A Stoic’s Guide to Owning Your Feelings
Updated: Jan 5, 2020
“Naming what you feel means claiming what’s real”
I’m not writing this because I’m a guru at understanding my feelings. I’m writing because I’m crap at it. And because I’m crap at it, I’m always working hard to make it better.
I want to improve my emotional awareness because I believe it’s really important. Identifying your emotions is the first step in making empowered choices. And it’s from this awareness that you become an owner of your journey, not a victim of circumstance.
My own journey
I’m masterful at understanding others and helping them discover their emotions. I can probe and ask insightful questions. I can read between the lines. When it comes to examining my own feelings, though, it’s like looking through rock.
In moments where emotions are high, I still struggle to name what I feel. I still scratch my head in confusion any time I’m asked to say what I really want. I’m miles away from where I want to be with my emotional awareness.
That said, I’m much further along than where I was. I’ve grown 1,000% in my self-awareness and I’m genuinely happy about that. I’m farther down the road than I’ve ever been. I've learned a lot, and there's one tool that I think is very helpful.
Build out a “menu of emotions”
Naming how you feel starts off with better emotional vocabulary. A clearer “menu” of things to choose from. A lot of this is practice, repetition, and awareness. It comes naturally, the more you pay attention to it. A lot of this is innate and formed by the language you were exposed to in childhood. But a lot of it can be deliberately learned. There are some ways to exercise this emotional muscle.
The muscle metaphor is actually quite meaningful, because emotions are also physical. What we feel in our body is registered in the mind, and what we feel in the mind is registered in the body.
When we’re excited our heart beats faster, our breath quickens. When we’re scared our muscles tighten and our mouths become dry. We get a lump in our throats or a knot in our stomachs when we’re nervous or embarrassed.
This connection of mind and body is what creates a “feeling” out of an emotion.
So how can you connect to how you feel to build out this menu of emotions? Try this.
Find 15 minutes today to be alone, in a quiet place. A place where you might meditate or pray. Once you’re there, take 5 of the 15 minutes just getting comfortable. Settle in, clear your mind. Take some deep breaths and relax your body from head to toe.
Then, for 10 minutes practice imagining different emotions. I’ll provide some examples as prompts later, but don’t be afraid to dig deep into the unpleasant ones. Remember that you can stop at any point, move on to another thought at any point. The goal here is to really clarify how you as an individual experience emotions. Try to really commit to the next 10 minutes.
The first step is to think of an emotion. When you think of this emotion, try to anchor it in a real and recent experience. Imagine what it felt like or would have felt like to experience this emotion. Where were you? Who was there? How did you feel? Don’t be too analytical. Imagine and embellish, focus on the emotion.
After you’ve called up the experience, try to find deeper names for the emotion. Don’t settle for a word as broad as “sad.” Try on heartbroken, overwhelmed, ashamed, embarrassed. Peel back the layers and dig a bit until you find a word that feels true to the experience. This is the mental side of emotion.
Lastly, notice how your body feels. Where do you experience the feeling? In your throat, stomach, somewhere else? Is it dull, sharp, throbbing? Look inside your own body and map out this emotion. This is the physical side of emotion, the feeling. And it’s critical because the more you can be aware of how you feel in your body, the easier you can recognize the emotion behind it.
What it could look like
Here’s an example of how this could play out for the emotion “happiness.”
Step one, imagine an anchoring experience: “Last week I got the news that my partner was being promoted. It made me really happy to hear how she was being recognized for her hard work, and I could see she was really happy, too”
Step two (mental side), dig for deeper meaning: “I was happy, but I guess I wasn’t super giddy. There was something different about it. I think I was more happy for her. Pleased? Appreciative? Proud, maybe? That’s it. It was more because of how proud I was of her. She’s an incredible person and I was really proud of her.”
Step three (physical side), map it out in your body: “I notice that I feel lighter. The lightness is more in my chest, near my throat. It feels a bit warm, comfortable. It’s a strong feeling, intense, but somehow it feels light or weightless.
And that’s it. Just getting closer to an awareness of how you feel. Notice that we started with happiness, and maybe this is a big part of the emotion. But in the example, it became more clear that feeling proud of someone was the primary experience. It might be both, it might be neither. And how you experience the emotion might not always be the same.
I leave it up to you to journal down your thoughts or not. I encourage you to try experiencing the emotion without analysis. Building a menu isn’t about creating a perfect outcome. It’s the experience of building it, experimenting in the kitchen, smelling and tasting the ingredients.
Example emotions as prompts
Following the three steps above, here are some prompts on emotions to experiment with, to play with in your mind. Try some or all out in your 10 minutes of reflection. Try more and different emotions based on what’s alive for you. Above all, try!
I challenge you to be brave and really commit to digging deep on these emotions for 15 minutes. Spend the first 5 getting comfortable, then 10 to go emotion by emotion imagining how each feels, getting closer to the core experience, and mapping it in your body.
Building and practicing
After you’ve gotten closer to your feelings, the next step is more practice. Continue to reflect quietly, when you find time. Build it into your meditation or prayer routine.
Also practice this when emotions are fresh and alive. When you recognize something swelling up inside you, when you’re feeling that something is happening but you can’t name it. Take a break away from the world and what’s happening to check in with yourself.
Dig deeper on what you’re feeling. Find an emotion and idea that feels close, then dig more. Try to name what you feel and take ownership of it. Check in with your body on where and how you feel the emotion. See what you learn, and then go back to naming the feeling.
It takes practice to bring emotions more closely into focus, but I’m proof you can make progress. Good luck on your journey.