I don't like feelings. Honestly, if I had a choice, I probably would ignore the fact that they exist altogether. Expressing my feelings makes me feel vulnerable, and I worry that telling the people in my life how I feel could drive them away. If you’re in the same boat, you might also have a mental list of things people who can’t express feelings want their friends, family, and loved ones to know.
In order to figure out why you feel this way, I spoke with several experts to uncover what’s causing this behavior. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Elite Daily, “The technical term for a difficulty in identifying and describing emotions is alexithymia.” Alexithymia is defined as someone having trouble defining and explaining how they feel.
Klapow points out that for some people, it's difficult to put anything more complicated than “basic” emotions — sad, happy, or mad, for example — into words. "These individuals may feel a broad array of emotions, but when it comes to putting a label on them, the broad array gets [put into these few basic categories]," he says.
For other people, the struggle goes deeper than an inability to express their feelings in words. They may not even personally recognize their own emotions. Klapow says, "[They] may not acknowledge or be aware that they are having the feelings themselves. They may interpret, for example, frustration as tightness in their muscles, tension in their heads, or difficulty concentrating, but they do not see the experience as an emotion of frustration."
It’s crucial to note that the below points should be “qualified as possibilities rather than absolutes,” according to Manhattan psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona — meaning that every person is different. Cilona tells Elite Daily, “The reasons, issues, and underlying motivations, thoughts, and feelings [for people to hide or struggle communicating their emotions] will vary greatly from individual to individual.” With that in mind, here’s a list of potential things to consider about people who don’t know how to express their feelings, whether that’s you or someone you’re close to. These factors aren’t true for everyone, but they might help you better understand what’s going on underneath the surface.
1. People Who Can’t Express Their Feelings May Be Very Sensitive
Those who have trouble expressing their feelings may be extremely sensitive to even the smallest issues. They might find it exhausting to deal with these emotions all the time, so they think the best thing to do is just not say anything at all. Even more, they may fear being rejected if they open up about their emotions.
“Rejection is not just disempowering; it erodes your self-esteem and alters your decision-making ability,” says Clarissa Silva, behavioral scientist, relationship coach, and creator of Your Happiness Hypothesis Method. “Oftentimes, many internalize rejection, and that creates a cycle of lowered expectations. Why address what you feel when you already [believe] it will be dismissed?”
2. They Might Be Struggling To Identify Their Emotions In The First Place
Oftentimes, when people struggle to express their feelings, it’s because they have a hard time identifying them — even to themselves. “Being aware of our emotions can be challenging, especially for people who were not attuned to their emotions earlier in life or were raised in families who did not openly discuss thoughts and feelings,” says Jennifer Panning, licensed clinical psychologist with Mindful Psychology Associates. For example, if your mother routinely invalidated your emotions as a young child, you might “learn to suppress emotions or solely focus on logic [and] thoughts to the detriment of [your] emotions.”
3. They Might Use Sarcasm To Avoid Conflict
According to Silva, some people prefer to avoid conflict at all costs. She says, “If expressing emotion will result in creating conflict and chaos around you, you will opt to not be expressive. You may be afraid of your own anger, confrontation, or conflict with others.” Silva notes that if you’re this type of person, you may even use sarcasm in order to steer clear of conflict.
Cilona adds, “A common fear often related to having difficulty expressing emotions is the fear of conflict. Negative, troubling emotions such as anger or resentment can result in a fear of expressing these emotions directly because they might lead to conflict.” So instead, some people choose to keep their emotions close to their chest.
4. Maybe They’re Scared Of Vulnerability
“Sensitivity and attempts to avoid emotional vulnerability are often associated with difficulty expressing emotions,” Cilona says. Silva adds, “The fear of vulnerability is ultimately a fear of rejection or abandonment. You have been hurt before, so you are trying to avoid being hurt again.”
Putting yourself out there can be a pretty terrifying thing in general. People who have had bad experiences in the past may find it even more difficult to open up to the people around them.
5. Expressing Emotions Might Feel Like A Sign Of Weakness
We live in a world where being upset about things can sometimes be taken as a sign of weakness. Silva describes setting your feelings aside as “emotional perfectionism.” She says, “[It’s] where you think you should always be rational and in control of your emotions so you do not appear weak and vulnerable.”
It’s worth noting here that expressing yourself should never feel like a shortcoming! If you feel judgment from others when expressing your feelings to them, they’re not the right people to have in your life.
6. They May Hope Others Intuitively Understand How They Feel
People who don't express their feelings may magically want others to realize they're upset and fix things without saying a word. They want to be acknowledged, but they may struggle to find the right words to express what they're feeling when they’re feeling it.
Klapow says, “They have to work very hard to read cues around them. [They also work hard trying to] trust people to give them feedback about how they are behaving — even if they don’t see it.” He does note, though, “They can improve if they trust a person enough to allow them to give them feedback.”
7. Unexpressed Emotion Can Be The Result Of Being Hurt In The Past
“Sometimes unexpressed emotion has to do with past hurt that hasn’t been resolved,” Silva says. “You are dealing with aspects of yourself that are unexplored, and you are not able to express that to others.”
Maybe a close relative died or a toxic breakup closed this person off from expressing their emotions. Maybe a friend betrayed them, and they can't really imagine they won't get hurt again by opening up to someone else. Without even realizing it, they may have built a wall around their heart in order to protect it.
Silva says, “This is classical repression. When the life event is experienced as traumatic to the individual, sometimes the psyche will bury that event as a way to help you cope with the trauma.” She continues, “Repression is a complex psychological process that is designed to help cope with trauma that’s happening subconsciously. The best way to address repression is with a mental health professional.” A licensed therapist can help people dig deep to the root of what might be holding them back emotionally.
8. Pushing Them To Express Their Feelings Probably Won’t Help
If someone was made to feel that their emotions were bad or invalid as a child, “it takes a lot of work to replace these messages and more clearly identify their feelings without shame or judgment,” Panning says. “For some, learning to identify and feel their feelings is akin to learning a new language.” That’s why forcing someone like this to try to open up is among the least productive things you can do.
“If a client is struggling in this area, we would proceed with care and caution, knowing that this can be laden with intense emotions, and [it] will take time to have that person become more comfortable with themselves,” Panning says. Rather than try to push someone to open up, which might cause the person to shut down, be gentle and allow them to try to express themselves when they feel ready.
Again, it’s important to keep in mind that these points differ from person to person. But if you’re having trouble expressing your feelings, or if you know someone who struggles in this way, knowing where they’re coming from may help you better understand what it’s like to go through this — and how to help.
Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show
Clarissa Silva, behavioral scientist, relationship coach, and creator of Your Happiness Hypothesis Method
Dr. Joseph Cilona, Manhattan psychologist
Jennifer Panning, licensed clinical psychologist with Mindful Psychology Associates
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