When words fail

I'm a writer, so it might seem kind of odd that I have trouble expressing my emotions verbally.  But there you have it.  It drives my mom bonkers that I don't like to talk when I'm upset.  She wants to help and I'm as closed as an emotional clam.  This isn't always good--I often hold things in until I snap--but I often find that I don't need to process emotional stuff out loud.

I've never been one to wear my heart on my sleeve.  I'm a terrible actress because I find the thought of being emotional in front of others terribly embarrassing.  So verbal displays of emotion with anyone besides my cat is pretty darn rare.  When I used to read those little magazine articles about "How to communicate with a human male" or how men respond to problems, I always laughed, because they seemed to be describing me.  I enjoy helping others with their problems, and listening and problem-solving, but when it comes to being the actual person with the problem?  I'm not a talker. 

For the therapeutically inclined, not liking to talk about your feelings is pretty much anathema.  Maybe it's why I like CBT, DBT, and ACT so much.  But this recent thread got me thinking about how I can express myself non-verbally.

For one, I've always been better at writing about my feelings than talking about them.  For another, there are so many ways you can deal with emotions, even strong intense emotions, without words.  Some people love art.  Others clean when they get stressed.  I like to crochet or blog.  I also love cleaning out my drawers, closet, etc--it's like emotionally purging.  Getting out on my bike really helps clear my mind and let's me be more rational about what's upsetting me.  Being outside period is therapeutic.  So are crafty things like making jewelry and sewing (I swear I'm not a reincarnated version of Donna Reed. I swear).

Some of my old therapists liked to link my seeming emotional constipation with my eating disorder.  If I could just talk about my feelings then I wouldn't need to use ED symptoms.  Except, of course, I did my best to hide the ED symptoms, which meant that I couldn't be using them to communicate.  Nor did anyone bother to ask whether I was this way about emotions long before the eating disorder surfaced.  But I digress.

Rather than expressing emotions, I think the important thing is to accept, understand, and process them.  Verbally is fine.  So are non-verbal methods.  What do you think?

How do you deal when words fail? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Anonymous said...

Sometimes it is easier to express things *without* words. If a person can communicate passionately through art, music, etc. then why not use those passions, along with talk therapy, as a vehicle for expression?

I recently finished a course and some of the assignments were definitely out of my comfort zone. My therapist even commented about how one of my assignments was like exposure therapy.

The difference for me, however, was that if this assignment had been given in a therapeutic context (i.e. talk therapy), I probably wouldn't have been able to do it. But through doing the assignment for the course, I was able to face my anxieties in a way I couldn't in therapy.

What works for one person, doesn't for another and I guess the journey is in finding the thing(s) that work best for a particular person.

Cathy (UK) said...

I so identify with this post Carrie. I am another one who doesn't talk about feelings more than I have to. I also (apparently) have 'alexithymia' which translated into basic lingo means 'inability to recognise my own feelings'.

Recently I had someone (not a psych, but another individual with ED) inform me that all I ever do is to intellectualise my emotions and that it is 'sad' that I don't talk about my feelings. I was actually quite annoyed, because 'I am as I am'. I live in my mind and not her mind, which is an emotional whirlwind. My life isn't constant drama and a 'rollercoaster of emotions'. Yet, I am a very anxious person, and all my emotions seem to translate to anxiety.

It is OK to be publicly unemotional. It's not so much that I feel embarrassment, but rather that I don't know how to respond to others' displays of emotion. I find watching something like Oprah or Dr Phil (or Jeremy Kyle in UK) an awful experience. Too uncomfortably emotional and dramatic and I don't do drama.....

My own and others' emotions make me feel really uncomfortable. However, I do care about others. Perhaps they mis-read me because I wander around looking as cool as a cucumber even when I am actually quite distressed.

Jen said...

This is so "me", Carrie. And, this became very obvious even six years ago when I joined AL-Anon as a parent because there were no support groups for parents of those with ED here. I was working on my 4th step with a group and couldn't imagine how I could express myself the way others were when they shared. I heard what I was thinking and feeling but didn't know myself how to put it into words out loud. I shared with my husband this morning on a walk that recently my therapist has been working with me to get past "easy" words like upset which really doesn't say to much (but to me says volumes). My blogging is helping a little, too. It's easier somehow than journaling. Thanks for your post!

