Problems in identifying our emotions are frequent. The main cause is that nobody has ever taught us to do it. In fact, the low importance that’s often placed on our mental health is a contributing factor in people ignoring how they feel. Indeed, “I don’t know how I feel” is a phrase that psychologists frequently hear in psychotherapy sessions.
Not knowing how you feel can become a real problem. That’s because your emotions serve various functions. Therefore, having trouble recognizing them prevents you from processing and learning from them. Furthermore, not being able to recognize and express feelings is also associated with certain mental health complications.
Why don’t you know how you feel?
Often when you’re asked, “How are you?”, you automatically respond with “Good.” However, are you really okay or is it just an automatic answer you’ve given?
This leads to another important question. How many times a day do you stop and think about how you really feel? If we consider the research in this regard, it’s highly likely that you don’t do it often.
However, if you don’t know how you feel, even when you try to focus on it, that’s different. In this case, there are obstacles that are stopping you from recognizing and expressing your feelings. As a matter of fact, you’ll probably say that you don’t know how you feel to any question that involves your emotions.
In this instance, you need to identify the root of the problem. Otherwise, it could become more severe, chronic, and even disabling. Next, we’ll look at the most frequent causes of this kind of emotional shock.
1. Lack of emotional education
Unlike mathematics, language, or history, emotional education doesn’t form part of the curriculum. In fact, you learned, as a child, to differentiate between your emotions thanks to your experiences of socialization. In other words, how little or how much you learn is usually done implicitly. Furthermore, you tend to spend more time speaking about the causes and consequences of your emotional state than describing how you actually feel.
Today, we know that language is extremely important when it comes to sharing, transmitting, differentiating, or identifying. For this reason, for your emotional learning, you must enrich your emotional semantics, both in the conversations you have with others and in your internal dialogue.
Alexithymia is linked to problems identifying and expressing our own emotions. It’s not classified within any official manual, but many specialists consider it to be a specific condition.
One study mentions that there’s enough evidence to affirm that alexithymia is linked to the inhibition of certain brain regions, such as the amygdala and the insula. Likewise, the anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex are also related to this alteration (Goerlich, 2018). Along the same lines, a lack of emotional education can be a factor that contributes to their development.
Depressive episodes can cause affective flattening. As a matter of fact, the depressed patient may even have trouble identifying the depression itself. Certain research works suggest that alexithymia is associated with depression. However, the evidence is inconclusive (Hemming et al. 2019).
How to promote emotional intelligence
Although it’s a problem that can affect you in several ways, you can work on it. As we mentioned before, learning is a factor that determines your ability to recognize emotions. For that reason, it’s possible to develop greater emotional intelligence by applying certain strategies:
1. Accept your emotions
One of the main reasons you say “I don’t know how I feel” is because you’re not accepting your emotions. Perhaps you’re repressing what you feel because you don’t feel capable of handling them. Or, you may be afraid of ‘exploding’ if you let them out.
Therefore, the first step is to accept your emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. Keep in mind that you can use your emotions to learn about yourself and your environment.
When you feel sad, it’s often because something has happened that’s affected you in a certain way. One good idea is to practice mindfulness. This therapeutic technique invites you to focus on the present and accept your emotions and thoughts without judging them. It can also be helpful in increasing your emotional intelligence.
2. Pay attention to your body sensations
Emotions have an extremely important physiological component. One example would be the ‘butterflies’ that you feel in your stomach when you’re attracted to someone. These types of body reactions are important indicators that help you identify how you feel. One useful technique is targeting.
Imagine a hypothetical situation where a patient is feeling anger, but can’t identify that emotion. Perhaps, without even noticing it, they clench their fists when they talk about what causes them anger. In that case, the therapist might ask them to focus on their fists and think about how they feel. It might also be helpful to ask them to imagine what their fists would say if they could speak.
3. Develop coherence between your mind and your behavior
At times, you act in a disharmonious way with your emotional state by having to fit into your social context. For example, when you have to stay at a social event with a smile on your face, out of respect for the person being honored when, in reality, you feel really sad. In the same way, you might behave like this when you’re in a situation that overwhelms you.
This lack of coherence between your emotions and actions can cause you to dissociate yourself from them. Then, you end up ignoring them. That’s because you feel more comfortable avoiding problems or satisfying social pressures.
4. Keep an emotion diary
Jotting down your thoughts in a journal can be a good idea to better understand your inner world from a broader perspective.
If you keep track of your emotions over a period of time, you’ll end up with a really valuable tool. Indeed, a journal allows you to see what kinds of situations affect you and how they do it.
5. Consider psychological care
Finally, think about the possibility of receiving care from a professional to work out your conflicts. Especially if you experience other symptoms, such as fatigue, listlessness, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, or other possible signs of depression. Because, as you now know, the phrase “I don’t know how I feel” can contain a whole series of conflicts that may be detrimental to your health.
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