Written by Katie Wang
Most of us are accustomed to describing our emotional experiences in pretty vague terms, especially when we feel distressed. When we have an argument with a close friend, we might simply say that we are feeling upset or hurt, though we are most likely experiencing a lot of mixed emotions, such as anger with our friend, regret about our own behaviors, and anxiety about whether the friendship can continue in the future. Indeed, isn’t one shared characteristic of many difficult emotional experiences the fact that they tend to be so confusing?
While articulating our feelings might not come naturally to many of us, it is a skill worth practicing. Psychological research has shown that the ability to identify and understand our emotions can significantly benefit mental health. For example, people who are better at describing their emotions when feeling distressed tend to experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety and are less likely to drink heavily in response to their negative emotions. Why is this the case? One explanation for these findings is that being aware of what we actually feel can help us figure out how to manage these feelings. Returning to the example of our argument with a friend, recognizing that we feel regret and anxiety, in addition to anger, can help us realize how much the friendship means to us and prompt us to apologize and make amends.
So how do we improve our ability to understand our feelings? Putting our feelings into words, either through writing in a journal or talking to someone you trust, can go a long way in helping us sort out our feelings. Mindfulness exercises, such as concentrating on your breathing and focusing on how you are feeling at the present moment, can also be helpful by facilitating a general willingness to accept our feelings in a non-judgmental way. In my experience, emotional clarity is often hard to come by, not because we truly have no idea how we feel but because we are reluctant to acknowledge our feelings for what they are. We believe that there is a right way to feel in any given situation and try to suppress our emotions when they differ from our expectations. Yet as I mentioned in a previous post, only by accepting and recognizing our emotions can we move forward instead of dwelling on how bad we feel.
So next time when you feel confused or overwhelmed, take a step back from your emotions and try to articulate to yourself what exactly you are feeling. It’s OK if you can’t do this right away; like any other important skill, the ability to identify one’s own emotional experiences is something that can be cultivated through practice. Hopefully, over time, you will come to appreciate the value of knowing your feelings better and use this understanding to help you navigate the various emotional situations in life.