Eating With Others said...

Well I think most of your writing is professional or scientifict so I'll give you pass on that one.

The other thing is, you should come down to my place, my closets could keep you busy for MONTHS!! When I moved in the previous owners left stuff in them, it's still there! I tend to just shove things in there till no more fits. Kind of like how I deal with emotions.

And yes, I'm emotional with my cat too. She is just too cute and how can you not love a little (ish) bundle of fur shoving her head against you and purring so loud?

hm said...

"If I could just talk about my feelings then I wouldn't need to use ED symptoms."

You're right- that's BS. However, it does seem that ED's mask scary feelings and make them tolerable, so if that was reworded just slightly to "If I could just feel my feelings then I wouldn't need to use ED symptoms" it might actually be somewhat accurate, at least, for me. I'm terrified to feel my feelings. I can't express them aloud, but I can write them- my therapist allows me to write to her between sessions b/c during sessions half the time I go blank and just sit numb and silent. I can hear her, and might be able to express some things in the third person, but can't process until I put pen to paper. Processing happens in my writing. Feeling still doesn't happen though, many times. When I do feel, I panic and shut down.

My therapist is working with me to breathe through feelings like contractions during labor. To see them as painful, but tolerable, and to know that if I wait them out, they will pass. To be in the moment with them and to acknowledge them rather than numbing out and going blank.

Perhaps if I can get better at being in the moment with my feelings I'll figure out how to express them aloud, and claim them as mine. But if not, who cares? There is email, and there is pen and paper. You express truth however you can to the people who deserve and need to hear it, and if they care about you, they can receive it in whatever form it comes in.

Sarah said...

Hey, I love following your blog and recently started my own. And I like this post because just a week or so ago, I did a post called "when words fail.. music speaks"... so glad we think alike :) Thanks for this post -- Sarah

Anonymous said...

I don't think you have to "express" feelings in words. I do think it's important to not stuff/repress them and I'm working on that (I am more of a binger, not anorexic).

I mean, crying is a form of feeling feelings. It doesn't have to be in front of anyone and it's nonverbal.

People paint and dance and journal all the time to let out feelings.

And I'm an introvert--even if I'm going to express how I feel to someone I need to be by myself and process for a while first.

mary said...

Here's what I think...it's okay if you can't verbalize feelings. It's feeling them that allows them to be released. No one likes feeling miserable but it's often the only way out. Too many people view it as a strength to keep themselves in check. After all, aren't emotional people considered crazy...or worse...weak? I do not believe this is true. If writing helps you express a feeling...and I know I do the same when I am really frustrated but in a private place....then use it to help yourself work through it.
I wish we all had a safe place to stomp our feet and scream or break down and howl without having it be called a break down. If this is true I've had many break downs. Oh well. Anyway, it's an art Carrie. Don't be afraid. Fear is what keeps us prisoner. And if it's working for you, it's good for you.

The Glum Ballet Shoe said...

I too have an inability to talk or convey my feelings, especially at times when my ED has completely and suffocatingly got a hold of me. I feel like I would rather take the feelings and emotions out on myself, so that I am the only one suffering. After all, the people around me don't deserve or require the pale faced, glum looking reserved self that I have to offer.

When I was first admitted to hospital, I managed to "write" down, fifteen years of hurt, unlocking horrific sexual abuse and other memories that have scarred and damaged my soul, but also shaped who I am today.

As a dancer I have always managed to portray my feelings and emotions non verbally anyway, but as a human without "talking", was pretty much consuming me completely.

Fortunately writing was and still is my own form of therapy. Whether I lock those words into Pandora's box, or look over them occasionally; at least I know that they are there and they help me, as and when I need them too. I don't think that this is a bad thing?

If we could all find a way to release the strong intense emotions, whether it be by cleaning, exercising, cooking, knitting, even singing - or for me horse riding; then maybe a verbal communication is not always necessary.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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