Expressing Feelings I: Theory

This is the first of four blogs on expressing feelings. This one is on theory; Expressing Feelings II will be on how practice expressing feelings; Feelings III will be on how to hear other people’s feelings, and Feelings IV will be on when not to express feelings. Let’s get started.

I want to make an effort to help people communicate how they feel, most importantly to the significant people in their lives. But I would really like to help people communicate their feelings to everyone in their lives. The inability to communicate is the cause of 99% of the difficulties people have in their relationships. But communicating feelings is no easy task. It is not what people say when they are in an emotional state but emotions are a very important part of communicating feelings.

Recall a time when someone said to you, “I have to tell you how I feel.” Recall how you felt when your friend/spouse was about to tell you how s/he felt. You didn’t feel particularly good. I often hear men say something like, “Whenever my spouse tells me that she wants to tell me how she feels, I get nervous. I get ready to hear something that she doesn’t like about me.” Why should the guy feel scared when his wife simply wants to tell him about her feelings? It is because “I want to tell you how I feel” usually means the person is going to say something is wrong with you. “I want to tell you my feelings” should mean that I want to tell you something about me, not you. But that’s not what typically happens. Hearing someone else’s “feelings” usually means they’re going to tell you something they don’t like about you. This is very unfortunate.

It is very unfortunate that “I want to tell you about my feelings” means something negative about you. If people want to say something about their feelings, shouldn’t it be about their feelings, not something about you? I think it should. We shouldn’t be cautious about saying what we feel, and we shouldn’t be afraid to hear what someone else feels. We should be all ears when our friend or partner wants to tell us what they feel. We should be excited to learn something about this person who is important to us. If we could hear something important about this person that caused some important feelings, we could know this person better, and maybe even be able to love this person better.

I just started seeing a couple who have had great trouble communicating, increasingly so over the recent years. They have been married for 30-some years; they have raised three children who have been very successful in life; they each have a deep and meaningful religious commitment; and they are both successful professional people. The problem they have is almost entirely with their inability to communicate their feelings. The man was very hesitant to come for marital therapy because the last two times he and his wife saw someone for counseling, “everything was 100% my fault, and my wife was given permission to tell me her feelings without reservation even though those “feelings” were always about what was wrong with me.” If his wife was successfully communicating her feelings to her husband, it wouldn’t be about him; these feelings would be about her. Relationship therapy should be centered on helping people communicate feelings about themselves, not the other person.

The reason people can’t listen to people who want to talk about their feelings is that people don’t know how to talk about their feelings, like joy and sadness, hurt and hope. We need to discuss what it means to talk, what it means to listen, and what it means to feel. This is no easy task. Deb and I are in a business that has a lot to do with all three of these phenomena and we are still learning about these matters even after our combined 92 years of work in psychotherapy. Let’s see if we can get a handle on feelings, talking, and listening in a meaningful and practical way. Let’s start with feelings.


The term “feelings” is not well defined and not well understood by most people. So we are left with the need to discuss this very human experience of “feelings” without having an exact definition of what feelings are. There are hundreds of words that can be used to describe feelings although none of them does complete justice. Some psychologists think there are “positive feelings,” like joy and surprise and “negative feelings,” like anger and fear. I don’t think that feelings are ever negative. One theorist thinks there are nine feelings. Another thinks that emotions and feelings are different. This is not the place to debate all the possibilities with feelings. I think there are four: anger, fear, sadness and joy. All four of these feelings are about love. These feelings come in pairs:

  • Love-based feelings:
    • Joy when I have something l love
    • Sadness when I lose something I love
  • Defense-based feelings:
    • Anger when I have lost something that I love
    • Fear when might lose something that I love

There are many cognates of these feelings, like surprise and frustration, but these words are even less exact than joy, sadness, fear and anger. There are also combinations of these feelings, like having both joy and fear when you are on a Tilt-O-Whirl ride. I will defer discussing all the combinations and cognates for a moment and discuss how and when these feelings develop in childhood:

  • Fear: the first and only feeling newborn has. An infant feels fear or no feeling at all, which we might call contentment. The infant feels fear when she is hungry, alone, or somehow uncomfortable. Fear shows itself in crying, her only means of expressing a need.
  • Joy: this is the next feeling an infant feels, and then in toddlerhood there is an increasing amount of joy. A toddler feels joy when he has something. This might be the comfort of a parent’s arms, the pleasantness of something to eat that is satisfying, or some toy. Eventually, the infant learns to walk and feels the joy of mobility.
  • Anger: this is the third feeling developed by a child, beginning as early as nine months old, or later, perhaps at the age of a year and a half. This is the dominant feeling toddlers feel and leads to the “terrible two’s” where the toddler seems to be angry every time she doesn’t get what she wants. Actually, the time period is more like the “terrible threes and fours and fives.” The reason children 2-5 get angry so often is that they experience substantially more limitation than they did in in infancy when they just wanted food or comfort. At these crucial ages of 2-5 children’s wants multiply by 100 because they can now walk and talk, grasp and grab, throw and hit.
  • Sadness: this is the fourth and last feeling a child develops. Some infants experience sadness, especially in environments where they are not properly nurtured and comforted, but most children do not really experience sadness until they have experienced a lot of joy. Simply put: children 2-5 see more, want more, and love more. So they lose more, and are sad more often.

