What Are Feelings and Emotions?

Sometimes the simple act of naming a feeling accurately can help ease distress. But how many among us can pinpoint exactly how we feel, especially when things are difficult?

Feelings, also known as our emotions and sensations, are not the same as thoughts, beliefs, interpretations and convictions. Expressing intense or difficult feelings can soften their intensity, thus decreasing the hold they have on us, possibly even allowing us to let them go. Some people mistake expressing beliefs for feelings, using phrases such as “I feel that....” This is not an expression of feelings, but rather an articulation of a conviction or a personal truth.

There exist many arguments for why we might benefit from the ability to pinpoint how we feel. One of the most straightforward: when we have an accurate name for something we are feeling, particularly when the feeling is negative, we are taking a step toward resolving the issue that is causing that feeling. Using an appropriate word for our feeling allows for clearer thinking. This, in turn, gives us control and empowerment.

Ramifications of Being Disconnected from Feelings:

The steps toward healthier acceptance and expression of feelings starts with practicing the recognition of feelings. You might be surprised to learn that some therapists hand their clients a photocopied list of feeling words to assist them in better identifying feelings as they arise.

Many people are raised to think that feelings are either “good” or “bad.” Having feelings is neither good nor bad. Feelings come; it is what we do with our feelings, how we choose to handle and express them, that can be seen as good or

  • Self-loathing
  • Self-harm
  • Inability to set healthy boundaries
  • Lack of empathy for ourselves and others
  • Addictive behaviors, including eating disorders, abuse of alcohol, prescription and narcotic drugs, gambling, workaholism
  • Unhealthy friendships and partnerships
  • Dysfunctional parenting
  • Chronic depression
  • Anger management problems
  • Hoarding

Steps to Better Understanding Your Feelings:

  1. Step One: Awareness - acknowledging that we have feelings, that all feelings are acceptable, and that we can have a feeling, any feeling, without becoming a “bad person” as a result of the feeling.
  2. Step Two: Knowing - becoming aware of the feelings our body experiences.
  3. Step Three: Identifying - being able to find a word for a feeling, to give our feeling a name.
  4. Step Four: Accepting - acknowledging that our feeling is legitimate or justifiable. Also, whether or not our feeling is something we can do something about, or is it a feeling that we need to simply experience and move on from without further action.
  5. Step Five: Reflecting - the act of taking the time to ask ourselves questions including: What caused our feeling? How can the feeling be expressed or experienced? What can we do with or about the feeling?
  6. Step Six: Forecasting - This is like the master’s class of feelings. Forecasting is about predicting how we will feel in the future. For example, if I do this, I will feel this way about having done it. Forecasting is also the ability to predict how someone else will feel as a result of something and gives us the insight to be able to compare actions. (For example, if I do this, then this will be the result; if I do that, then the result will be that.)

The Head/Heart Connection:

People who are well read in self-help literature often make the mistake of moving from one book to the next as they are published and promoted in the media. They understand many of the concepts of good mental health but are unable to incorporate those concepts into their daily life.

It is said, in emotional intelligence circles, that if we are not connected to our feelings, we have nothing against which to balance our reason. In cognitive terms, our emotions, left unchecked, have the ability to distort our vision of reality, which means our thoughts are clouded by our feelings.

Tips for Using a Feelings List:

You can use a printable feelings list such as this to guide you in examining your feelings. The words have been sorted into categories, with an umbrella word at the top of each group of feelings words. They have been further split into three levels of intensity. The list can be taken and changed to suit an individual’s understanding of the words. To use a feelings list, it is important to allow any feeling to arise, without censure or denial. If new to using a list, it may feel silly, unnatural or mechanical but with practice this feeling can lessen. People who are new to the concept of identifying feelings might start by finding an umbrella list that best suits the situation, and narrow it down from there. Once a feeling is pinpointed, the decision can be made to either sit with the feeling and experience it (often this is the case when one feels sad) or do something about it.

How to Express Difficult Feelings:

While feelings and thoughts are different, they are also the same - like the head and tail of a coin. Our reaction to events involve both thought and feelings, but feelings are emotions and sensations and are different from beliefs, thoughts, interpretations, and convictions. When you express difficult feelings, the sharp edges are dulled, and it's easier to get rid of the bad feelings. However, if we only express our beliefs about the event without the feelings, bad feelings can linger and are frequently harder to release. When someone says "I feel that..." the person is expressing a belief, not a feeling.

When you're trying to express difficult feelings, the following may be helpful guidelines:

  • Be specific not general. Consistently using only one or two words to explain your feelings, like bad, or sad, is too vague and general. What type of bad or upset (sad, mad, anxious, lonely, hurt, anxious)?
  • Be specific about the degree of your feelings to reduce the change of misunderstanding. Such as saying "I'm sad" makes them think that you're suffering major depressive disorder rather than "I'm feeling blue."

Often in conflicts, things turn sour when one or both individuals are not skilled at expressing their emotions. It is common for people to use general terms, such as feeling bad and upset as opposed to more specific ones like angry, hurt or sad. Additionally, “you statements” tend to polarize or antagonize the other party rather than help two individuals (or groups) hear each other. A “you statement” can been seen as an attack on or judgment of the receiving party, as opposed to a means of moving toward resolution.

I statements” are a much more effective means of expressing feelings and emotions to others. When we use an “I statement,” it allows us to be strong as opposed to being “mean” or assertive if you feel angry or upset with what a person has said or done.

While it may feel awkward at first, using a formula to practice "I statements" allows us to practice a different way of expressing our feelings. The formula is as follows:

I feel _____________ (say feeling - be as specific as possible)
when you ________________ (describe action)
because ________________________ (say why the feeling is connected to the action).

What is Emotional Regulation?

Unlike small children, who must learn to regulate their emotions, adults are expected to manage their emotions, especially negative emotions like anxiety, anger, and frustration, and not allow negative thoughts and feelings to drive their behavior. Still, we all experience times when we feel emotionally overwhelmed and allow our feelings to control our actions. When this happens, we often regret the things we say or do and wish we had been able to keep those emotions in check. As a part emotion regulation therapy and self-regulation therapy, there are techniques, such as meditation, mindfulness, and stress management, that can help you take charge of your negative emotions and response to emotional situations. These techniques can also provide other benefits, like improved mood and increased feelings of self-worth, compassion and empathy.

Additional Feelings Resources:

EmotionsAnonymous is an international support group for those looking to become more emotionally intelligent and has developed a 12 step program for emotional health.

If you would like help discussing emotions with children, Kids' Health has a fabulous page utilizing pictures and interactive questions.

GirlsHealth.gov provides a section for teens to help identify their feelings and healthy coping mechanisms.

Page last audited 7/2018