Learn to identify your own emotions

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Yellow shows regions of increased sensation while blue areas represent decreased feeling in these composite images. Image courtesy of Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen. link to article below.

I’ve been searching for aids to help me identify what I’m feeling in my mind and body from moment to moment and came across this diagram from Discover Magazine – Body Atlas reveals where we feel emotions. Before I started trauma focused therapy, I was unaware we felt emotions anywhere other than in our minds. I was so tightly in control of my emotions, that I did not fully feel them, and I did not feel them in connection to my mind and body and the moment.

I was raised with a number of unbalanced beliefs about emotions, many from the trauma and abuse I endured, many a product of survival, many a product of the aftermath.

Emotions made me weak.
I’m not allowed to feel that way.
I should feel like . . .
My feelings are troublesome and need to be hidden.
Showing my true feelings could be dangerous.
I might be rejected or unloved if I am not pleasant at all times.
Negative emotions are bad.
Only bad people have bad feelings.
Everyone else’s feelings are more important than my own.
I have no need to feel anything of my own.
Crying is pointless and bothers others around you and should not be done, but definitely can never be seen.
I shouldn’t make others uncomfortable.

Then there is the issue of the pain I was consciously avoiding. I knew it was there, somewhere under the surface. I never looked directly at it. I learned to avoid falling in the hole, somehow, even though I had my eyes shut. This new counselor encouraged me to open my eyes. At first I thought she was crazy, that I was incapable, and that I would fall in the hole and get swallowed up by that pain. But what I found was that it wasn’t a hole, but a wave. I had been avoiding and holding back a wave. Once I let go, it washed over me. I felt it. I got wet. I struggled and thought maybe I couldn’t get back up for a moment, but the intensity didn’t last. Soon I could breathe again and the tears started flowing. And then they stopped too. I’m still not good at crying, it only comes out in little bursts. But each one is an amazing connection of mind and body, and I don’t judge or try to control anything, only feel what my body needs me to feel. I can’t do it everytime. My natural inclination is still to block it all. But once in a while we literally have a breakthrough and my counselor is so proud to see me express emotions, and then I laugh too, at how odd it is that she WANTS me to cry and feel this pain.

Then she helps me to identify and understand it all, and to reduce its power over me. Sometimes I think she is a magician, when she tears down a mental barrier and I can actually feel it, like a switch in my brain, something changes. A belief I had is no longer so powerful, just like that. And now all I have to do is practice it the new way of thinking and I’ll keep getting better, firing new neurons, making new pathways instead of stuck in these PTSD ones I’ve had for so long.

Sometimes I sit in front of her, unable to identify what I’m feeling because it is too intense, and too many feelings all together. She helps me by telling me what she sees in my body language and asking me what I feel.

One time, I had a worksheet that generated something that brought on feelings in me that caused me to nearly pass out. I would get a choking feeling in my throat, my heart would race, my stomach clench, a cold sweat, and then I’d get dizzy and things would go black if I didn’t ease up.

Terror.

She identified that one as terror. not fear or panic or anxiety, but terror. No wonder I had been avoiding it. It was a childhood memory that I’ve been carrying around, one of so, so many, that I couldn’t make sense of at the time, so it remained unprocessed in my mind and body. A dark shadow in the corner of my mind. A thought I don’t think. A feeling I don’t feel. One of many.

It was why I had become numb. It was why I learned to disassociate. I understand now.

Toddlers learn to identify and regulate emotions when parents teach them what they are feeling. I was taught not to cry. I was taught to shut up. I was taught to always smile no matter what – or else. I was not allowed to feel and never learned to identify or regulate basic emotions. So I get to do it now.

Forgive my tears and tantrums, forgive my outbursts and confusion, I’m an emotional toddler, learning it all brand new. I feel like an idiot, out of control, unpredictable. So far I have no lasting relief from all of this new knowledge, only extreme pain, despair, distress. Sometimes I feel like it was better being numb, but of course I couldn’t go on like that. That’s what lead to my complete breakdown. My mind and body could not do it any longer.

So here’s what I have figured out. I walk around nearly constantly with some level of fear, sadness, and shame. That’s my baseline. It’s a cold, sleepy, kind of an empty feeling that makes me want to hide and avert my eyes. It makes my mouth dry, my voice quiet, my shoulders slump, my fingers clench and feel cold, and somewhere in my chest, I guess I have a constant heartache.

Anxiety and panic is more in my chest, with my throat and breathing. I cross my arms.

Disgust makes me nauseous, my entire stomach gets tight and woozy. I get dizzy too. My lip curls.

Anger I feel in my head, my eyebrows get tight, my face gets hot. I get a racing feeling, quick thoughts. Heart is pounding hard but not fast.

I’ve been trying to feel pride, love, joy, happiness. I think I get them for a moment but it’s too fast and too faint. I know I am proud of my kids, but I don’t feel it in my body any where. When I try to – fear and shame actually kicks in and overpowers…so that’s interesting. I’ve felt the love received from Hubby and kids, a brief warmth, that again gets quickly erased. PTSD is not allowing me to feel good right now. It’s like I’m tuned into the misery channels. Counselor says give it time and the misery broadcast will fade away and allow the good ones to have a turn. Well I have to give it time…I have no other choice, this is me right now.

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11 thoughts on “Learn to identify your own emotions

  1. Fascinating how they can see the body respond to emotions. I’m so grateful you have a counselor that understands and knows how to lead you through. The good will come, with practice. You have years of practice of the nasty stuff. Time to learn new habits. You are. You got this.

    • Isn’t it fascinating? I love this stuff. Proof of the power of emotions and that they are real forces. I’m grateful for my new counselors too, when I’m not angry at them for all the misery they are causing. But I keep going and doing the work because I know this is the good kind of pain, like exercise, or cramming for a final.

      • My sister reminds me there was a reason the counselor sat several feet away. (So she couldn’t hit him. 🙂 ) Keep fighting for you.

  2. Amazing post. As someone who struggles to identify my feelings beyond “I like this, I don’t like that” it gives me hope that one day I might be able to. So thank you.

    • Thank you, I hope this might help. It is a long, painful process to get reconnected. I’ve been working on this for almost a year now with the counselors at a trauma focused recovery center – an amazing program

  3. You have the right to your emotions and you have the right to wallow in them, to feel them, to learn them. Truly, this is a learning process. I am so in awe of you right now.

    Something that helped me, mood rings. I know, sounds odd doesn’t it? But honestly a therapist I worked with many years ago suggested I wear them as I was learning to reconnect with myself. I bought bands, they are oddly pretty and though I don’t know how entirely accurate they are they helped me connect.

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