Why Talk About Feelings?
Not many of us are brought up to talk easily and openly about how we feel. Even acknowledging feelings and emotions can be difficult. Talking about feelings may make us feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, ashamed, or weak, or may be something we simply don’t know how to do.
Yet in counselling, experiencing, articulating and exploring feelings is considered very important. Indeed feelings can form the heart of a therapy session. It can be useful to know why.
Firstly, feelings and emotions are important because they fuel and motivate human behaviour. If we don’t know what we are feeling and simply act out the behaviour, we may not be prepared for the consequences – for example, other people may react in ways we had never dreamed of. Conversely, if we do know what it is we are feeling, we can behave and act consciously, choosing behaviour that is consistent with how we feel and that will obtain the outcomes we want. As a Family Therapist and Marriage Counsellor, I have witnessed the impact of this on people, time and time again, whereby a person's lack of emotional connection or attunement into their own feelings lands them in the same painful spot they try have tried so desperately to avoid from eliciting same reactions from others to choosing the wrong partner again.
Furthermore, if we know and understand our emotions, we get to know ourselves much more deeply, which means we can better care for ourselves in a whole-of-person way. We can act in ways that are more beneficial to us and become more able to lead purposeful and positive lives attune with who we really are.
Why Do We Have Feelings and Emotions?
Emotions motivate us to take action. If you are faced with a test or exam your emotions of anxiety or stress can push you into studying more. If a certain activity or hobby makes us feel content or happy we are more likely to do more of it.
Emotions help us survive, do well and avoid danger. From an evolutionary perspective, emotions help us stay alive, pushing us into appropriate reactions or to change course where necessary. So if we feel scared in a certain situation we may either get ready to fight, or run away. Feelings of unhappiness, on the other hand, might lead us to change direction in our lives. Feelings of pride or satisfaction might prompt us to continue to do our best at work.
Emotions help us make decisions. Even when we believe that we are acting purely out of logic, research shows that emotions always play an important part in any decisions we make. These range from unimportant decisions like what to have for breakfast to whether or not we should go for a job promotion.
Emotions help other people to understand us and relate to us. Emotions are often clearly visible on a person's face, or in how they stand or walk or talk. So they serve as social signals. When other people see that we feel happy or sad they receive important information which will influence how they react to us.
Emotions help us understand others. The emotional expressions of those around us give us a great deal of information which is important inter-personally and socially. With this information we can choose to respond appropriately, and so build deeper and more meaningful relationships with others. As we become more skilled at understanding others we become better able to communicate well in a great variety of situations.
Why Do We Avoid Talking About Painful Emotions?
There are many different types of emotional pain and painful feelings. These range from feeling unworthy or disapproved of, to feeling unloved or uncared for, invalidated or rejected, embarrassed or humiliated, weak or helpless, or like ‘a loser’.
While many people feel safe to express positive feelings, when they feel bad they don’t always want to admit or reveal how they feel. In fact, withdrawing, retreating, hiding, denial and isolation, are all common responses to deeply felt emotional pain. We do this for many reasons. Often, we don’t want to appear fragile or over-sensitive to others or admit our fragility to ourselves. People think that owning hurt or painful feelings makes them look weak or powerless to others. How we appear may also seem to be true to us; if we look weak and powerless, maybe we really are.
Traditionally, men avoid revealing wounded feelings because they may feel less masculine or less capable. They may have been laughed at for revealing their feelings when they were children. Women may be worried that they will appear over-sensitive or needy or pathetic, or that they’ve ‘lost control’. There are cultural differences, with some cultures feeling that keeping a stiff-upper-lip is vital to social standing; other cultures believe it is fine to express strong positive feelings but that negative ones are shameful or wrong.
It becomes more complicated when we take into account other people’s real or conjectured reactions. Since the people around us aren’t usually well-versed in accessing and expressing their feelings appropriately, we may assume that our own feelings are wrong, inappropriate, or abnormal.