It would make my job easier if people came to my office knowing these feelings and knowing how to express these feelings. But very few people know what they feel in these simple terms of anger, fear, sadness, and joy. So it behooves me to try to help people find what they feel and express what they feel. I often tell patients that the task of therapy is:

  • Knowing what you feel
  • Valuing what you feel
  • Expressing what you feel
  • Communicating what you feel…

…so you can be:

  • Known
  • Valued
  • Understood…

…so you can communicate with each other

If people can know, value, express, and (ultimately) communicate how they feel, they can then understand how other people feel. If two people do this expression of feelings, they will have a life filled with joy because they will understand each other better. Then they will love more, love better, and be loved better. So how do you learn to successfully communicate our feelings?

Talking about feelings

First of all, feelings are not words. We’re going to discuss how to use words to express feelings, but it is central to understand that words are always approximations of feelings, never perfect, and often quite imperfect. Remember the 1980’s movie, ET: The Extraterrestrial? If we could communicate the way ET did, we would be in great shape. ET would send out a kind of beam from his chest to the other person’s chest and communicate his feelings. But we are not ET folks. Unfortunately, we tend to think that we can do this kind of beaming our feelings to one another. People actually think that if they feel something, and maybe saw a few words about their feelings that they have successfully “beamed” their feelings.

We have to use other means other than beaming to communicate, like using words. Actually, words are not always the best wat to communicate feelings. Artists communicate feelings in their art work, perhaps most notably painters and sculptors. Photographers do the same, and even more so now with computer enhanced photographs. We have always known that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” What words adequately describe a wondrous sunrise or sunset the way a painting or a photograph does? My friend, Bud posts photographs of sunrises every day, and although the view across the lake from his house is essentially the same, every sunrise photo speaks a different story.

Most of us are not artists or photographers. People like me, who have no artistic ability are reliant on words to communicate feelings. The people who do the best at putting feelings into words are poets and musicians. One poet struggled heartily to find a phrase that would somewhat adequately describe the end of the day. After searching for hours for the right words, he came up with “waning dusk.”  Poets and novelists do quite well with wordsmithing. We give poets poetic license, and we give musicians musical license, which means that we allow grammatical errors in poetry and music as well as variations on rhyme and meter in poetry and seeming discord in music. We can even give such “license” to speakers and authors because sometime it is more powerful to say something that is grammatically wrong or otherwise technically wrong so as to keep the power. In some cases the use of the word “ain’t” might communicate more emotion better than the grammatically correct term “aren’t”. Sojourner Truth, who escaped slavery with her infant son, testified in federal court in her successful bid to achieve custody of her son, “Ain’t I a woman?” in asserting her equality. This is prosaic license. We need such license when we speak our feelings.

License in speaking feelings

Giving license to someone who wants to express his or her feelings is giving that person the opportunity to say words that convey a passion with approximate words. The most dramatic and frequent use of such license is in swearing. We know that swearing and cursing originates in the emotional right side of the brain while most other words come from the rational left side of the brain. We know this because if someone has a left-brain stroke with damage to the word-based part of the brain, that person will not be able to speak, but he will be able to swear. Clearly, swearing is not “verbal” or cognitive, but rather emotional. We recently heard a standup comic use a good deal of cursing in his performance. People curse because they are trying to put emotion into their statements. Swearing in different cultures and languages uses different words for swearing, but these words always originate from the right side of the brain and are emotionally-laden. The difference between, “She is beautiful” and “She is fucking beautiful” has nothing to do with sex, nor with an attempt to offend, but rather an attempt by the speaker to put emotion into his statement. Jesus used Aramaic cursing when he called the Pharisees “painted gravestones” or “brood of snakes.” Such expressions would have no meaning in English but they were powerful emotional statements 2000 years ago in Palestine.

I call the freedom people need to express their feelings emotional license. In other words, we need a wide berth when we speak our “feelings” because feelings are not words and they are not exact, even if they are never wrong. Emotional license does not mean that it is good to shoot your mouth off and say whatever comes to your mind. It means that we all have a hard time expressing our feelings and we need to stumble around until we find words that approximately express what we are feeling. Importantly, any expression of feelings can be offensive, especially to people who find such expressions “unacceptable” to them (you might read my blog on Unacceptable is Unacceptable). What they mean by “unacceptable” is that the emotional words offend them.

