An Essential Tool for the Neglected: Identifying Your Feelings

6 min read
Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock Images

Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock Images

My head felt hot, and my heart sank to my stomach.

I ate the entire tub of ice cream last night.

My breath quickened and my mind started racing.

I got the worst migraine.

I found myself endlessly scrolling on my phone.

I really don’t know why I just yelled at my best friend over such a small thing.

My ears perk up when I hear things like this in my therapy office. What I know … that many of the lovely people I work with don’t … is that these tidbits of information indicate that you are having a feeling.

As the author of the first two books written about childhood emotional neglect, I interact with many emotionally neglected people each and every day. For more than a decade, my primary goal has been to educate every human being in the world about how childhood emotional neglect happens, the impact it has on children into adulthood, and how possible it is to heal.

Childhood emotional neglect happens when your parents don’t respond enough to your emotions and your emotional needs throughout your upbringing. And, so, I am in the practice of teaching people all about their feelings—something that scores of emotionally neglected people have sorely missed out on growing up.

In dealing with so many people, I get asked quite a few questions about childhood emotional neglect and the healing process. The most common question I get asked, time and time again, is this: “How do you know when you are having a feeling?”

People who were emotionally neglected were taught how to ignore their feelings—not how to spot a feeling as they were having it. Not knowing this essential emotion skill is a major impediment to living a life that is true to yourself. And learning how to answer this question can be a pivotal step toward healing your emotional neglect.

So, back to the question: How do you know when you are having a feeling?

3 Ways to Identify When You Are Experiencing a Feeling

  1. Physical sensations: Feelings can be described as physical sensations inside your body. Emotions are body sensations, so it can benefit you to pay special attention to your body. Which sensations are present right now as you are reading this? Which sensations come and go? I often ask, “Where do you feel that in your body?” Clients may answer with felt sensations in their throat, chest, or belly. You can also feel emotions in your head, hands, arms, legs, and pretty much any other part of your body. There is no right or wrong way to feel a feeling. Pause frequently throughout your day and identify what you feel physically. This can help you to better pinpoint a feeling you may be experiencing.
  2. Physical pain or somatic symptoms: Research going back to the year 2000 and beyond (Härenstam, A., Theorell, T., & Kaijser, L., 2000) has shown that repressed anger is connected to coronary disease and an increased likelihood of heart attacks. With that damning evidence, it’s clear that since your emotions live in your body … and if they go unattended … they can do you harm. You may end up experiencing muscle tension, especially in your back, neck, or shoulders; fatigue; restlessness; jaw clenching; headaches; backaches; or even migraines. If you notice physical pain or unpleasant somatic symptoms, consider whether you may be ignoring vital feelings in your body.
  3. Surprising or confusing behaviors: Emotions motivate and direct us. When you are in touch with what you are feeling, you can then listen to ways in which you’re being driven to take action. When you are aware of this, you then have the power to control and manage what your feelings tell you to do. When you are not aware of this, you may very well be confused or surprised by the actions you may take. If this happens, pause and consider the feelings you’re having that led you to do the things you find puzzling.

How to Identify What You Are Feeling: The Identifying and Naming Exercise

The following exercise is taken from my book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect:

  • Step 1: Pause and take a moment to close your eyes. Imagine a blank screen in your mind’s eye, blocking any thoughts that pop up. Focus on this blank screen and turn your attention inside.
  • Step 2: Ask yourself this: What am I feeling right now, at this very moment?
  • Step 3: Become aware of any thoughts that are bouncing around in your mind and choose not to engage with them. Refocus your attention on your body and what you are feeling right now.
  • Step 4: Attempt to identify a word to describe what you are feeling. Perhaps you need more than one word. Use sensations in your body to help you identify your feelings.
  • Step 5: When you identify a word that may describe your feeling experience, say it out loud. “I feel ____.” How does this seem when you say it? Does it encapsulate your experience? If not, continue finding more words to accurately describe your blend of emotions.
  • Step 6: Once you find language to match your experience, you are then set up to gain all the benefits that come with feeling and knowing your emotions. Guidance, self-knowledge, clarity, authenticity, connection, and motivation will all be on the table for you in a way they have not been before.

Where to Go From Here

Your emotions take the form of energy running through your body. If you don’t notice or respond to your feelings, you are taking a big risk. You may develop physical issues or may even engage in behaviors that don’t reflect your values or leave you feeling regretful, lonely, confused, or in misalignment with yourself.

If you have trouble identifying feelings as you’re having them, place any judgments on yourself and your abilities aside. Growing up in a household plagued with childhood emotional neglect excluded you from learning the essential emotion skills. Instead of learning how to identify, validate, understand, and manage your feelings, you learned how to minimize, ignore, and suppress them. This is not your fault.

Now, when you notice the speeding beat of your heartbeat, actions that leave you baffled with yourself, or tightness in your jaw, know that you can learn about yourself from these signs. It’s not your job to get rid of it; it’s your job to learn from it. This is your opportunity to choose something different.

It is your opportunity to feel.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

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