In addition, our friends, loved ones or colleagues may not like hearing about our feelings. They may react by feelling guilty, or criticised, or uncomfortable, or upset. They may not want to listen to us or not listen properly and instead try to ‘solve’ our feelings. Their reactions can then make us feel inadequate or bad in turn. With a partner this can lead on to a whole chain reaction of feelings and emotions back and forth.
We may also avoid talking about feelings because we are trying to suppress them. Perhaps they are too strong or painful or make us too uncomfortable. This can particularly happen with severe emotional pain such as loss and grief, or emotions that we judge as highly negative or wrong, such as anger.
The Effects of Hiding, Ignoring or Suppressing Emotions
The problem with suppressing or avoiding emotions is that it can make them stronger. Researchers have shown that pushing away thoughts and feelings actually makes us end up having more of the thoughts and feelings than we started with. Yes, double whammy. Suppressed emotions may become warped or twisted into other emotions such as blame or anger. Suppressed emotion may resurface unexpectedly in the future, such as when listening to beautiful music. Perhaps this is why people become so emotionally involved in soap operas or in the lives of celebrities and why there are outpourings of rage or grief for famous people we have never seen or met.
Emotion suppression, which essentially is an avoidance of emotion, is a coping strategy we may have learned from our families, society or the people around us. We mistakenly believe is healthy or the ‘right’ thing to do. All emotions are basically sources of information, yet people often consider some emotions, such as sadness or anger, to be negative and, so they suppress these.
Common signs that you are suppressing emotions as a coping strategy include:
- distracting yourself as a way to keep yourself from reacting
- avoiding talking about the situation because you don’t want to feel negative emotion
- avoiding places, people or objects that remind you of the negative emotions you don’t want to feel
- using substances (such as alcohol or other illicit drugs) to numb the pain or the emotion
- over eating/comfort eating
Consistently suppressing emotion can cause many physical symptoms because suppressed emotion puts stress on your body. These are symptoms like high blood pressure, diabetes, illness due to lowered immunity or even heart disease.
There are also emotional and psychological effects of emotion suppression. People who avoid or suppress emotions are more likely to experience high anxiety and depression in their lifetime.
Research also shows a connection between avoiding emotions and poor memory as well as more misunderstandings in conversations with others. This is because people who regularly suppress emotion are often less aware of the signals they are sending to others and less aware of the social cues present in daily conversation.
In relationships, when one or both partners regularly suppress emotion, their communication skills suffer. Usually, this is when one partner complains that they don’t feel emotionally connected to the other which leads to unhealthy relationship patterns and decreased satisfaction in the partnership.
How Talking about Feelings in Counselling Helps
Talking to a counsellor about your feelings is fundamentally safe, free from judgement and blame. A counsellor is someone completely outside your life and outside any of the situations which cause you pain. They don’t know your friends or your family and don’t have opinions about how you should be living your life. They have experience dealing with many different problems and are unlikely to be shocked by whatever you bring to the sessions. They are skilled and trained to listen with empathy and acceptance.
While a counsellor listens to how you feel, they also inquire further about how you feel more deeply inside, in order to discover the underlying emotions. Emotions are the closest indicators of what is really going on for you. They are key sources of information about a person’s well-being. Exploring and working with emotions gives us the chance to truly discover and be ourselves, or to take action towards outcomes that we truly want.
In addition, a counsellor's own feelings and emotions within counselling sessions inform them on what is really going on for you and on how others may or may not respond to you. This internal and external listening, responding and processing enables the counsellor to work with you so that you gain the most from therapy
Through talking about your feelings and emotions in the dedicated and safe counselling space you can learn and grow in many ways. You can:
Learn to access and express what you feel and choose your actions
It’s not always easy to describe how you’re feeling. You may do this at first in a disjointed way or through facial or physical expressions or sounds. You may discover that you feel many things at once, or nothing, or that you feel blank or numb.
As you learn what you actually do feel and how to express that so that it can be understood by someone else counselling will help you explore more deeply. You may find that your feelings are interconnected or that one feeling actually hides another. Through this exploration you will also uncover the deeper emotions inside you which inform you and your counsellor what is really happening for you on a more profound level.
