Why is it Hard to Talk About Feelings?

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

You don’t have to be hyper-rational or repressed to have a hard time talking about feelings, you could be emotionally intelligent and still have difficulty. Feelings are hard to talk about. There are simple reasons and deeper, more complex reasons. The simple ones first.

You want to avoid conflict
You just want to have a nice time, so even if Indian food makes you sick, you’ll go for vindaloo because that’s what your friend wants to do. It’s not that she’ll be terribly disappointed if you say you feel like a burger, it’s that you’ll have to discuss it when you’d rather just eat.

Some feelings are ugly
Anger, envy, jealousy, hatred, terror; some feelings are so hideous you’d rather they never saw the light of day. You may feel it’s better to keep them to yourself than inflict them on anyone.

You have a fear of rejection
If you believe disclosing your feelings to those you care about would result in their rejection of you, it’s no wonder you have a hard time talking about feelings. You’d rather swallow your feelings than take the chance of making anyone mad at you.

You’re behaving passive-aggressively
When you pout, stonewall, or hold your hurt feelings inside instead of disclosing what you feel, you could be trying to punish people by weaponizing your silence.

It’s hopeless
If you’re convinced that your relationship can’t improve no matter what you do, you won’t talk about your feelings. What’s the use?

You have low self-esteem
If you believe that you are not entitled to express your feelings because you have nothing worth saying, guess what? You won’t say a peep.

You believe feelings must be present for you to talk about them
A lot of people believe that unless they are completely possessed by a feeling, they are faking it when they talk about it. They have to be enraged to talk about their anger, for instance. If they try to talk about anger when they are not angry, it seems manipulative.

You want others to read your mind
If you believe that others should already know how you feel, you would have no reason to talk about it. If you have to tell your husband you love it when he brings flowers, it won’t count when he brings them.

You’d rather be a martyr
It’s more heroic to be unfulfilled, unrequited, and unreciprocated than to have your needs met.

You’d rather just solve the problem than talk about it
It feels like whining to talk about your feelings.

Those are the simple reasons it’s hard to talk about feelings. What’s the deeper reason?

Feelings are practically impossible to talk about.

Let’s look at how a feeling is made. Before a feeling can be shared, it has to pass through three facilities that extract the raw material, assemble it, and distribute it to the world.

The first facility extracts the raw material. In the beginning there was the feeling as it is before you compared it to anything or had words to describe it. At this point, the feeling is a combination of a body sensation and a social situation, but before words and comparison. You can’t even call it a feeling at this point, it’s a sensation. But since both feeling and sensation are words, it’s hard to talk about this at all; that’s why you move it through the other two facilities.

In the next facility, you compare this instance with others you have experienced before. Making that comparison forms it into a feeling as experienced by you. Where and when did this happen before? What happened next? This is all still before words, remember. It’s pure association, like déjà vu.

Words help, so you move it on through the third facility, where you start to put words to it; words that other people know, so you can communicate with them. You call this a feeling and then you identify what you are feeling. The feeling is now ready for distribution. You could decide not to say anything at all because of the simple reasons people don’t talk about their feelings; or you could verbalize your feelings. You might say, for instance, “You just stepped on my toe, you prick! It hurts and I’m angry!”

Congratulations, you have just succeeded in talking about your feelings. What was so hard about that?

Aside from the fact that you might have just started a fight, you performed three very complicated operations. You took a raw experience, made it into a personal experience, and then packaged it for others.

It started with your nerves firing a signal from your toe to your brain. There was something that stepped on your foot. You shipped these raw experiences off to the next facility where you put things together.

In the second facility, you decide those two data points, the pain in your toe and something stepping on it, belong together. You decide the thing that stepped on your foot was a guy. You remember other guys stepping on your toe years ago, in the schoolyard of your youth. They were bullies who used to get things started this way. You learned it was best to stand up to them; so, by golly, you decided you’re going to stand up this time and not be pushed around. Voila, you just made a raw experience personal.

Before you ever said a word, the third facility, in charge of distribution, had already gotten started, putting labels on things. The guy, because of his association with the bullies of your youth, became a “prick”; the feeling you got from your toe was “hurt”; and your decision to stand up to bullies was called being “angry”.

Taking a raw experience, making it personal, and deciding how and if you would communicate it to others all happens unconsciously; that is to say, automatically, without any deliberate involvement on your part. The advantage of unconscious processing is that you get your final product quickly. The disadvantages are the mistakes you make and your inability to know just what you were thinking.

