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November 10, 2022

How Am I Feeling? It's Hard to Say

Simon Bell

I'm not great at talking about how I'm feeling. It's easy enough to sit and type that as the introduction to a blog. A breezy admission of failure always goes down well. It's self-deprecating. Makes me appear more human.

But it's true, particularly when I'm talking in person. When it comes to some of the most difficult conversations I've had in my life, I could and should have done a lot better.

Feeling Lost for Words

Take when my friend Pete got in touch to tell me that his cancer was back. I stammered some platitudes about always having hope. About being strong. You know the sort of thing. What I simply couldn't do was ask him how he felt. And I've known him for over 30 years.

Or there's my younger son, who's traveling the world at the moment. He's about as different from me as you could imagine – articulate, contentious and outgoing. I miss him, a lot.

And I'm scared. It's a big world and not everyone in it has his best interests at heart. When he messages us to say that he's staying with some guys he met in a club, I visualize situations I can only look at through my fingers.

Some days I just go and sit in his room. I riffle through his vinyl record collection, finding stuff I've given him, and thinking about the tracks he's recommended to me. Things we've shared.

But when I pick him up from the airport, will I be able to tell him that? Will I be able to tell him about the fear? I doubt it. He won't want to hear it, and I won't make a very good job of the explanation. Best that I leave it.

Mad, Sad or Glad?

When professor Brené Brown was conducting research into the language of feeling, she asked people to keep a record of the changing emotions they experienced.

She analyzed responses from around 7,000 people. The vast majority could label just three emotions: anger, sadness and happiness.

For Brown, this lies at the heart of a widespread crisis of emotional communication. We can't talk properly about how we're feeling if we can't name and describe our feelings. So she set out to write a book to help. It's called "Atlas of the Heart."

What Hidden Feeling Lies Beneath

This book does a bit better than naming three emotions. In fact, it isolates and defines 87 of them. And most of them, most of the time, are feelings we don't understand.

Think about anger. Those outbursts of incoherent rage are usually just superficial. There's a whole bunch of contributory emotions swirling beneath the surface. Fear, shame, betrayal.

But we can only identify the anger. And without being able to understand exactly what we're feeling and why, we'll likely always struggle to do anything about it.

Terms of Engagement

There's a refreshing clarity to this book. I'd never really thought about the difference between empathy and sympathy, for example. I'd probably have had them down as near-synonyms. But Brown's distinction is precise.

Empathy is an emotional skill that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing, and to reflect it back. It emphasizes closeness and engagement. By contrast, sympathy says, "I feel sorry for you," but with separation and distance. It says, "I'm sad, but I'm glad it's not me."

In Search of Meaningful Connection

"Atlas of the Heart" is full of this kind of acute observation. It's a reference book for anyone who struggles to understand how they're feeling or to put it into words.

And Brown spells out a larger project in the book's subtitle, "Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience." This book isn't just a glossary of terms. That idea of meaningful connection is vital.

It's great to know the difference between empathy and sympathy, for example, but more important to know how to be empathic. Learning the language is just one step. Speaking it daily is the vital part.

Because if we don't properly understand ourselves, or each other, how are we ever going to get along?

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How well do you understand your own emotions? What words do you use to describe them? Let us know in the comments, below.

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