Learning the Language of Feelings

An excerpt from Let Go, Heal, Be Happy by Mark Linden O’Meara


Part of self-growth and developing self-knowledge involves learning to express the feelings, ideas and thoughts you are experiencing. To describe how you are feeling is a challenge given the fact that language is imprecise, and at times it is difficult to translate bodily sensations into words.


While taking some Chinese lessons, I questioned my teacher about the expression of emotion in Chinese. I was told that there are four basic emotions and the rest are combinations of emotions or impressions we have of ourselves or others.


The four basic emotions are:


Bei             grief, sorrow, mourning

Le              joy, cheerfulness, optimism

Nu             anger, rage, fury, berating

Xi              value, compassion, happiness, love


Other feelings or states such as jealousy and envy are described as impressions that result from your thoughts and beliefs about other people. Some psychologists suggest that your feelings come from your thoughts. Others believe that emotions come from a deeper experience. If we consider the four basic emotions as soul experience and other emotions as impressions from thoughts and beliefs, we can reconcile the two theories. Recent research using Magnetic Resonance Imaging has shown that your emotional center reacts much faster than your thinking process. Does this mean that the “thoughts into emotions” theorists are wrong? Not really! It means that we need a more complex model to describe the relationship between thinking and emotions. Some feelings arise from your heart center, while other feelings may be triggered by thought processes. It is possible, too, that your heart center feelings will impact your thoughts. In order to progress in your growth, regardless of the theory, you need to learn to express and communicate your feelings.


In my travels to China I learned how precise the Chinese language is in this domain compared to the English language. Most Chinese characters that express emotion are usually paired with another character to refine the writer’s meaning. For example, the root word “bei”, which means sadness, can be combined with other characters to mean sad, sorrowful, melancholy, grieved, painfully sad, mixed feelings of joy and grief, compassionate, bitter, miserable, sad and worried, grieved over the death of a friend, grieved and indignant, pessimistic and gloomy, overcome with grief, sad and choking with sobs.


The same goes for the word for happiness – xi, which when combined with other words can mean outright glee, overjoyed, not feeling tired of it, buoyant, cheerful, fun, pleasure and contentment. I found that the Chinese language seemed far more subtle and accurate than the English language.


There is also an important phrase “le ji sheng bei” which means “when joy reaches its height, sorrow comes in turn; extreme joy begets sorrow.” These words of wisdom echo the familiar phrase “what goes up must come down”. Other phrases more completely described concepts rather than just feelings. A word describing bitterness referred to “going through years of suffering, to be full of misery but find no place to pour it out.”


Imagine if we could all become more literate and complex in describing of our feelings. In reflecting on how you are feeling, you can refine your description by describing not one but many feelings. Also describe the situation and what you are hoping for. For example, instead of saying “I am hurt”, try to go deeper. You could say “I am feeling sad and betrayed because I was let down when a promise was broken.” This is far more precise and communicative than the words “I am hurt.” Learn to be more descriptive!


Our Emotional Habit Inventory


In order to gain an understanding of your emotional habits, you can examine your previous behavior and comfort levels associated with your past levels of self-expression. In a book about adult children of alcoholics titled It Could Never Happen to Me, author Claudia Black provides a questionnaire that can help you to learn about your own history and current practices of emotional expression. By answering each question you can get a better understanding of your own emotional behavior inventory.

Answering these questions may take some reflecting and effort to remember how things were. It is equally important to ask yourself how you would answer regarding your current behavior. Have you carried any of these past behaviors into your adulthood? While I answered these questions, I realized that in most cases I was crying silently, even though no one was around. I realized this was a carryover from my childhood: many times as a child I cried myself to sleep, but silently, so no one would know. With the discovery of this I gained a stronger sense of vocal expression, which improved my singing range and tonal quality.


How would you answer the questions below? Keep in mind that there are no right or wrong answers.

When do you cry?

Do you ever cry?

Do you cry when alone?

Do you cry hard or do you cry slowly and silently?

Do you cry because people hurt your feelings?

Do you cry for no apparent reason?

Do others know when you cry?

Do others see you cry?

Do others hear you cry?

Do you let others comfort you when you cry?

Do you let others hold you?

Do you let them just sit with you?

What do you do to prevent yourself from crying?

How is your pattern as an adult different from yours as that of a child?

What did you do with your tears as a child?

Did you cry?

Did others know you were crying?

Did you let others comfort you when you were crying?


