I notice that clients often look at me blankly when I ask them the age-old counselor question, “how does that make you feel?” I get an array of different responses. Sometimes they get irritated and say, “how do you think that makes me feel” or “are you kidding me?” I notice a lot of people saying things such as, “it makes me feel like he is a jerk” or “it makes me feel like the time when my mom…” Now, can you imagine how my clients react when I say ?those are not feelings? I bet they are thinking, “Am I really paying you for this?”
Feelings are hard!
I used to think I was really good with feelings until I took a class on Counseling Technique early in my master’s program. My professor would put us in the front of the room and ask us to simulate a counseling session, one of us as the counselor, and one of us the client. We had to pretend we were doing a session on a topic that we have experienced that we might bring to a counselor. Then we would respond to the question, “how does that make you feel?” My early attempts would often cause my professor to interrupt us and say, “Wendy, that is not a feeling.” I would look at her like “oh yes it is” not even sure what “feeling” I had offered. She would kindly respond “feelings are mad, bad, sad, and glad or some iteration of those.”
That was revolutionary to me. No one had ever really pinned me to down to identify my feelings that way. To make things even harder, I was not sure I had the vocabulary for feelings much beyond mad, bad, sad, and glad. What kind of counselor cannot even make a list of feelings? Needless to say, it was a low point in my growth as a counselor.
As with most things, the ladder back to the surface consisted of educating myself about the language around feelings and what I mean by that language. I started with a children’s list of feeling words. It was and still is my favorite. You don’t see dizzy, giddy, cozy, bubbly, and unloved on the adult feeling list too much.
Then I found the feeling wheel!
Let’s just say, it reminded me of my first kiss. Time slowed, I realized what I had needed was within reach, and I had a physical reaction of bursting through the clouds. Ok, maybe that is a little exaggerated, but I was stoked. As I do with most things that I find amazing and assume others should or will respond in kind, I put the list on the refrigerator at home. It was not long before I got comments like, “is this one of your counselor things?” and “are we supposed to use this thing?” But soon, I started to notice new feeling words pop out of the mouths of my family and friends! They would go to the refrigerator for water or a snack, and stop to consider what they were feeling at that very moment (hungry and thirsty were common).
As with most things, I felt buoyed by the realization that I was not the only who struggled to identify exactly what I was feeling at any one moment of the day. Throughout my work, I notice how often people struggle to identify and quantify their emotions. A communication barrier for humans who feel strong emotions but have no way to communicate it to the people they care for or interact with. We know that unexpressed emotion over long periods of time can cause anxiety, depression, frustration, and disconnection. But who teaches us to identify these vastly different emotions throughout our day?
If you are looking to decrease frustration in your marriage, with your children, and in all your important relationships, I encourage you to download a list of feelings words and start using it. The next time you get that icky feeling or that need to run away, look at your list of feelings. Making connections to what is happening in your body and providing language for the physical sensation is an early and important step to reducing the discomfort from powerful feelings and the conflict that they can result in.