Knowing how you feel sounds extremely simple. It’s something everyone sort of instinctively knows how to do, isn’t it? And amidst the myriad problems and concerns facing you and your marriage, why is this something you need to spend time on?

Being able to understand and identify your emotions is at the core of understanding yourself and connecting with others. It might seem simple, but something as fundamental as emotional intelligence impacts every facet of your life and especially how you relate to your spouse.

I “Feel” Like You Don’t Understand This

Many times, people simply start their sentence by saying, “I feel” or “I feel like…” By doing this, it might appear like they are expressing emotion. But most of the time, sentences like this are merely expressing thoughts, not feelings.

For example, if you say, “I feel like you don’t want to spend time with me,” you’re not talking about emotions. You’re talking about what you think. Just because you said the word “feel” does not guarantee that you’re describing your emotional experience.

So how do you express feelings? A great way to do this is to use emotion words like sad, disgusted, disappointed, or happy. When you use feeling words, you are expressing your emotions, not your thoughts.

There’s a great way to know if your “I feel” statement is actually about feelings. It’s called the “I think” check. Simply replace “I feel” with “I think.” If that means the same thing, then you weren’t expressing an emotion; you were just saying what you thought.

For example, you might say, “I feel like you never listen to me.” If you replace “I feel,” you end up saying, “I think you never listen to me.” Because this statement still makes sense, “I think” is more accurate; therefore, you are talking about what you think, not what you feel.

But if you said, “I feel sad when you don’t listen to me,” the “I think” test fails. It wouldn’t make sense to say, “I think sad when you don’t listen to me.” This is a genuine feeling statement: in this case you are sharing your emotional experience.

This might seem somewhat trite, but you’d be surprised how many people use the phrase “I feel” incorrectly. Making sure you use it properly to describe emotions and not just thoughts is a big step in developing and growing emotional communication in your marriage.

The Biology of Emotion

In order to understand emotion, you need to understand how it interacts with your body.

Within your brain, there are several structures that are known to be involved with emotions. Your hypothalamus activates the nervous system, leading to an emotional response. The thalamus, amygdala, and other cortical areas help process emotions as well.

But what makes the amygdala special is that it transmits information out to nerve endings, resulting in a physical response to emotional stimuli.

What does this look like? A common example of this is witnessing someone getting badly hit in the groin. That “ugh” reaction you feel in response might cause you to fold up a little bit as if you yourself were hit in that area.

Now, you yourself were not hit in the groin. But witnessing someone being hurt that way inspires a sympathetic emotional reaction that results in a physical response.

There is a brain and body connection. This is why therapists and psychologists will ask clients where in their body they feel the emotion. A feeling of happiness might cause one’s body to feel noticeably lighter. A feeling of anxiety might cause tension and a feeling of weight in one’s abdomen.

This is why it’s called a feeling–because the emotion will always result in a physical sensation.

Which Comes First: Brain or Body?

There has been a lot of research on the origin of emotion in individuals. Some research indicates that emotions start solely in the brain before being felt in the body. Other research suggests that the body itself can cause conscious emotions.

Most likely, both are true. For example, when you place a cool towel on the back of your neck when angry, you will reduce the intensity of that anger. And inversely, by visualizing that person who cut you off in traffic earlier repeatedly, you can inspire an emotional response of anger that you can feel in your now-clenched fists.

Emotions can flow in both directions. They can flow from our brains to our bodies and vice versa.

The Duration of Emotions

Emotions can vary greatly in duration, from a few seconds to several hours. The length has to do with several factors:

1. The Event
Did a random person curse at you in passing? Or was it someone close to you? Have they done it before? These factors in the event itself affect the duration of the feeling.

2. The Emotion
The specific emotion you feel and its intensity are also factors. Disgust at cleaning up your dog’s mess on the front lawn doesn’t last nearly as long as the sadness you feel when they get sick.

3. The Person
Naturally, every individual has their own unique response to the different emotions they experience. So part of the process is understanding how each emotion affects you personally.

The Goal: Increased Emotional Literacy

It’s not enough just to be able to talk about emotions. Emotional literacy is about being able to identify and express the emotions you experience, using that to function better in life and particularly in relationships. 

According to Steinter (2003), emotional literacy involves five aspects that come from the emotion of love:

  1. Awareness of your feelings
  2. Empathy for another’s feelings
  3. Regulating your feelings
  4. Restoring emotional harm
  5. Communicating emotions

Historically, emotional literacy has not been considered to be an important value for men. As a result, most men (and, in fairness, some women) have only a minimal amount of emotional literacy. When asked how they feel, these people might just say they feel good or bad. Until they develop greater emotional literacy, they don’t have access to more detailed descriptions of their experience.

So the goal of this article is to help you identify your own feelings, which will help you relate better with yourself and those closest to you.

How to Identify Emotions

So if you don’t “feel” like you have a good grip on your feelings, we’ve prepared some techniques that will help you develop your emotional literacy. Get access to this guide by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

How To Identify Your Emotions

Before anything else, you need to know what emotions are out there. What are the variety of options available for you to feel? Once you know what many of those are, there are techniques you need to help you identify them.

If you haven’t done this before, this is going to be a little awkward. Identifying your emotions is a skill you learn, so that awkwardness is okay. Think of it like learning to ride a bike.

Here at the start, you won’t be able to stay balanced on two wheels. Then you’ll learn how to slowly move forward. You’ll still crash, but the longer you practice, the smoother and more natural it will become.

