“My feet are dirty!”: Identifying what we feel

16 02 2010

IDENTIFY your emotions.  Then FEEL them.  Then EXPRESS them.

That’s the three step process I proposed in my last post for dealing with our emotions.

On the surface, it would seem that the first step would be utterly simple: Just take a moment and think, “hmm… what am I feeling?”.  But it’s actually much harder than that.  Our hearts are unbelievably complex, capable of experiencing a stunning array of emotions.  Emotions are a lot like music: There are just twelve notes in the scale; but they can be combined in endless ways, creating millions of songs.

Further, for some reason, we’re capable of feeling things without “knowing” it.  How many times have you suddenly become aware of a loud noise that has been humming or buzzing, for who knows how long before you noticed it?  Emotions are like that.  They can sit in the background, affecting our thoughts and actions without our even noticing that anything is going on.  Suddenly, your emotion comes pouring out, unexpectedly.  Somebody asks you, “whoa, what’s wrong?”, and it is only then that you realize you’ve been angry (or sad, or happy) for the past several hours.

In fact, awareness of our emotions is something that has to be learned and cultivated.  Let me tell you a story:

“My feet are dirty!”

A friend of a friend of mine is married with kids.  There was a time when his 3 year old girl began to complain, “My feet are dirty!”  Surprised and confused, mom and dad took a look.  Nope, not dirty at all.  “Sweetie, your feet aren’t dirty!”  “My feet are dirty!”, she persisted.  They were confused, but it was bedtime, so they went ahead and gave her feet a little wash, and put her to bed.

Not long after, mom was driving in the car with her daughter in the carseat in the back, and the little girl again began to complain: “My foot is dirty!”  “Honey, what are you talking about?  Your foot is fine!”  To which the girl responded, “Something is poking all over my foot; my foot is dirty!”

Finally, mom realized: “Oh…!  Honey, your foot isn’t dirty – your foot is asleep!”

Learning to NAME what’s going on inside

This little girl experienced an unfamiliar sensation, and she didn’t have a word for it, no way to understand what was happening in her body.  An explanation had to be given to her by somebody who understood.

Well, emotions are the same way: They’re something that’s happening in your body, and you’re not born with the vocabulary to understand what you feel.  You have to learn it.

In fact, childhood contains hundreds and thousands of events in which every child has to develop an understanding of what is happening in his or her emotional world.   And even in adulthood, we must continue to develop our understanding of what is going on inside of us emotionally – learning to identify and play the “musical notes” of the heart that God has given you.

Learning to do this is of great importance.  God has designed us in such a way that putting words to something – naming it – gives it shape.  Our experience of the world and our ability to creatively respond to it depend on our ability to put words to what is happening within us and around us.

The importance of words comes from the very beginning of things: God spoke the universe into existence, and then he gave Adam the power of speech, including the authority to name the animals.  When we speak, we are co-creating with God, shaping the world into something that can be called (named) “good”.

There is much more that can be said on this topic of speech.  But my point is that our ability to fully feel our emotions, as well as our ability to put them to good use depend first on our ability to identify what it is that we are feeling.  Vague, undefined, unnamed emotions rarely serve their full purpose, and tend to do a lot more damage than good.

Next time: HOW we can start to learn to identify what we’re feeling.

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2 responses

26 02 2010

This is interesting.

It would seem logical to me to expect that children who are taught to mislabel emotions, or ignore them altogether, would struggle in life to feel at peace with themselves. If, for example, a child whose parents are going through a divorce is told by one or both of those parents, “this is for the best,” the child could grow up confused as to how exactly “best” goes with the deep “pain” they felt when the parents split. They may experience a lack of motivation when someone tells them to do their best. Or they may be bitter when they experience pain, unable to take it to anyone, since they feel they should view what is happening to them is a good thing.

That may be emotional psychology 101, or I may be off, just a thought.

26 02 2010
Tim Courtois

Absolutely. It’s almost overwhelming to think of all the ways kids can get confused by emotions being mislabeled/misunderstood, or just plain denied. (“You’re not upset; you’re just being selfish…”)
You’re totally correct. It’s scary because, for the most part, kids are hard-wired to trust their parents authority on things. If mom & dad tell you that a car is called a “car”, why would you doubt it? Their authority is just as strong when it comes to teaching you about your internal world. Even thought they might be totally off…

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