Finding a Vocabulary for Feelings
Plus, a roundup of links to get you ready to tackle the week!
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Emotions are tricky. At any point in time, we can have a kaleidoscope of feelings swirling within us or what feels like nothing at all. Some of us can readily identify the emotions at play, while others have a more difficult time separating out our feelings and where they live within the body.
The past 14 months have been all about tapping into my emotions, reconnecting to my body, and allowing myself to feel as I transition away from diets and into intuitive eating. This is critical work and absolutely necessary to do intuitive eating, but also to live in harmony with one’s self.
The early days of intuitive eating are all about giving yourself full permission to eat, uncovering your hidden food rules, and rediscovering the satisfaction with food. And the mind-body connection is such an important part of that. We can’t eat intuitively if we can’t identify the sensations within the body. When we can’t sense emotions, we have a hard time distinguishing between emotional and physical hunger. We also have a harder time identifying basic hunger and fullnesscues.
This work isn’t easy, especially for those of us at a certain age, who’ve grown up believing our bodies and body signals aren’t to be trusted. This goes beyond simple hunger and fullness cues; it applies to emotions, too. Some of us learn to suppress our feelings as a matter of course; for others, it’s a means of survival, a response to trauma.
No matter the cause, though, there is a whole body of research that says that suppression causes—or prolongs—suffering. Probably the most famous work on this is Bessel van der Kolk’s book ”The Body Keeps the Score”. Gabor Mate also does some great work in this area, too.did a terrific piece this week exploring anger and why it’s sometimes called a secondary emotion. It gets that label because we often resort to it in order to protect ourselves or cover up more vulnerable feelings. We might be feeling stressed, hurt, anxious or embarrassed, but it comes out as rage. This certainly used to be me, and it still is in times of high stress and fatigue.
Janice’s post reminded me of the emotion color wheel poster that hung on the wall in the office of the eating disorder specialist my daughter saw for a year and a half as she battled and eventually recovered from anorexia. The first time I saw it, there on our first visit, I was mesmerized. Here was a vocabulary for all the things a person could feel!
It was a wheel shaded with the colors of the rainbows. At the center, were the core emotions, each in their own color. They fanned out into another ring of more descriptive words for each of those first emotions, and then another.
On that wheel, I scanned to find words that fit what I was feeling—stressed and worried and overwhelmed—and hoping this doctor would help my child. The poster’s placement was brilliant because you couldn’t pass through from the waiting room to an examination room without walking past it. And each time, I passed, it was a reminder:
To pause and reflect on how I was feeling.
To go deeper, because the easiest emotion probably wasn’t the one I was really feeling.
Prior to my work over the past year, I had trouble identifying any emotion within myself beyond anger. If you asked me, “What are you feeling?” when I was emotionally overwhelmed, I would have spat out a list of things causing me anguish, but I would not have named a single emotion. Now, I have a larger vocabulary, but I’m still learning and feeling and connecting to myself. And sensing our feelings is a muscle. We have to do it to get better at doing it.
Why is it so important to identify feelings?
From an intuitive eating perspective, it’s how we attune to our body. It also helps with:
Self-awareness—or recognizing our emotional responses to different situations
Stress reduction—it allows us to tackle the causes of our stress and anxiety
Emotional regulation—when we know what we’re feeling, we can better manage ourselves
Communication—when we know what we feel, we can share it with others
Conflict resolution—being able to articulate feelings can create more productive conversations
When I get overwhelmed and struggle to figure out what I’m feeling, my mind goes back to the wheel. No, I don’t have it memorized, but I can start with the most basic emotion, like anger, and work my way backwards to more descriptive feelings. If I’m not sure, I try them on and see how they fit.
There are different variations of the emotion color wheel, so find one that resonates with you.
Here are a few more tips for when you struggle to identify what you’re feeling:
Slow down and reflect: When you’re feeling anger or another powerful emotion bubbling up or you find yourself getting short with others, stop and reflect on your feelings and what might be causing them.
Label the emotion: This is where the wheel comes in handy. But even if you don’t have one, often it helps to just remember that the first emotion that comes to mind probably isn’t the real one driving your behavior. Work down until you find the one that really reflects how you’re feeling.
Check in with your body: Emotions often manifest in the body. Even if you can’t feel the emotion within yourself, close your eyes and see if you can sense where it’s hitting. Often I will get a picture of the place within me while I’m feeling. There is no right or wrong here, and while this sounds like a woo woo exercise, it helps you get better at identifying emotion.
Often just pausing long enough to do these three things is enough to diffuse a tense situation and bring a sense of calm to a stressful situation.
If you want to explore this more, I challenge you to come up with three emotions beyond the core emotions to describe how you’re feeling today. Share them in comments below if you feel like it, no explanations needed!
More Links to Lift You Up and Get Your Creative Juices Flowing
- talks collaboration and connection and why they are so important for unlocking creativity, but even more importantly, she talks about how hard it is to share your personal writing with the world, and sometimes even harder to share it with those you love.
If you aren’t worried about ultra-processed foods, you probably haven’t been reading the news., who did an extensive three-part series on UPFs earlier this year, provides a rapid response to the sensational news reports about a recent British Medical Journal analysis on “ultra-processed food addiction.”
- talks “real self-care” with , author of “Real Self-Care,” who challenges us to go deeper than the latest wellness trend or product that is supposed to solve our life’s woes.
- reminds us that we need to be using the word fat more.
I need you to know that using the word “fat” neutrally in conversations challenges other people and their thoughts. Each time you use “fat” you are chipping away at the violence that is happening to fat people. The more of us collectively chipping away, the more of a change we can make. I need you to know this more than ever. Your fat loved ones need this now more than ever.
Finally, I leave you with’s piece on quitting social media. It seems like lots of Substack folks have given social the ol’ heave-ho (see ’s Can We Quiet Quit Social Media? and ‘s I Quit Instagram). Do you dream of a day you can ditch social media? I do, but I’m not yet brave enough to do it.
I realised that one of the reasons I’d been hanging onto social media is that without it, I didn’t think that the Universe was capable of looking after me. How would people find my writing here on Substack without it? How would any of my not-close but still dear friends ever remember me? How would I find out about important or exciting things locally or in the world? And how oh how would I get the important gossip??!!!
Share your thoughts about this or any of the above topics and a link to the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last week.