By knowing and understanding these deeper emotions you will be able to connect with yourself in a fundamental way. Out of this connection, this understanding and integration of emotion, comes the ability to make choices that are fully congruent with who you really are and what you really want, for you and with others.
Feel less alone and know your true self
Through speaking aloud and being heard and understood with acceptance and empathy you break out of your isolation. By talking about your feelings and uncovering the emotions beneath them you get to know yourself in a deeper, more meaningful way. Through this process of deep uncovering you can gain self-knowledge. This is a powerful step towards creating the ability to be happy and to create happiness for yourself in your relationships and in your life.
Clarify what you feel and take action
If you are feeling many different things at once or feel very confused, talking out loud helps you to clarify what is worrying you. Speaking out loud also helps you work out what is most important to you and what you want to do about it.
Through clarifying you learn the deeper emotion that is beneath your feelings. Once revealed and integrated this can help you know yourself much more deeply and understand what is truly important to you. Then you are able to take action that is fundamentally in line with who you really are and what is most important to you.
Put things in perspective and have real control
If you have been keeping things to yourself for a long time, a situation can seem much more overwhelming than it actually is. Talking about the situation and being supported to accept what you feel about it actually helps you manage and diminish the fear attached to certain feelings and situations.
It can also help you to cope with situations which are beyond your control or can’t be changed. When overwhelming feelings are talked about and the emotions underlying them are accessed, clarified and understood, it is then possible for you to really take control of your life.
Release and let go
In counselling you will find it easier to release mental, physical and emotional tension and can find that you have actually been carrying around a huge amount of stress and worry, possibly for years. After a counselling session you can feel as if a great load has been taken off your shoulders.
When emotion is uncovered and understood, you can choose to ‘let go’ in a much more fundamental way or be at peace with whatever the issue may be.
Practice and rehearse to truly be you
Talking about feelings, including your reactions to your counsellor, within the safety of a counselling session acts as a testing ground or rehearsal space. You can learn not just how you feel but also how to express that feeling clearly and appropriately, and you get feedback and see how someone else reacts to what you say. You can see and understand how the deeper emotions influence your feelings and behaviour and through the process of counselling become able to know who you really are and make real choices on who you want to be.
At times you may feel uncomfortable talking about how you feel even within the safety of the counselling room. But this is normal and very much a part of the process of counselling and psychotherapy. Please see this Article for more information about how negative or difficult feelings are part of the therapeutic journey and actually help strengthen your relationship with your counsellor and deepen your inner process of change.
Talking about feelings in counselling teaches us the self-awareness and skills of expression so that we can convey what’s really going on for us to the others in our lives and ask for what we need. It’s vital that we do this and take what we have learnt in counselling out into the world and into our relationships with others.
We need to be able to access emotions and feelings and express ourselves in our important relationships, so that others know how we are affected by them. If they don’t know, they can’t possibly react to how we feel or change their behaviour.
Often when other people hurt us they aren’t being vindictive; they are simply insufficiently sensitive or too involved in their own inner worlds, and may be completely unaware of how we feel. In addition, in circumstances where we do encounter people that are vindictive, if we are self-aware - if we know and understand how we feel - we can then take steps to protect ourselves or move away.
Expressing our feelings teaches our loved ones to become attuned to our vulnerabilities. Then they can respond to us appropriately. If we know how to express how we feel then others around us can grow in empathy for us. They can learn how to express their own feelings and we can learn to respond to them.
In addition, counselling also helps us to accept our feelings and emotions as valid and meaningful whatever the reactions of others. If people react badly, that doesn’t make our feelings wrong. Through counselling we develop a sense of our own self-worth, and the importance of our feelings and emotions, independently of others’ opinions. So that, finally, we aren’t the defenseless victims we feared, dependent on others’ approval for validation. Instead we have developed a deep inner source of strength, are able to be ourselves, and can truly take care of ourselves and live with real self-love.
At ARM, we can help you access and understand your feelings and emotions. Give us a call.