A feeling happens very quickly, but when you’re talking about your feelings, going painstakingly backwards through the process, it’s excruciatingly slow. It’s not only hard, it may well-nigh be impossible. Few people have trouble proclaiming their feelings as long as it’s safe to do so; but talking about feelings is different from declaring them. To talk about them, you have to be able to pull them apart and see how they’re made. It’s not enough to say the guy is a prick, your toe hurts, and you are angry; if you’re going to talk about your feelings, you’re going to be asked how you came to those conclusions and what it all means to you.

It’s like your teacher said in math class, show your work. It’s not enough in math class to have the right answer, you need to be able to demonstrate how you arrived at the answer. Knowing the process is more important than knowing the answer. You can always arrive at the right answer accidentally; but if your process is erroneous, you’re in big trouble.

Working backwards, we begin the tour in the third facility, where labels are put on and the feeling is either sent out to others or kept in the warehouse. Feelings often get mislabeled. There are thousands of feelings words. If you don’t talk about your feelings much, you’re not going to have a great vocabulary to choose from. You might say, for instance, you are angry, when a better word would be piqued. Having the right word changes how your message is received as well as your own understanding of the feeling.

Here we encounter a problem inherent in using words. If you don’t know what a word means, you can look it up in a dictionary, but all you’ll find there are other words. Look them up and what do you get? Still more words. There is never a point where you get to the actual thing in itself. That is to say that no matter what word you choose as your label, angry or piqued, it will never completely capture the feeling as you experienced it. For that, we need to go to the second facility.

As inadequate as words are, it’s harder to understand things without them and impossible to talk about them. The second facility is where you put together the raw material with memories of similar experiences before words are added.  This part works a little like searching Google by image rather than keyword. The raw feeling enters, and the hunt begins for others like it from the database of memories. It pulls up all the times people stepped on your toes in the past, including all the times they figuratively “stepped on your toes”. The logic is a personal one, using a secret algorithm. In this logic, you are the center of the universe and everything happens for, or to, or because of you.

As hard as it is to communicate your personal experience to others, the operations of the second facility, it’s even harder to understand your personal experience without words or memories to compare them to, the operations of the first. That’s where it’s really impossible to talk about your feelings. So, anyone who claims they can talk about their feelings is wrong. There is always a point beyond which they can’t because feelings originate in that place beyond words and personal understanding.

When you come in and talk about your feelings with me, we won’t spend any time touring the first facility. The only way to do so might be for you to stomp on my toes and for me to stomp on yours, just to recreate what it was like. I’m not sure we would gain much, so we won’t go there.

We would spend most of our time touring the second facility, questioning the reason you associated this guy stepping on your toes with the bullies of the past. You probably didn’t realize you made that connection, yet that connection powerfully determined how you responded to it. That wasn’t the only connection possible; you could have just as easy concluded the man was an oaf, not a prick, because he wasn’t looking where he was going. Any other perceptive third party can help because they don’t have the same associations as you. Bullies don’t immediately come to my mind when someone steps on my toes, but I can see how they might.

For me to help, you have to be willing to not only proclaim your feelings but also analyze them to death and have me call your conclusions into question. That can be hard, depending on your associations.

Here we have another incident that gets processed into a feeling. Someone comes by and says you should talk about your feelings. That bit of raw material gets processed by comparing it to incidents that, by your personal logic, you associate with other incidents you believe are like it.

What comes to your mind when someone says you should talk about your feelings? I’ll tell you what comes to many people’s minds. Thy bristle whenever they hear the word should and wonder how that person thinks they have the authority to tell them what to do. Use the word should with them and they may rebelliously defy you. The next thing they think is, this person is not only telling me what to do, it’s like he wants to see me naked, not so we can do fun things we must be naked to do, but so he can see me naked and take note of all my flaws. If they make those associations, they won’t be able to talk about their feelings without humiliating themselves in the process.

So, here we have another reason why it’s hard to talk about feelings. There were the simple ones, the complex one, and, now, a shadowy one, hidden in the recesses of the subconscious. It’s hard to talk about feelings if you associate talking about feelings with being humiliated or anything else equally undesirable.

Fortunately, few people have trouble talking about their feelings with a therapist once they are satisfied the therapist will act professionally. You wouldn’t go to the dentist and refuse to let her put her fingers in your mouth; you wouldn’t see your accountant and not let him know how much you make; you wouldn’t go to the doctor and not take your clothes off so she can perform an exam; so few people see a therapist without talking about their feelings.

Sometimes the reason it’s hard to talk about your feelings is because you haven’t found the right person to talk to; but keep looking. I think it’s worth it. Being able to talk about your feelings helps you understand them and use them properly.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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