I occasionally think how backwards it is that we go to school to learn math, reading, and science but we didn’t take classes on feelings or relationships, things that will impact us for the rest of our lives. Many of my patients struggle with identifying and expressing feelings. Often, they grew up learning that certain emotions were “bad,” and they received little to no help from their parents in educating them about affect management. Nowadays, many children are learning in school and at home essential skills to help them identify and regulate their feelings, something of which most adults today could definitely make use.
When working with patients who need help developing a language for their emotions, I encourage them to begin with what I label “primary feelings,” akin to primary colors. They start by learning the basic emotions of anger, sadness, happiness, and fear. Or as some therapists say, “Mad, sad, glad, and scared.” These are the red, blue, and yellow of feelings. If we put each of these feelings on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the mildest degree of the emotion and 10 being the most intense, we can start to differentiate the varying degrees of an emotion. For example, if we have a scale for anger, we put “angry” in the middle at 5. Along the anger scale, we can put feelings such as irritated and annoyed at the low end of the scale - around 2 or 3 - and a feeling such as enraged at a 10, on the high end of the scale. These feelings all are different forms of anger, just to varying intensities of this emotion. On the “happy” scale, with “happy” a 5, we might label a 1 or 2 “satisfied” or “content,” while a 9 or 10 might be “ecstatic” or “exuberant.” Additionally, some feelings are a combination of primary ones. For instance, “hurt” might be a combination of sad and angry. “Surprised” may be a mixture of fear and happiness. When we peruse lists of feelings, we start to see how most labels for feelings can be either a degree of a primary feeling and/or a combination of multiple primary feelings.
The other skill that most patients need help with is differentiating feelings from thoughts and behaviors. If we stick with the core emotion of anger, then anger is the feeling, while slapping is a behavior used to express this feeling, and “I hate you” is a thought that is attached to this core feeling. Most people confuse these and think that “getting angry” is the same as hitting and screaming. We have choice about which behaviors we want to employ to express a feeling; even when it feels “out of control,” we can choose not to hit or scream. We do not have choice about the feeling itself. Feelings are neither good nor bad, they simply “are,” the same way thirst and hunger simply are physiological states. People rarely judge themselves for being thirsty but people often judge themselves for being angry or sad. We cannot choose if we are angry or not, but we can choose how we respond to that anger.
Much of my work with patients around feelings is to educate them about the differences between thoughts, behaviors, and emotions and to help them learn that emotions are not something “bad” they need to run from. I can help them learn various healthy and effective ways to express feelings, in contrast to unhealthy, maladaptive expressions of emotions they may have learned up until now. Most importantly, I help my patients learn that feelings are not something they need to avoid at all costs, but rather essential parts of being human.