Language can only go so far. There are things that go beyond language, like intense feelings. All too often when someone asks me “What’s wrong?” or “How are you feeling?”, an emotion like “sad” or “mad” can only go so far in describing how I really feel. These words are so overused that they don’t capture the intensity of our emotional experiences. It’s like when a word is at the tip of your tongue, but you can’t find it. The feeling is so real to you, and yet no one else understands. This is the feeling of being misunderstood and it is up there for one of the world’s crumbiest feelings. Typically, to spare myself the frustration of trying to describe indescribable feelings, I simply don’t talk about them. It seems so much easier to just go through the feelings and nix putting in that extra effort of making sense of the jungle (zoo, circus, fill in the blank) inside. But one thing that I have learned is that misunderstanding is a type of loneliness. You feel disconnected when you don’t share your feelings. As frustrating as it is, it is so much better to express your emotions in whatever gargle babble that comes out. I know how painstaking this is in the moment when your feelings are overwhelming and you can’t process what exactly is going on, let alone try to explain it to someone. However, these are some tips to help you communicate your abstract (and absurd) feelings/emotions. Givem a go the next time your BFF, sister, or mom says “Why are you so upset?” Instead of saying “I don’t know” or “I’m fine,” fall back on these tactics!
Communication does not necessarily have to come in words
Words are only one way of communicating. Think about babies, who have no knowledge of the alphabet. How are they able to communicate what they want and how they feel? Through nonverbal communication. Do not underestimate the power of baby babble during a meltdown.
Without even knowing it, we use nonverbal communication all the time. In fact, our body language speaks louder than our spoken words. Usually, when we are feeling some type of strong emotion, we already have this type of non-verbal communication covered- our facial expressions subconsciously warp into smiles or frowns and our posture naturally slouches or straightens based on how we feel. In order to use these cues, which we all do, to our advantage in communicating our feelings, we must be aware of them. Make a table of the type of nonverbal tendencies you have and which emotions/feelings they are associated with. Include facial expressions, body movement/ posture, gestures, eye contact, touch (do you like hugs or handshakes or none of the above?), space (do you stand close to people or further away?).
Once you make a table, share it with the people you are closest to. Or at least, make them aware of the dominant tendencies in your non-verbal-communication profile. This way the person knows how you are feeling based on your body language, and moreover, the person can help you by encouraging body language associated with positive feelings. For example, if you tuck yourself into a ball when sad, the person instead of patting you on the back and trying to find out why you are a fetal mess, can suggest you stand up and go for a walk, changing your posture and triggering more positive emotions.
TAKE ACTION: Make a table of the type of nonverbal tendencies you have and which emotions/feelings they are associated with.
Use someone else’s words
Have you ever read a sentence that felt so spot on? Or listened to a song that was almost exactly how you felt? Well then, use it! Curate a playlist of songs that reflect your feelings. Collect the lines that articulate your emotions. Keep them in arms reach for when you feel misunderstood. Re-reading those resonant lines and listening to those intimate songs is comforting. That artist or writer, just gets it. Artists express emotions in so many ways, and new content can be constantly rediscovered. You can tap into that telepathic power! Next time you are tongue-tied with emotion, reflect on a phrase or word that you came across which really resonated, and use it. For example, I could describe the strange phenomenon happening in my head as chaos, or I could use the phrase “esoteric chaos” which I came across as the title for an art collection. Some people are gifted in supercharging words and organizing them in precisely the right way. Wherever you come across these epitaphs of wisdom, take them with you and reapply it to your own emotional experiences.
The “I have a friend” trick
Sometimes we want to talk about something, but we are ashamed or embarrassed by it. Or, we just don’t want to be associated with certain feelings because the person we are sharing our emotions to might look at us differently. If this is the case, you can frame your problems as a story. Instead of you being at the center, put a fictional friend as the protagonist. The conversation would start something like, “I know someone who feels depressed and hopeless, but he doesn’t know for sure how to deal with those emotions. He doesn’t even know if depressed or hopeless are the right words. All I know is that he is struggling. At times my friend tells me that he wishes someone would help him, but the problem is he doesn’t necessarily know how he can be helped. He wishes that someone would try a different way of helping him than the traditional way of spewing advice, which he has not responded well too….”
You can become as fantastical as you would like to describe how you feel, there is no limit to creative storytelling, and likewise, there is no limit to the ways you can frame your emotional narrative. For example, if you are super sad and someone asks how you feel, you can say, “Imagine a whale who has cried a whole ocean of tears and then drowned in it and no one noticed because they never care about animals below the surface, that is how I feel.” Maybe your sadness makes you feel like a whale or a popped balloon or an abandoned puppy, whatever it is, I encourage you to put it out there. An image of a drowning whale is charged with a lot more sadness (aka casts a broader net to catch your feelings) than the phrase “I am upset.”
Don’t rely on silence to send a message
Sometimes silence is not golden. Especially when it comes to your emotional expression. Silence is helpful in the heat of an argument or amidst a verbal attack. It gives us a space and a cooling period to ground ourselves. However, if your emotions are felt consistent without a specific external trigger, then you should not struggle silently. This is an important distinction. Say you are constantly anxious. You may rationalize your anxiety as being tied to certain stressors (for example, “I am anxious for this exam.” “I am nervous to meet this person.”). However, if everyday (or every couple of days) you find yourself anxious about something, then it is not just this obligation or that assignment, but it is your anxiety. And you should talk about your anxiety. Saying “I am anxious for this exam,” is an alright start, but it is not addressing the underlying problem as much as it is focused on the specific situation of the exam. Instead, enter a conversation saying that “I am anxious about anything that requires me to perform well.” This gives the conversation more meaning because it invites a meaningful response. Whereas someone might say respond to your nerves about a test, with “Don’t worry, it’s only a test,” if framed as a more significant/ broader issue, the person will be more likely to respond with more care and attention. But more than anything, if you struggle everyday with something, you should not settle for silence.
“…if your emotions are felt consistent without a specific external trigger, then you should not struggle silently.”
The Onus is not only on you
Communication is a two-way street. As much as you have to put effort forth in pairing feelings with words, the person you are engaging with must also be aware of how to communicate effectively. Unfortunately, there is no cookie-cutter formula for how to connect meaningfully with all people because it takes a unique recognition of what an individual responses to. As someone who is trying to provide help, you need to be aware of what works and what doesn’t. It is a process of really getting to know the person you are trying to help. Maybe the person responds well to reassuring words like, “I am here for you” and “You are not alone.” But for others they don’t want to hear flowery fluff- instead, they want tangibles to make them feel better, like “Let’s watch a funny show and plan an adventure.” For others, the most valuable way to help them is through a simple, but caring action like cleaning their place, cooking a meal, running an errand, or helping them with a particularly stressful task. Meet the person where they are at, and this means being conscious of how to communicate meaningfully with them.
Feelings are frustrating- there is no doubt. However, a lot of the frustration around feelings is in the difficulty to express these emotions. If you can communicate how you feel (whether that is in words or pictures or music or through stories), then the actual feeling can be processed without as much tension— it can be released. Emotional release is a huge part in actually feeling better, that is why a good vent session or therapy appointment can go such a long way. The next time you feel are pent up inside with unexplainable emotions, refer to these pointers, and above all, LET IT OUT!