unidentified flying emotions

the frustrating inability to articulate experience

I was eight years old and asking some really big questions. 

  • Why do I have nice Nikes and the kids who made them might die of starvation today? That doesn’t seem fair. I still want to wear these Nikes, so I must be terrible.

  • Why do I exist? I don’t really like being alive. Why do I have to keep breathing? 

The inability to articulate these questions and the way they impacted me was devastating. So many big thoughts, and I had not learned the words to help me explain what I needed to process. Unable to use my limited vocabulary in order to communicate, I felt even more alone. Many confusing thoughts lead to feelings that I did not know were feelings, and I certainly did not have names for them. This feeling of wanting to speak and having no words for what I wanted to say made finding the meaning in life all the more difficult.

I share this piece of history because it is so representative of many growth periods in my life. Life-changing growth brings about new thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Different moments bring about unique versions of emotions I thought I knew very well until I came to know them in a new light. All eras of change in our lives prompt a need for new words (or new definitions of words) to describe the emotional lens through which we see and think about what we encounter mentally, physically, and spiritually. Sometimes it can tend to feel like we’re eight-years-old questioning the meaning of existence with quite a limited ability to articulate complex thought.

Identifying feelings and the experiences that go along with them can be a pretty weird quest. It can also be really cool, I swear. Developing this ability is crucial because it opens the door to a deeper understanding of self and self in relation to others. Finding a feeling word (or a few feeling words) is necessary in developing self-awareness and emotion regulation. By knowing the feeling, we can explore the caverns of its source and begin exploring the “why” in “why the fuck do I feel this way?” With an attitude of curiosity and self-compassion, we can begin to articulate our specific experience to others. This is when the magic of authentic human connection comes in. When we can know ourselves, we can show ourselves to others in a way that is genuine, secure, and intentional.

It’s important to note here that you can feel a bunch of emotions at once. You can feel grateful and angry, anxious and happy, angry and hurt. Whether they are contradicting or complementary, feelings can come in some confusing combinations. 

focus in on specific feelings

Below are some feeling words that can help in guiding the way toward understanding. No matter your current mood, try identifying three of these emotions that you feel in this very moment. I recommend spending at least just a moment each day identifying two or three feelings you feel in the moment (hint: “good” is not a feeling word). This will help you observe what different feelings feel like in various environments and it will help you strengthen your identification skills.

If you are having trouble pin-pointing specific feelings, you can check out the second image for some suggestions in developing those skills.

Click here to download a printable copy of the “feeling words” handout. Click here to download a copy of the “finding feelings” handout.

The experience of feeling uncomfortable emotions can be incredibly interesting and informative. As feelings are identified, where they came from can be explored. Get curious about what needs to be heard. Is this anger a result of fear? Is this feeling of insecurity so intense because of a long-ago hurt that has yet to be healed? 

As these questions are asked, many opportunities for growth begin to pop up. The willingness to see lessons is directly proportionate to how much learning will take place. A good place to start with getting curious is by asking the question, “what is this feeling bringing my attention to? What needs to be heard?” 

Difficulty in articulating what needs to be heard can be a major obstacle. It’s just not super easy to take very murky combinations of emotions and turn them into clear and productive sentences. It takes practice. I suggest writing in moments of reflection. By putting words outside of your brain, you can see feelings (and what triggered them) with a better view. This will also help to expand vocabulary and sentence structure so that when it comes time to verbally articulate an experience to someone else, it can be done with clarity and understanding. 

write through the messiness to gain clarity

Use the below suggestions to guide your writing. Start with totally unstructured writing before trying to get really organized. Your writing doesn’t need to make sense or sound impressive. No one needs to see this, you can even tear it up when you are done.

Start by applying general feeling words that stand out, even if they are just a little piece of the puzzle. Maybe you see the word “happy,” and you think that might be one, but you’ve never felt happiness in quite this way before. The word “sad,” you thought, meant tears and lack of energy, but what you are feeling now is quite a different type of sadness. You can use simple feeling words and then expand your thinking to really understand what this feeling word actually feels like.

this is what my feelings say

Once you allow your authentic experience to come to the surface, you can start working toward some clear understandings of what you are really saying (i.e, saying, “you are terrible” to a friend, might equal, “I am afraid that you think I’m terrible”). You can use these phrases to guide conversations that you need to have. Whether you are asking for help, respect, forgiveness, or whatever, you can get to what you really mean instead of holding up the walls you didn’t know were there. Look at the examples below to get some ideas.

unidentified flying emotions

Something that helps me when I am getting swept in confusion is saying, “oh, I must be strongly experiencing some emotions right now.” Even if I don’t know what they are quite yet, the knowledge that I am in it can help me begin to take pause. Awareness is the first step in understanding.

Once we gain some understanding, we can take responsibility for any unproductive behaviors that occur as a result of these emotions. By taking ownership, we can compassionately begin to shift those behaviors in the direction of connection and authenticity. Check out this previous blog post for ideas on how to get that started.

Simone DeAngelis