The Struggle To Identify How We Feel

Understanding Emotions

It is my experience that most people think like they have a pretty good grasp on what emotions are and what role they play in our lives; however, when asked to describe how they feel, many clients begin by describing their experience rather than their emotional response to the experience.

For example, years ago I had a client who had achieved great financial success but had recently become unemployed. He reached out to me because he did not feel comfortable sharing his fears and anxieties of unemployment with his family. When I asked him to share with me how he was feeling, he began telling me the story of how difficult it was being unemployed. I repeated the question, and asked that he tell me how he felt about being unemployed. He responded by describing how disappointed his wife would be if she found out who he "really" was. 

The issue he was struggling with was one that many of us share: we can easily talk about a situation, but find it very challenging to pinpoint how we feel about our experience. There are many reasons we have difficulty expressing our feelings, but they all center around one thing: fear. 

Our fears of expressing how we truly feel are ingrained in us from our earliest memories. Remember back to the first time you felt embarrassed, ashamed, or judged by someone. These experiences not only impacted your self-worth, they impacted how you behave in front of others. Often, we shut down, get angry, and blame when we suppress how we truly feel. 

While I may not know how or why you suppress your feelings, I do know that when we disguise our true emotions we keep a part of ourselves from those around us. That is the biggest price we pay for hiding, avoiding, or disguising our feelings; we fall out of connection with ourselves and those around us. The only way to rebuild those connections is to acknowledge our feelings and let go of our fear.

Learning To Own Our Feelings

First, let's consider what emotions really are: a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.

It is important to understand that emotions are instinctive responses to our circumstances. We do not judge ourselves when our doctor taps our knee and our leg kicks up; it is a natural reflex. Similarly, we must accept our feelings as reflexes to our environment. Our feelings do not define us any more than our leg kicking upward defines our body. 

The unspoken effects of suppressing our feelings is the immense energy it takes to convince others (and often ourselves) from seeing who we really are. You may be thinking, "I just turn it off." That may be true, but it takes more energy to hide from our feelings than it does to acknowledge them. Consider the energy it takes to force your leg from kicking when your reflexes are tested. To someone watching, it would appear that no energy is being expelled; however, we know that while the effort may not be visible to others, we would have to work really hard to hold our leg still when it was designed to jump in response to the doctor's tap. The amount of energy you exert keeping your feelings hidden is extraordinary, even if it cannot be seen. 

Also, while our feelings are instinctual and natural responses to our environment, it will take effort on our part to re-learn how to openly feel. Remember, we have spent a lifetime suppressing our instincts to the point that suppression is more comfortable than not; however, with a conscious effort I believe that the energy spent re-learning to own our feelings is much less energy than that spent fighting against them. 

While it is difficult at first, accepting our feelings is the first step to not only connecting with ourselves but to anyone in our lives. We are all designed to be in contact with one another, and the deeper that relationship goes, the more fulfilled we can be in our lives. 


If you are sharing feelings, say:  I feel ___________. 

Try to avoid saying: I feel like ____________. 

Visit these websites for a list of common feeling words:


10 Reasons to Choose Therapy

1. You want someone to listen to you and give you unconditional support.

If there is one rule for every therapist it is to offer what Carl Rogers referred to as unconditional positive regard. A therapist should be fully in support of the client and their needs above all else.  The client should feel that the therapist has his/her best interest in mind regardless of the topic. It is in this place that real trust is built and gives the space for the therapist to push the client towards change.  Ideally, the therapist will be able to challenge and confront the client without the client feeling judged or criticized. 

2. You want someone to help give you guidance and direction without being invested in theoutcome.

Most people have at least one confidant whom they go to when they are seeking guidance. The difference between a confidant and a therapist is investment.  A therapist is only interested in the client progressing towards a healthier more actualized self.  Whereas a confidant has his/her own needs and expectations of the client that may cloud his/her judgment when offering advice.

3. You don’t feel like there is anyone who really knows you.

Often times it is difficult to feel heard or seen by those closest to us.  Most people we confide in are too close to the situation to remain objective and/or lack the skillset to provide active listening and clear feedback. Therapists should be adept listeners whose main job is to listen and respond to the client in a very active and direct way. 

4. You’re going through a crisis situation and aren’t sure what to do.

We all go through trauma at different times in our life.  It could be the death of a loved one, losing a job, being diagnosed with a severe illness, or divorce.  There is an infinite list of events that could cause someone to reach out for help in their time of crisis.  Therapists not only have training in how to deal with these issues, they also offer a clearer view of the situation free from the emotional trauma that can cloud judgment.

5. You’re having childhood issues come up and don’t know what to do about them.

A common misconception is that having childhood events arise in your adult life is a reflection of how “good” or “bad” your childhood was. Even if you had a stable childhood you still have things that happened to you that were difficult to process at such an early age.  Navigating your past can be a daunting task and having someone with you makes this emotional and overwhelming process more manageable. 

6. You’re feeling stuck and aren’t sure how to get out of it.

Life is full of crossroads. Often times it isn’t our struggle to decide which direction to go, it’s being aware that we have choices.  There is no more common or difficult position we find ourselves in than the elusive “stuck.” Having an unbiased outside perspective can be an invaluable resource when your perspective is clouded and it appears there are no options.

7. You keep noticing the same patterns occurring in your life and want to feel more “in control” of your behavior.

There is nothing more comforting than predictability.  Most people find the unknown to be the most fearful place. This is why we continue to make the same decisions even when we know the outcome will be unpleasant.  Therapy can provide a safe environment to explore not only why we choose what we choose, but offer the support to choose differently.

8. You feel as though you have a mental health issue that requirestreatment.

Mental illness is one of the major reasons people fear therapy.  Being labeled as mentally ill carries a certain stigma because of the lack of education surrounding mental health. However, with treatment, mental illness can be manageable and vastly improve one’s quality of life.

9. You feel generally unfilled and want to know if there is something more to life than what you’re experiencing.

Sadness and depression are not the biggest enemies of purpose or fulfillment; lethargy is. It is incredibly difficult to take the step into therapy, especially when you are unmotivated to change.  This is when therapy can be most helpful.  If you feel like there is more to life than what you are experiencing, you are right.  Life is an amazing space of infinite possibility; don’t settle for mediocre.

10. You want a safe place to be yourself free from judgment and expectation.

Being our most authentic self is the most consistently difficult challenges we will ever face.  It is especially difficult in the beginning.  Being with someone who holds a safe space for you to be yourself is an incredible first step to being your authentic self.

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