Before I go on to talk about emotions – identifying, understanding, and expressing them – I would like to ask you to reflect a bit on your current relationship with your significant other. Since you are focusing specifically on the challenge you have expressing your feelings to them, I wonder if could be because, 1. This is the most significant relationship in your life right now and so resolving this issue is essential, and therefore a top priority; 2. Sometimes a partner in a romantic relationship will ask for/demand emotional transparency in a way that other people in your life do not; or 3. If you identify this as a pervasive problem in your life in other relationships besides this one.
The reason I am asking that is to get an idea of the context of your struggle. A brief review of how human beings develop emotionally: We are all born essentially screaming. Newborns have one language, and that is crying. They have basic needs – to be fed, held, and comfortable. At that point, communication is super simple – the baby cries, the caregiver tries to figure out what the need is and fulfill it, and then the baby relaxes until the cycle starts all over again. As the months (and then the years) go by, communication becomes more complex. Small children learn the feelings that come with certain facial expressions. They learn that their own expressions elicit different reactions in other people. Then they learn words and are often told to “use their words” when they regress and express their needs like a baby or younger child.
How does emotion factor into this? Well, children start to learn about emotions by mirroring the emotions of their caregivers. Take the typical tantruming toddler, for example. That child is all emotion – maybe they are overtired, hungry, physically uncomfortable in some other way, or anxious; maybe they want something they can’t have. For a young toddler all of these emotions can blend together into a general feeling of “bad,” or “not right,” or “upset.” Starting off with only that vague idea, that child can learn a lot from how their caregiver responds. Of course, the concrete response should be to meet the need, if it is clear and reasonable – feed, comfort, soothe. If the child is asking for something that they desire but that is not good for them, then it is the emotion itself that the caregiver is responding to. The healthiest response communicates to the child that it is okay to have “big” feelings, to cry, to protest (but not to hit or kick, etc.)
If a caregiver does not understand that this is typical toddler behavior, they might get mad, and think, “This child is a brat; how dare they cause so much trouble!” Then they might scold the child. This response tells the child that feeling and expressing sadness and anger is not acceptable. What if the caregiver yells and “tantrums” back? That heightens the overall level of emotion. The adult has risen to the child’s level of agitation and intensity.
The most ideal response is to stay calm and be comforting. The child might still scream, but they see that it is possible to react to the intensity with calm. Eventually, the level of emotion will soften and fall to the level of a calmer person. The child learns something every time this happens. They feel wild, messy, unpredictable emotions, and are met with calm and compassion and eventually calm down themselves. The caregiver is teaching the child, by example, how to manage or regulate their emotions. The way that child handles strong emotions when they grow up will likely correlate closely with the most common way they have seen their caregivers respond in such situations.
As the child continues to grow, the adults in their life help them to develop an emotional vocabulary. For example, when a playmate abruptly grabs a toy away from them, they will likely feel some combination of sad, angry, startled, and afraid. They will likely experience this mixture of feelings as simply “bad,” or “upset.” It is their parent or caregiver’s job to observe the emotion and reflect, “I can tell you were sad when your friend took the toy away…” Or, “Are you feeling angry about that?” As interactions like this happen over and over again, children learn to interpret their own emotions more clearly.
Returning to your question, I’m curious if you have identified this as a problem for you before, and also about how emotions were handled in your family of origin. Every family has its own way of communicating, and that can range from extremely healthy to moderately healthy, to “we just don’t talk about things,” to indifferent, all the way to angry and toxic. I have worked with people who never saw themselves as having a problem with understanding or voicing their emotions. For the family, they grew up in and the friends they spent time with, their level of emotional insight and expressiveness always seemed just fine. Then they might partner with someone who highly values sharing feelings and talking everything out. The person can be kind of blindsided, feeling like a huge amount of detail is being demanded of them. Detail about a topic that had previously seemed simple to them.
We see this scenario often when couples come to therapy: One partner (often the woman in a heterosexual relationship, but not always) complains: “He (or she) never talks about feelings!” or “They don’t open up to me,” or “How are we supposed to have any emotional intimacy when they won’t talk?” The first partner might respond with confusion. They might say, “But we do talk. We talk all the time!” or ask, “What if I’m not feeling anything in particular, just okay? I don’t always have a good answer for that question.”
If this is the case with you and your significant other, if you feel bombarded by questions that demand more emotional detail than you find yourself actually feeling, it’s possible that a gentler approach from your partner could work better. You could agree to explore and discover more about your emotions through journaling, therapy, or reading. And they could agree to be patient. When the pressure is off, and small gains are respected, that extra space might allow you to you gradually get in touch with the subtle variations of what you are feeling.
Whether this condition is longstanding or more recent, I highly recommend that you pursue individual therapy, as the symptoms you describe could also be indicative of depression. Assessment and treatment are vital for your well-being if this is the case.
If however, you identify this as an issue that you have struggled with for most of your life, in other relationships and friendships, and if it really is a mystery to you how you are feeling and how other people are able to talk about it so easily, there is a condition called alexithymia. It is characterized by difficulty identifying and expressing emotions. If you think this might apply to you, therapy could help you explore this possibility. It can help you better understand and cope with your way of processing things. Including your significant other in some sessions could help increase their capacity to see the world through your eyes. If they can recognize that you are not hiding your feelings from them, not unwilling to share your deepest self in your relationship, that in itself can build mutual understanding and closeness.
Alexithymia is not an official mental health diagnosis, and there is no specific treatment recommended for it. However, therapy can help you increase your ability to tune into your emotions, even though they may be hard to access. One step toward this could be developing a greater awareness of your physical states, such as your heart rate and breathing. Every emotion has a physical feeling associated with it, but sometimes they are very subtle.
Thank you for reaching out to ask about this. I hope it has been helpful. Knowledge is power, and the more you know about your individual makeup, the better equipped you will be to face life with positivity and intention.
I wish you the best,