Emotional expressions can offend

The fact that cursing and swearing frequently offends is an important aspect of this discussion because many emotional expressions often offend the people listening to these expressions. I am sure that the Pharisees were quite offended by Jesus’ using what we might consider to be the Aramaic equivalent of current English hyphenated words. I use some discretion in my phraseology here, you might know…so as not to offend.

Emotional statements, especially the most important ones, almost always offend. Some readers were offended by my statement utilizing the F word in the previous paragraph. But interestingly, other readers might have been entertained, and might have identified with their own such expressions. So when making an emotional statement, particularly those that carry emotional power, we probably will not communicate real well, we might stir up feelings in the other person, and we very possibly will offend our listener.

It is important to note that the most emotionally powerful statements tend to be critical, negative, or angry in some way. The most familiar use of the F word, at least in America, is in the expletive, “Fuck you!” Such a statement usually is made as an expression of anger at the other person (or group) but it can be a kind of friendly teasing of one person to another. The uplifted middle finger that I often get from one a certain competitor in my regular pickup basketball game is usually such a friendly teasing. University of Wisconsin students at football games section always have such assault from one student section to another, which is leads to an even more potentially offensive statement from the other student section. The reason people use curse words is to enhance the emotion of their experience or statement. A jovial and exhilarating, “Fuck, man!” is the emotional equivalent of “Awesome, shucks, no kidding!” but may not have the same power.

It is impossible to avoid the potential offense given to any emotional expression, whether cursing or otherwise. This is a central fact in this discussion. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t ever swear. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t otherwise offend. Rather, it means that when someone makes an emotional statement, that person is using emotional license, and she needs to have freedom even though she might offend. Children do that all the time: they express their feelings with emotionally extreme statements.

Learning from children

Sometimes children are our best teachers. This is certainly true with expression of feelings because young children, especially very young children, do it best. Until they are taught otherwise, they smile when they experience joy and frown when they experience sadness. They scream when they are afraid, and yell when they are angry.  When infants are upset about something, they simply cry. They are not yet equipped with words to express their dissatisfaction, which is usually some kind of fear. Think of what it would be like to have no physical or verbal ability to express your feelings the way it is for infants. The only thing they can do is cry or scream, mostly out of fear. Remember we discussed how infants have only a sense of peace or a feeling of fear; no anger, no sadness, and no joy.

When children get older, particularly in the years two through five, they add the feelings of joy, sadness, and anger to their repertoire of feelings. Pretty soon the dominant strong feeling that seems to be coming out of children this age is anger of some kind. Their expressions of joy or fear do not compare in strength to their expressions of anger. Toddlers don’t mind expressing this anger the way anger is normally expressed: they yell. They also cry when they don’t get what they want, and they are joyful when they get what they want. For the most part—again, unless they are taught differently—they express all their feelings when they feel them.

When children express their feelings quickly and freely, it is not easy for the rest of us to tolerate their expressions, particularly their feelings of dissatisfaction, which is usually anger for having lost something. It is in these very formative years that children learn to express their feelings property and honestly, express them dishonestly (by manipulating), or by hiding their feelings altogether. It is in these years of 2-5 where children should learn that they need to be sad because they lost something, feel this sadness, and let it run its course. Unfortunately, parents give in to their toddlers’ demands, argue with them, punish them for wanting something, or yell at them. So most children do not learn the basic task of toddlerhood: we don’t get most of what we want in life…because we simply want more than we can have. Instead, most toddlers learn that if they argue enough, yell enough, cry enough, or whine enough, they will eventually get what they want. On the other hand, there are many toddlers who learn that they should not express their feelings, they should not be sad. When this happens, children conclude that there is something wrong with them because they want something and are sad when they don’t get it.

We can learn a lot about how we should express feelings from children, but it is not through arguing, yelling, crying, whining, and screaming. And it is not denying our wants and our feelings of sadness when we don’t get what we want. Rather, it is in learning how to express wants, learning that we don’t get most of what we want, learning to be sad when we don’t get what we want, and finishing this sadness. If children learn this important lesson, they will have learned the most important thing to learn in life: wanting is wonderful; losing is sad; and finishing being sad makes me a better person. Unfortunately, most adults have not gone through this important stage of life with the support, encouragement, limitation, and challenge they needed as children so they could learn to want, to love, to have, and to lose.

Most adults have a terrible time expressing their feelings: they think that if they express their feelings, they should get what they want. OR they think that they should not express these feelings because they will offend, or worse yet, because they will be punished for wanting something. It’s all about expressing feelings effectively. Effective expression of feelings will be our next discussion.

Further Reading

Future blogs on practicing, hearing, and governing feelings.

Lutz, T. (1999). Crying: the natural and cultural history of tears. New York: Norton.

Tangney, J. and Dearing, R. (2004). Shame and guilt. New York: Guilford Press.

(Not much that I could find on expression of feeling that is truly valuable.)

N.B.: this and all other blogs are co-written with Deb Brock, PhD