Although the above questionnaire deals with crying, you need to examine your habits regarding joy and laughter too. In addition to repressing crying as a child or adult, you may often tend to repress your joy as well. Many families do not share in the joy of others. Repressing emotions is similar to turning down the volume on a stereo: the full range of sound is lowered. Unlike current stereos, which have numerous controls to shape the sound, you do not have the ability to selectively block out only certain emotions. If emotional repression is the norm in a family, it follows that joy and happiness will not be shared either.


The following questions can help you understand your past with respect to joy and happiness. Again, there are no right or wrong answers, but these questions will help you identify factors that can contribute to, or detract from, your current enjoyment of life.

Did you experience joy in your family?

Did others express laughter?

Did others share your joy?

Were you laughed at or ridiculed for laughing or being spontaneous?

Was depression a major factor in the day-to-day life of a family member?

Do you feel comfortable laughing and expressing emotion as an adult?

Were you taught to feel guilty for having fun?

Were you very quiet?

Were you spontaneous?

Were you expressive?

As an adult do you express your creativity in some way?

Are you creative in your work?

Can you easily have fun or be silly?

Are you easy-going?

How do you express anger?

What makes you sad?

How do you deal with sadness?

What makes you fearful?

How do you deal with fear?

What makes you happy?

What makes you laugh?


Fortunately, as a human being you are able to effect change in your personal habits and behavior in relationships once you become aware of your patterns and emotional hurt. Once you are aware, you can slowly change your attitudes and behavior through your emotional healing work. You can change the way you behave in your family and encourage emotional expression in your children. You can do things differently than your parents did. The first step is awareness.


So, What Am I Feeling?


If someone were to ask you “How are you feeling?” how would you answer? For many of us it may be difficult to accurately answer this question. In some cases, you may never have actually been asked such a question. In a society where relationships are built upon communicating, the absence of an understanding of how you are feeling limits your ability to develop close relationships. How can you interact if you are unaware of your feelings? It is difficult to have self-knowledge if you are not in touch with your emotions.


So how do you feel? Here’s a checklist to help identify emotions. Take a look at this list often: do a self-check, and try to evaluate which emotions are present or not at a given moment. Which emotions have you experienced recently? Which emotions would you like to experience more often? Try combining words to try to express how you are feeling. There is no rule that you can only be feeling one emotion at a time!


How am I feeling?

Afraid                   Aggressive         Agonized           Angry

Annoyed               Anxious              Apologetic         Arrogant

Bad                       Bashful               Bewildered        Blissful

Bored                    Cautious             Cheerful             Cold

Confident              Confused           Content              Curious

Defensive              Depressed          Detached            Determined

Despondent           Disappointed      Disapproving      Discouraged

Disbelieving          Disgusted           Disillusioned      Disoriented

Doubtful               Ecstatic              Elated                 Embarrassed

Empty                   Enraged              Envious              Exasperated

Excited                  Exhausted          Exuberant           Fearful

Frenzied                Frightened          Frustrated           Furious

Great                     Grieved              Guilty                 Happy

Hassled                 Helpless              Helpful               Hopeful

Hopeless                Horrified            Humbled            Hurt

Hysterical              Indifferent         Innocent             Insecure

Interested              Irritable              Irritated              Isolated

Jealous                   Joyous                Liberated            Liked

Lonely                   Loving                Mad                    Meditative

Mischievous          Miserable            Morbid               Motivated

Negative                Numb                 Offended           Optimistic

Outraged               Pained                Panicked            Paranoid

Pessimistic             Perplexed           Powerful            Powerless

Puzzled                 Regretful            Relaxed              Relieved

Resentful               Restless              Sad                     Satisfied

Scared                   Sheepish             Shocked             Skeptical

Smug                     Surprised            Sympathetic       Tender

Tense                     Thoughtful         Undecided         Uneasy

Unhappy               Unsure                Useful                Valuable

Vulnerable             Withdrawn         Worthless           Worried


From the list above, check which ones you are feeling at this moment. Go through each word and think of a time or situation when the word describes how you felt. Take the time to also imagine how each word makes you feel and how that word would feel in your body. Remember too, that sometimes you may have no words to describe how you feel. An emotion may be simply a sensation in your body. Many times I have encountered people who felt they needed and wanted to cry. They definitely believed it would be helpful and healing, yet no tears would come. In my own healing process I experienced this a number of times. I learned that I had to be patient, that there was some lesson I needed to learn to unlock my pain. At times I had to be patient and trust that the protective nature of my subconscious would be wise enough to know when I was ready. I was never let down by this process! At other times, however, when very busy and unable to make time to meditate and explore my emotions, the following process helped me. Sitting quietly, I would scan my body for tension. I would ask myself “What am I feeling at this moment?” Remember that it is not always necessary to find a word to describe how you are feeling. Simply feeling the energy of the emotion is enough to begin the process of release.



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