How to open up when you don’t know what you’re feeling

Fiona Fletcher Reid
By Fiona Fletcher Reid,
updated on Feb 1, 2024

How to open up when you don’t know what you’re feeling

Lost for words? Read this

Your inner world can be an intense place to live. Whether it’s worrying about the future, ruminating on the past, or feeling stuck where you are, it’s easy to get so caught up in your own thoughts that you shut everyone out, even when you suspect that opening up might ease your pain.

Mental health advice is often centred around the idea that it’s good to talk about your emotions. But how can you verbalise your feelings when you haven’t really figured out what they are?

Why are emotions so hard to put into words?

As difficult as it is to accept, emotions don’t manifest in the ways we’re conditioned to expect. In the same way that the word ‘blue’ is an umbrella term for thousands of different hues, emotions can’t be easily separated and defined.

“We don’t all feel the same feelings in the same way,” counsellor Georgina Sturmer explains. “Your version of anxious or angry might feel different from my version of anxious or angry. We sense our feelings in our bodies and minds in distinct and individual ways.”

To further complicate things, it’s common to hold contradictory emotions at the same time. For example, when you break up with your partner you may experience a messy cocktail of grief, embarrassment, and freedom all at once. Explaining that to other people might be too confusing to even try.

Each emotion moves at its own pace, depending on the situation and the person. “Our emotions don’t walk into the room and introduce themselves,” says Georgina. “Sometimes they creep up slowly, unannounced. Sometimes they rush in and take over the whole space before we can do anything. And sometimes they hide away, ignored or rejected.”

How talking helps

When you’re feeling intense emotions, especially those linked to fear, it’s difficult to think logically, and find practical ways to support yourself. This is because your brain has switched to survival mode, something that makes the logical part of your brain much harder to access.

Research published in Psychological Science shows that talking openly about your emotions can dampen this survival response over time. For example, if you know that being home alone triggers an overwhelming set of emotions, the more you talk through the emotions verbally, the more able you will be to manage future reactions to the same situation.


Address the shame

While we’re all for education and solution-based approaches to mental health issues, the truth is that you cannot out-think an emotional response. When you tell yourself that you should be able to ‘deal with it’ and feel unable to, you’re unconsciously shaming yourself for your perceived inability to cope.

You have to let go of the desire to explain, justify, or rationalise the emotion and, instead, allow yourself to feel it physically in the body. This means relinquishing the need for control, which is often very confronting. Getting to this point is a process that takes time and support.

“It starts with noticing,” says Georgina. “Noticing the events or people that trigger the sense that things are off. It might be lifestyle factors too – does sleep, food, or drink play a role? You might become aware of patterns or themes that emerge. Notice what your body feels like, the rhythm of your breath, are you able to stay present or do you disappear off somewhere in your mind?”

Acknowledge that this type of self-enquiry is a skill, and one that takes some time to master. Be patient as you uncover the nuances of your emotional world, and allow it to exist without needing to fix things.

Consider your emotional vocabulary

You may have grown up in an environment where feelings were simplified into just a few options, such as happy, angry, or sad. But the human experience is far more complex than that, and while we are limited by language, there are ways to expand our emotional vocabulary. Consider looking at a feelings wheel which can be found online, and features seven core feelings, as well as multiple sub branches and words to define the subtleties of each emotion.

Alternatively, try to imagine the different aspects of how you feel in a creative way. Consider if your feelings match a particular scent, colour, flavour, or weather pattern, and try writing it down or drawing a picture. Doing this can give you a starting point to explain your feelings in more depth, and then share this with someone you trust.

Walk and talk

Once you’ve got a little clarity on your feelings, going on a walk can be a less intimidating way of expressing them. The forward motion, lack of eye contact, open expanse of sky, and connection to nature all contribute to a more calming environment, which can allow you to open up with ease. You don’t have to jump into deep discussions straight away either, just take things one step at a time (literally). When you find yourself more relaxed and ready to talk, you can begin to open up – and remember, you don’t have to have it all figured out right now. Talking it through might help make sense of things.

Phrases to use when you’re ready to open up about your emotions:

1. “I’ve been feeling a little off lately, would it be OK if I try to explain it to you?”

2. “I need to vent, do you have time to talk?”

3. “I’m not coping very well, can you help me figure things out?”

4. “Have you used a feelings wheel? I want to show you how I’ve been feeling.”

Talking isn’t the only option

If expressing your emotions in person fills you with dread, or renders you unable to speak without feeling self-conscious, consider another means of communication. Sending a text message might work for you, but be wary if being left ‘on read’ has the potential to lead to feelings of rejection. If you’re worried about your text being taken the wrong way, a voice note can help you express your feelings more clearly, as the recipient will take cues from your tone of voice.

Have realistic expectations

Depending on the person you choose to open up to, you may not get the response you’re hoping for. Be realistic about how much support or understanding other people are able to offer and, if you can, open the conversation by clarifying how they can help you. For example, if you’re opening up to a friend about emotions related to work, and you are certain that you don’t want to leave that workplace, ask kindly that the friend listens to your concerns without telling you to look for another job.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for practical solutions to how you’re feeling, invite them to make suggestions so that you can find a way through together. And remember, even if a problem can’t be tied up neatly in a bow, you’ve reached out to talk about your emotions which is proven to help, so it will make a tangible difference in the long run.

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