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.’
I could have pointed out that he had given me an opinion, not a feeling, but I didn’t. Instead, I persisted. ‘Do you miss your dog?’ I asked, ‘Do you feel like you are a victim of injustice?’ He replied, ‘It doesn’t worry me. Mary can look after Bosley better than I can.’
I knew it did worry him because he had tried hard to keep the dog.
Talking with Oscar can be like talking to a zombie. It’s not just Oscar: many people lack the ability to express what they are feeling. They use expressions such as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘It doesn’t worry me’, or they provide an opinion instead of a feeling. However, when we regularly fail to articulate our emotions we can deaden ourselves.
Yes, I understand that Oscar may not have wanted to reveal his feelings to me. Sometimes we don’t want to reveal what we are feeling, and purposely evade the questioner. That’s fine. But some of us simply lack the skills to label what we are actually feeling, and end up going through life talking like zombies.
‘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 in her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability.
If we lack the ability to express our feelings we will have trouble fully connecting with others, and from making friends. Worse, if we do start to feel our emotions, we won’t know how to handle them. We might do something we’ll regret.
To ask someone what they are feeling and get a shrug and the reply,‘Nothing’, suggests not that the person has no emotions about the topic, but rather, they aren’t good at identifying them. Perhaps they think emotions are frivolous things and more trouble than they’re worth. Or, they might be concerned that if they were to feel emotions they may again experience the pain they used to feel. The trouble is, when we don’t allow ourselves to feel emotions, a big part of us doesn’t get to see the sun. It doesn’t get to blossom.
I’m suggesting: if you are asked how you feel about something, search for what you really are feeling, and say it. Don’t be a zombie. Don’t say something lame like, ‘I don’t care’ or ‘it doesn’t worry me’ or ‘no problem’. You are only telling the person what you don’t feel instead of telling them what you do feel.
If you don’t want to explain how you feel, fine. But make it a choice to refrain, don’t make it your default position. If you don’t want to reveal what you are feeling, try something like, ‘I’d rather not discuss how I feel’ or ‘I’d rather not talk about it.’ Be direct. And, to make sure you’re not being lazy, figure out for yourself what you are feeling.
The more adept we are at recognising what we are feeling, the more adept we become in dealing with those emotions. Then our confidence in ourselves grows and we feel safer, not because we are protecting ourselves, but because we have lost the need to.
In short, the next time you are tempted to say ‘I don’t feel anything in particular’, or ‘I don’t care’, or ‘I feel nothing’, search yourself for an emotion. Any emotion. Even if it’s just an atom of an emotion. And say it.