Why Is It So Difficult to Talk About Feelings?

Talking about our feelings is well-known, excellent advice for people struggling with emotional problems but voicing our inner thoughts in any setting is often difficult. 


For many, fear and reluctance prevent us from sharing what we really think. Such reluctance has several roots, ranging from social to personal. Understanding these mental blocks can help us transcend them.


What stops us from talking about feelings?


Personality: Some people are more introverted than others, which means they may need to work harder to talk about their feelings in certain situations. For example, introverts may take longer to open up to new friends or a new therapist. 


Fear: In certain situations, people may assume that sharing what they feel will lead to drastic consequences, like a friend or partner cutting ties with them. This prevents them from talking about their feelings. 


Stress response: The vulnerability of sharing our emotions can bring about stress-related physical responses like tears or nausea or even nose-bleeds. This might embarrass people and prevent them from talking about their feelings.


Trust: People who have experienced trauma often find it difficult to trust and form attachments with others – and they may or may not realise their wariness. This lack of trust may impede the process of sharing and vulnerability. 


Trauma: Certain topics may be linked to a person’s experience of trauma, making it difficult for them to talk about. They may not even be aware of this link. Even when people are and are willing to share, the enormity of the situation may make the actual process of sharing a lot harder. 


Social norms: Some groups of people are socialised to share less about their problems. For example: boys and men are socialised to be less vulnerable in order to adhere to patriarchal norms in India and many other cultures. In other societies, children are told it is disrespectful to talk about any violence or inappropriate behaviour they may face from elders.


How does talking about feelings help us?


While some situations do make expressing ourselves seem like an unreachable goal, working towards this goal has real benefits for both physical and mental health. 

When people feel emotionally stressed or overwhelmed, their physical fight-or-flight response awakens, which often overrides logical thought. However, research shows that talking about our distressful or painful feelings – especially if we actually name them out loud – can slow the brain’s fight-or-flight response. This reduces both physical and mental stress and allows for a more clear, logical approach to communicating and solving problems. 

With less stress in our bodies, we’re also able to sleep better, feel less tense while awake, and overall enjoy a more balanced mood. 


How to practise talking about feelings


The only way to make room for vulnerability is to practise it at a pace that feels comfortable. Here are some steps to start trying: 

Identify how you feel: Before you share, you must know how you feel. This is where an emotion wheel can help – you can start by identifying your emotion(s) in the inner circle, then move outwards from it to get more specific about what you feel. For complex topics, it may help to write down what you feel in a letter or to record yourself talking about it. Re-read or listen to what you have to say to confirm what you’re feeling. 

Pin down a goal: Having a goal helps increase the value of talking about your feelings with another person. For example, if you feel like your partner is being disrespectful to you, it may help to identify what actions would make you feel respected instead. Then, sharing your feelings can help both of you understand the root cause of their behaviour and your response, and then work towards a relationship with greater mutual respect. 

Choose someone you trust: Speaking with someone you trust makes sharing your feelings easier. Narrow down whom you find it easier to talk with: a friend, partner, parent, or a stranger who won’t judge you (i.e. a therapist). Let them know that you are working towards showing more vulnerability, as that reduces the pressure you may feel to open up as soon as possible. 

Take a deep breath: Deep breathing exercises are good ways to help you feel calm and collected – such breathing stimulates nerves that help the brain switch from fight-or-flight to a more restful state. A fresh gulp of air can also help you take time and collect yourself if you’ve hit a wall during a conversation.


How to approach sharing emotions in difficult conversations


Choose the right time: It is best to have tough conversations when both you and the other party – a friend, partner, family member, etc – are in a good frame of mind. Talking or listening with a bad mood will lead to frustration for both parties. 

Bring a friend: Some situations may require us to share our feelings with people with whom we don’t feel comfortable. In these scenarios, it might help to bring someone whom you trust and who can support you through the vulnerability of talking about your emotions.

Take a pause if needed: Not every conversation needs to be concluded in one sitting. If the other party becomes overwhelmed, furious, aggressive, or rude, or if you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by anger or any other emotion, a pause can help everyone calm down and trigger the logical part of the brain. Pauses often mean conflicts get resolved more quickly and effectively for everyone, because these breaks can help people communicate more effectively and calmly when they return to the topic.


How to help others talk about their feelings


The vulnerability of sharing emotions doesn’t come easily to anyone, though some may be more comfortable with it than others. Listening actively and empathetically can help our friends, family, and partners be more vulnerable and honest with us. We can help our loved ones open up by doing the following: 

Being patient: Many find it hard to get to the crux of their emotions for varying reasons. Show patience and ask questions that can guide them towards the point they want to make – even if that point is uncomfortable for you. 

Showing appreciation: If the person talking is uncomfortable with vulnerability, thank them for trusting you enough to share. This helps them build trust and a positive association with openness and honesty. 

Listening: Avoid interrupting while the other person talks. Make sure to show that you are listening actively via actions like nodding or periodic eye contact. 

Taking responsibility: In a situation where someone is showing vulnerability in response to poor behaviour on your part, acknowledge their point of view and try not to be defensive or hostile as an immediate response. 

Clarifying your position: When the other person is done talking, explain your point of view without blame or negative phrasing. “It feels like ..” or “I feel…” are phrases that can be helpful here. Emotions may not be accurate interpretations of a situation – often, the way we feel is not the way another person meant for us to feel – but they are what they are. Focusing on communicating your own experience and reactions can help avoid blame or perceived blame.

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