message
“You frustrate me” – you message
Generally when talking to people, I messages are less likely to make the other person feel defensive or attacked if you’re talking about negative feelings. This isn’t a guarantee though. Some people might take things personally even if you really try very hard not to make it sound that way. When talking to emotionally mature people, it can work really well though.
All feelings are valid
There’s no such thing as an untrue feeling. If you feel rejected, then you feel rejected. It is a simple fact. This is why invalidating a person’s feelings is so hurtful – it is like lying to them and denying their reality.
There’s also no such thing as a “bad” feeling. All feelings serve a purpose, so even feeling angry and depressed are useful feelings that we can learn something from.
Lists of Feeling Words
Here are a couple of really basic lists of feeling words you can use to help you get started if you have trouble identifying your feelings.
Positive / Pleasant Feeling Words:
When your needs are satisfied, you might feel some of these.
I didn’t feel very many of those feelings often enough in my childhood, how about you?
Negative / Unpleasant Feeling Words:
When you have unmet needs, you might feel some of these.
- Left out
- Lectured to
- Imposed upon
I sure felt a lot of these more than often enough.
You can find a longer list of negative/painful feeling words here.