Do you let yourself feel too much or too little?
By David Joel Miller.
Two types of feelings problems cause people distress.
Some people feel too much. Excesses of fear and sadness keep them from having the happy life they want. Other people have an insatiable appetite for pleasure. They over indulge, damage their relationships and suffer the consequences. They act impulsively and then regret the result but they tell me they can’t stop themselves even when they try.
Other people tell me they can’t feel anything. They are numb, cut off from their emotions. They don’t know what they feel even when they are feeling it. The numbness robs them of the chance for happiness.
How many feelings are there?
The list of feeling words is immense. Psychologists have looked for ways to make this understandable and have constructed shorter lists of primary feelings. These lists typically include 7 to 11 basic feelings.
4. Fear (anxiety)
All of these feelings have survival value at times. Joy and interest might stimulate us to find and eat food. Fear could help us avoid a man-eating animal. Not everyone experiences these feeling in the same way. We could lump the emotions of fear, anxiety, nervousness, scared or uncomfortable together. Experience has shown me that teenagers will deny feeling any fear but may have a sizable list of things that make them nervous or uncomfortable.
Not everyone experiences the same event by feeling the same emotion. On person may see a tornado and experience fear, another sadness and a third may experience interest and becomes a storm chaser. Past experience, beliefs about the event and genetics may all play a role in how we perceive an event.
Negative and Positive Emotions
It may be easier at times to think of feelings as either negative or positive. The seven feelings could be separated into positive and negative lists. Hundreds of other feeling words might be added to the lists as variations or shades of these feelings. We could also use certain words to describe combinations of feelings or the co-occurrence for two feelings at the same time.
Joy, Interest, and Surprise are frequently seen as positive, though too much interest in certain things gets diagnosed as a mental illness if it interferes with your life. Fear or anxiety, anger, sadness and disgust would form the core negative feelings. Research clearly indicates that while positive feelings are relatives and negative feelings come from the same family there are perceived differences between the feelings on each list.
The gender gap
Men in counseling often report having only three feelings, good, bad or pissed-off. Women often have a very differentiated feelings pallet. Men say Red, Yellow, or Blue, maybe purple. Women talk about things being Wisteria, Fuchsia, Lilac, Plum and so on. Women typically have more feeling words and they understand the labels differently than most men.
Sometimes this feelings situation is reversed and the woman may report mostly being “numb” or disconnected while the man wants her to be able to express more of her feelings.
We learn our feelings from others
There was a time when expressing feeling was not appropriate. People were expected to be gigantic mechanical creatures who never expressed anything. To have feelings was to give in to the flesh. So some generations grew up unable to express how they feel and experiencing regret if feelings ever leaked out.
Many men remain unable to express feelings appropriately. They “suck it up” and go forward even when it would have been appropriate to show some emotion. The result is that unable to express emotions men lose the ability to name what they are feeling and as a result of not being able to categorize feelings and learn appropriate responses they may do nothing until overwhelmed.
So the feelings that are kept bottled up and unrecognized come exploding out under anger or alcohol. These people, disconnected from their feelings, are forced to reconnect when in anger management class or marriage counseling.
When feelings can protect you
Some feelings are protective. That feeling in your gut that tells you this is dangerous, that feeling we sometimes call intuition is meant to protect you from harm. People who don’t feel anything lose the assistance of feelings that tell you this is something you should not do or that is something good you need to get in on. Courage is not the lack of fear, pretending this is not dangerous. It is the ability to fully feel and appraise the situation, but to take action even in the presence of a real danger.
Positive feelings can help create and expand friendships and working relationships. Negative feelings can warn you to avoid dysfunctional relationships and abusive situations. People who use feeling as sources of information lead happier and more productive lives.
More about this
For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.
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Do your feel your feelings? Are feelings your friends or do they cause you problems?