Getting to know your emotions might be a slow process, but once you learn how, it will be something you can do quickly and precisely.

Defining Emotions

A psychologist by the name of Robert Plutchik created a helpful diagram to plot both the key emotions (feeling words) people experience. This wheel of emotions also maps out the relationship between these feelings.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Around this wheel, you have the eight primary emotions: anger, fear, anticipation, surprise, sadness, joy, trust, and disgust. Each primary emotion lies across from its polar opposite:

  1. Joy / Sadness
  2. Fear / Anger
  3. Anticipation / Surprise
  4. Disgust / Trust

As you move further into the wheel, each emotion increases in intensity. So with the primary emotion of anger, you start with annoyance on the rim, which leads to rage in the center.

It might be helpful to print out this diagram or save it to your phone so that you can refer to it periodically. Try to build the habit of being accurately aware of what you are feeling.

Identifying Emotions

A great process for recognizing emotions comes from the creator of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Dr. Marsha. This six-step process is particularly effective in helping you process and debrief after an emotionally intense event. Understanding your emotions can help you get a better handle on what happened.

1. What happened?

Do your best to objectively describe the event. Only talk about facts, not interpretations.

2. Why do you think it happened?

Identify what you see as possible causes for the emotional event. Pay attention to what you answer here because the meaning you attribute to events are factors in how you respond emotionally.

3. How did the situation make you feel?

Take your time with this one, and really pause to consider what was (or maybe still is) happening in your body.

Start with your physical response. Did your breathing speed up or slow down? Did your palms get sweaty? Did you feel nauseous? If you replay the event in your mind, sometimes you will experience the same physiological responses.

What was your primary emotional response? This is the initial feeling you had in response to the situation. They often happen very strongly and quickly with very little cognitive processing of the event. For example, your spouse forgot to close the back door before going to bed last night, and you instantly got angry with them

What was your secondary emotional response? This is your reaction to your primary emotional response. This is how you feel about your feelings. For example, when you got angry with your spouse, you yelled. But now you feel guilty (secondary emotional response) because you did that.

One thing to note is that anger isn’t always a primary emotional response. Sometimes the primary emotion is fear or sadness, and anger commonly is the secondary emotional response to these. It can be easy to focus on anger, but understanding its relationship with other emotions will also help you and your spouse solve marital conflicts.

4. What did you want to do because of how you felt?

It’s important to be completely honest with yourself. The truth is that it is common for overwhelming emotions to push people towards doing or saying things that they might regret later.

5. What did you do and say?

Identify what you actually did because of your emotions. Make sure to distinguish between this and the previous step. There is a difference between the urge to do something and acting on that urge.

Connect your actions with the source of those feelings. Were you acting on primary or secondary emotions? What urges were you able to suppress, and which ones did you give in to?

This is a good place to learn from the experience. As long as you can be honest with yourself about what you did, you can use the mistakes you made to help prevent mistakes in the future.

6. How did/will your feelings and actions affect you later?

What are the direct and long-term ramifications of what you did? How will yesterday’s actions affect tomorrow?

When you can’t identify your emotions, it is very difficult to trace why you do certain things. By learning to identify your emotions, you can tie your actions to feelings, and events. This empowers you to stop being controlled by your emotions and start to manage them effectively.

Setting the Stage

There are some strategies that will make it easier for you to identify your emotions. Following these five suggestions will give you some structure and habits as you explore how you feel and how that impacts your life.

1. Be Still.

Try to clear your environment of all distractions. Set aside time to pause and take a break from the chaos of your day to identify how you are feeling.

2. Write.

The process of taking your feelings and bringing them into a reality you can see and observe will allow you to reflect on your emotions more effectively.

3. Talk to Someone.

Find people who are able and willing to help you process your emotions aloud. These could be your therapist, significant other, family, and friends.

4. Listen to Music.

Our emotions flow to and from the music we listen to as well. Listening to a sad playlist can help you bring out the sad feelings you might be avoiding. And conversely, when you are sad, you will be more likely to listen to music that reflects how you feel.

5. Reflect Daily.

Habitually reflecting before going to bed will help you practice the skill of examining your feelings in retrospect. You can review your day, what happened, what you felt, and what you did because of what you felt.

By doing these often and regularly, you will be able to hone your skills in identifying your emotions.

Emotions and Marriage

As you learn to process and deal with your emotions, find ways to apply what you learn in your relationship with your spouse. Start using these skills to understand yourself in the context of your marriage as well as to understand your significant other.

One way to do this is by paying attention to your spouse’s body language and posture. These are crucial to identifying emotions because they provide information that can’t be found in speech and facial expressions. The more sources of data you are able to gather from your spouse will help you make a more accurate assessment of their emotional state.

Another way is to share your emotional experiences with your spouse. Now that you are able to identify your emotions, you can deepen intimacy in your relationship by sharing your emotional experience with your significant other. Here you can practice using the “I feel” statements discussed earlier.

Even as you are sharing your emotional experience, pay close attention to the emotions brought up by the discussion itself. You might learn something new! Use this reflection to make sure that the feelings you are expressing to your spouse accurately reflect your emotional state. By doing this, you will help prevent miscommunication about your feelings and reactions. Finally, make sure to listen. While it is important that you are able to express your emotional growth to your spouse, realize that they need the same from you. He or she also needs to feel heard and understood.

And as you share and listen to one another, you will deepen your understanding of each other.


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