Sometimes a client comes to me with an emotion they cannot name.
We are used to being told what emotions to have. Psychologists tend to focus on a well-known few: happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger and disgust.
But sometimes that’s not enough, and we are stuck with a feeling that needs more explanation and exploration. We humans are complex beings, and there is no guarantee that what we feel can be easily defined.
It can be a bit of an investigation to work out what we are feeling. The thing about feelings is that they often arise before we understand them, and it is up to us to find a comfortable place for them.
There are many reasons why we may have trouble accepting or understanding what we are feeling.
It may be an emotion we were not allowed to have when young. For instance, if our parents didn’t accept anger, then in adulthood we can end up feeling a kind of weird distorted guilt instead of anger.
Every emotion needs a safe place to arise. A child feeling sad may need the helping hug, and listening ear, of a carer to experience that sadness safely. The carer acts as a kind of canvas, on which the child can imprint what they are feeling, and then read it back for better understanding. A good carer will listen, offer some feedback, and help the child to comprehend and handle its own feelings.
The important thing is not to deny the flow of feeling. We don’t have to act on it, but it does help to acknowledge it.
It’s all about giving our intuitions a voice. Emotions flow partly unconsciously, as our mind and body have a strong automatic wish to help us. Perhaps we can think of our emotions as an alarm system, there to alert us to things we may need to attend to.
Complex or trapped emotions are often wordless, until we have spent enough time with them to embrace them, and to give them a voice.
Writing and speaking can be one way of channeling our complex emotions without harming others. The poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) described poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.’ Writing poetry or prose can become a form of meditation, helping us to find value in our feelings, and to listen carefully to ourselves.
Counselling can also be a way of listening to our more complicated emotions. A good counsellor is trained to be non-judgemental, so that even ‘socially unacceptable’ feelings can be heard and appreciated.
Listening to our emotions, and giving them a voice, is part of our self-development. If we are feeling strange, or uncomfortable, then it may be that our mind and body are trying to tell us something. We can either deny and avoid, or listen and appreciate. Denial and avoidance tend to slow us down; listening and appreciation tend to help us to learn.
Why not start a personal journal, or try poetry, or even counselling, to get in touch with the rich seam of feelings running through you?