I once asked an acquaintance – let’s call him ‘Oscar’ – how he felt about losing custody of his dog. He shrugged and replied, ‘These things happen.’
Oscar had given me his opinion, not an expression of how he felt, so I asked again, ‘How do you feel about losing custody of your dog?’
He shrugged again.
I persisted. ‘Do you miss your dog? Do you feel like you are a victim of injustice?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. Then he added, ‘It doesn’t worry me. Mary can look after Bosley better than I can.’
Yet I knew it did worry him because he had tried hard to keep the dog.
Talking with Oscar was like talking to a zombie. He was adept at avoiding telling people what he felt. He denied emotional involvement by using expressions such as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘It doesn’t worry me’, or he gave an opinion. Being unable, or unwilling, to articulate his emotions made it difficult for him to deal with them, and it made him feel deadened.
‘The trouble is, we cannot selectively numb one emotion. We cannot say, here’s the bad stuff, here is shame, disappointment, fear – I don’t want to feel these. You can’t numb them without numbing other emotions, like joy, gratitude, happiness.’
(Brené Brown, TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability.)
By numbing his dark emotions, Oscar had numbed the fun ones too. His inability to express his feelings to others also prevented him from fully connecting with them and making friends.
When people ask us what we are feeling and we reply,‘Nothing’, our answer indicates not that we have no emotions, but rather, that we aren’t yet good at identifying them. Perhaps we think emotions are frivolous things and more trouble than they’re worth. Or, we might be concerned that if we feel emotions, we may again experience the pain we used to feel.
The trouble is, when we rely solely on logic we deny ourselves emotional release, whether it be in joy or in pain. A big part of us doesn’t get to see the sun, and it doesn’t get to blossom. Identifying the emotions we are feeling may sound scary, and may in some cultures be considered unmanly, but it is safe and it is manly. It just takes getting used to, that’s all.
So, if you are asked how you feel about something, don’t say ‘I don’t care’ or ‘it doesn’t worry me,’ or ‘no problem’, because you are only telling the person what you don’t feel. Instead, answer the question and tell the person what you do feel. More importantly, do it to become aware of what is happening inside yourself.
The more adept we become at recognising our own emotions, the better we become at dealing with them. Then our confidence in ourselves grows. And, we feel safer – not because we are protecting ourselves, but because we have lost the need to protect ourselves.
So, the next time you are tempted to say ‘I don’t feel anything in particular’, or ‘I don’t care’, or ‘I feel nothing’, or ‘no problem’, search within yourself for an emotion. Any emotion. Even if it’s just an atom of an emotion, say it!
Jim: ‘How do you feel about your car being stolen?’
Mel: ‘I’ll get used to it.’ (Incorrect – that’s an opinion, a thought.)
Mel: ‘No problem.’ (Incorrect – Mel is not expressing what she is feeling.)
Mel: ‘I don’t care.’ (Incorrect – she is telling us what she is not feeling. Mel, tell us what you are feeling.)
Mel: ‘Nothing in particular.’ (Incorrect – she would be feeling something. Mel, figure it out, and label it.)
‘What if I don’t want to tell someone how I feel?’
‘I’d rather not discuss how I feel.’
‘I’d rather not talk about it.’
‘I’d rather not say, but thanks for asking.’
Be direct. Don’t use weak or vague phrases such as,‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m fine.’ To make sure you’re not being lazy, figure out the answers for yourself. Label them. Figure out what other emotions you are feeling and label them too. And be specific.
Q. ‘What if I genuinely don’t feel anything?’
If you search for an emotion but fail to find one, use the term ‘I feel indifferent’. That’s better than telling the person what you are not feeling, and it’s more accurate.
In short, make a promise to yourself: when asked what you do feel, don’t tell the person what you are not feeling. Never again say:
‘I don’t care’ ‘No problem.’ ‘It doesn’t worry me.’ ‘Nothing.’
Instead, tell the person what you are feeling. Search for an emotion within, and say it. Or, if you don’t want to tell the person what you are feeling, say so: ‘I’d rather not talk about it.’
In the same way, if you are enjoying something, admit it. Don’t be cool or offhand. Don’t say:
‘It’s okay.’ ‘It’s alright, I guess.’
Try instead: ‘I feel elated’ (or any word that accurately reflects what you are actually feeling).