One of the hardest things to do is to translate feelings into words, also known as affect labeling. There is a gap between what our gut is telling us and the words we use to explain these sensations. Of course, that goes for everything we observe in this world and try to articulate. However, in regard to feelings, it’s a bit more complicated. Probably because they are internal phenomena, which means they are not so easy to compare and therefore, harder to define.
At the same time, it’s absolutely inevitable to express what we are feeling in one way or another. We do this quite often by using words. However, what’s the function of this verbal expression? Is it an attempt to comprehend the truth as accurate as possible and to convey this truth in a clear fashion? I rather believe that verbalizing a feeling is an attempt to defuse that same feeling. Thanks to those words, we have the illusion of control as if we deliberately chose for something, instead of that something overtaking us. As a result, we get a sensation of power. Don’t get me wrong. When expressing feelings, there is indeed a truth being told. This truth lies mainly in the outcome the wording has on the speaker and the listener. However, for both, it’s tempting to be deceived by the content of the message. Based on this sensitivity to deception, there are two major pitfalls.
First, people confuse their actual feelings with the way in which they express them. In most cases, the expression has the goal to influence the actions of other people. In this way, we hope to avoid certain feelings in the future, or we hope to keep particular feelings alive. This is a crude attempt at affect regulation. For example, we don’t say: “If you are this detached, I think something’s wrong, and I start worrying.” While this wording has the best chance to reach someone, we are more likely to say: “Why do you do this to me? You know I get upset when you behave like this. I would appreciate it if you showed a little more affection.” By doing this, we made ourselves emotionally dependent. Now the other has to behave in a certain way in order for us to feel good. From here, there are two possible outcomes. When the other doesn’t behave in accordance with our expressed desire, we feel misunderstood and rejected. That’s because we hold our primary feelings and the expression of these feelings for one and the same thing. Considering the refusal to behave in a certain way, we think the other has rejected our underlying feeling as well. When the other behaves in accordance with our expressed desire, we presume our feelings are taken seriously. With both outcomes, we generate conclusions based on wrong assumptions. It’s not because the other acts in a certain way that he declines or accepts our feelings. He probably doesn’t even understand them. Then again, neither do we.
Second, most people express their feelings as if those feelings have something real to say about the future. For example, we could have the impression that we will always love someone. But will we love that person indeed forever? We know the sobering answer to this question; it’s quite possible, but it may very well turn out a whole lot less romantic. The intensity of the emotional sensation is probably the deceiver. This sensation only tells us something about what’s happening now. However, we articulate it as if it says something about the future. We claim we could never hurt someone. We will forever be faithful. We will never lie, and we will always be ready to help other people. The most misleading part is that we really believe in what we are saying. Nevertheless, if we accept that behavior is an expression of what we feel, and if we accept that feelings are constantly influenced by elements out of reach for our conscious will, then we have no other option than to accept that we don’t know what our future behavior will look like.
Translating feelings into words is clearly important. Especially if we want to prevent misunderstandings. But do we have to reconsider every word we hear or pronounce in order to avoid confusion? I don’t think so. It’s more important to see words as a necessary attempt to express underlying feelings. Whether we understand these feelings, is not the main question here. Immediately after we expressed them, they clear the way for something else. In other words, the literal content of a message quickly loses its meaning if the underlying feelings changed. The best way for this to happen is to express these very sensations. Sadly enough, the content of this expression turns out to be the starting point for arguments and discussions. Suddenly, the pronouncement of some feelings became an unquestionable truth. And thus we wage war as if we know of what we are saying. That’s hardly the case, and so we reach, yet again, exactly the opposite of what we were aiming for.