Do we really need to talk about our feelings?

14 - Nov - 2022

I imagine and even hope that your response to reading a psychotherapists article on this subject will be sceptical. Our society does and has for a long time routinely expressed a fairly binary view that talking about feelings is good, not talking about feelings is bad. However you might be surprised that my own answer to that question is “maybe yes, maybe no - it depends”.

Often, when people are seen to be struggling those around them will say things like ‘they never speak about it, if only they could talk about it, they need to say how they feel’. I see in my work with relationships that pain and confusion comes from a breakdown in understanding and at the base of that is almost always a lack of clarity about how one or both feel. And in my work with individuals it is always through the fullest understanding of feelings that relief and change is possible. But does that mean you need to talk about them?

Neuroscience is clear that there is a part of the brain that generates our feelings and that this activity comes sometime before another part of the brain decides on what the feeling is telling us. We are by our very nature ‘makers of meaning’, what I mean by this is that we constantly process information on our experiences - sight, sound, taste, touch, smell etc (science talks nowadays about us having far more senses than those spoken about even ten years ago) and then we decide on what the situation is and what to do about it. The extent to which we need to think critically in any given situation will depend upon both the gravity of the situation and our familiarity with it. That is why, if you are learning to parachute jump, the training will get you used to following a particular path of action so that your body and internal dialogue remembers making it almost automatically. But of course most of the time our daily lives, the situation we encounter and the decisions we make are not only of far less consequence but also incredibly diverse.

Recently someone wrote to me saying:

‘It's funny isn't it how you can't imagine being hot when you're cold or vice versa. Same with food, you always over order if you are hungry, or over buy at the supermarket, like your brain is telling you you will never eat again!’ 

I suspect that this person's experience is a fairly common one nonetheless it is firstly important to acknowledge that particularly in the area of our behaviours around food, there are often underlying health concerns that should be considered before reaching the conclusion that any behaviour around food can be understood in terms of how we are feeling and thinking, but assuming there are no underlying health concerns let's consider this statement further. 

In terms of feeling either hot or cold, I think about how the strength of the experience and its importance in terms of alerting us to the need to take action - for example, find shade / put on extra clothes, means that to try and imagine a different experience may increase rather than reduce stress - that is unless you both equip and train yourself to changes in temperature. Feeling cold or hot is a call to action as opposed to inaction.

In terms of food - restaurants / supermarkets and the part of the process that gets disturbed here - and I say disturbed because of course the restaurateurs and the supermarkets do want us to eat / buy and spend more - is that situations are created to drive our internal dialogues in a particular direction. What I mean by this is that the carefully crafted descriptions on menus and the merchandising in supermarkets doesn’t encourage us to critically consider our hunger - instead it gives us seemingly logical and reasonable reasons to eat or buy, think about mechanisms like tasting menus, buy one get one free etc.

This brings us back to our internal dialogue and the way in which we need to critically assess our thinking in making decisions. Here we have talked about two phenomena that the person wonders about and yet the same thinking applies to all concerns we face. When we become stuck in something painful it means that we have reached the limits of our internal dialogue and that a new experience is required to help. But what is helpful? 

In my work with people who have suffered abuse at the hands of others I see that healing often comes not from speaking about what happened and how they are feeling, indeed speaking about traumatic events can re-traumatise the survivor and traumatise the therapist, but through the survivor having an experience with someone who cares for them and where they do not feel hurt. I think it is clear that a different and positive experience is one that changes our internal dialogues.

Coming back to whether we need to talk about our feelings I hope that I have raised a sufficient challenge to there being a binary answer to this question? But if you are left thinking about someone who you think does need to talk about their feelings then I suggest the following.

  1. Think critically about your process that leads you to this conclusion. Are you certain that your own discomfort isn’t leading you to wanting them to change? Are you sure that you are OKAY?
  2. Assuming you are clear they need help then tell them what you have noticed - for example, ‘you used to go out with friends but you stay indoors nowadays not meeting with anyone and I don’t see you laughing anymore’.
  3. Ask them if they want help and if so what help do they think they need.
  4. If after the previous steps you remain convinced they need to speak about their feelings then tell them that you think of them as not talking about their feelings and wonder whether they might find it helpful.

As always, if you think there is an immediate threat to safety dial 999 or go to your local Accident and Emergency.