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Caught in the Feels

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Over the years, I've had quite a few clients (and friends and family) who struggled to find the right word to describe how they were feeling.

According to science, there are 6 universal emotions that we all feel regardless of where we live, how we live, what skin we live in, or how many points are in our IQ. I spent an entire quarter at The University of California, Davis studying these emotions and the sub emotions that seem to extend from them like spokes on a wheel.

These emotions are labeled as:

  1. Happiness

  2. Surprise

  3. Sadness

  4. Anger

  5. Disgust

  6. Fear

And if you're like me, you geeked out watching the show Lie To Me, under which the premiss was that you can always tell is someone is lying to you if their words don't match the micro-expression that they expressed at the same time. Fascinating? Yes. True? Um, maybe...for some.

Anyways, what does this have to do with people having difficulty identifying their emotions? Because we are complex humans and not everything can be boiled down to just 6 different emotions.

Let's look at Surprise: this might be good, exciting, stressful, scary, confusing, disorienting, joyful, painful, etc. etc. These additional feeling are the spokes. Take a look at one of the MANY feelings wheels you can find on the World Wide Web:

This particular one was created by Dr. Gloria Wilcox back in 1984 as part of her work in marriage and family therapy. And if you ask me, it's a pretty good one (click the image and it will take you to a download with a black and white copy that you can color in yourself).

"But Jenn, why is this important?"

Right, right, lets dive into that. It's important because when you struggle to identify how you are feeling it becomes hard to express it to other people. If you can't express your feelings to others, then they are unable to help, support, or show up for you in the most helpful way. It makes it hard to set boundaries, or to even know if you NEED to set boundaries.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you got a splinter in your left pointer finger. Ouch. However, your body crossed its wires and instead of you feeling it in your finger, every time you touch it, you feel pain in your left ear. So you touch it with your left pointer finger and confirmed: the ear is injured, but it's confusing because it hurts randomly when not touching it but always when you touch it. So you ask someone to take a look. They touch all around, look in there, and can't find anything (other than maybe a little wax...). Now you are REALLY confused: it didn't hurt at all when they touched it! You might be feeling a little frustrated now.

So you go to the doctor. They thoroughly exam your year, flush it out, poke around to try and activate the pain you feel when you touch it. Nothing. So you leave the doctors office, but as you are opening the door with your left hand, you yell out in pain and grab your ear as you fall to the ground. The nurses call for the doctor and they rush over and help you off the floor. As they are helping you up, they glance over at your finger and notice that it's red, swollen, and looks infected. The doctor asks you when this happened and you have no idea! It doesn't hurt there!

The doctor takes you back to the exam room and begins examining your finger. As they are palpating the infected skin, you tell them that your ear REALLY hurt every time they do that. Lucky for you, your doctor has seen this before and assures you that they can fix you right up.

The doctor cleans out the wound, removes the splinter, applies a numbing agent, and bandages you up. You notice that you aren't feeling pain in your ear anymore, even when you poke it with your (now bandaged) finger. It doesn't hurt when the doctor pokes your finger.

It doesn't hurt anymore.

It was the finger and not the ear.

Our emotions are kind of the same. If you think what you are feeling is simply anger, you work on taking breaths and slowing your heart rate. In realty you are actually feeling violated and no amount of breathing, without acknowledgment, is going to make that feeling go away and not hurt again when poked.

Why are you feeling angry? What does it feel like in your body? Do you feel like fighting, running, freezing, or fawning? Do you feel a pull or push from a certain person or group of people? Why do you feel like crying? Why is the one thing you want, a sense of safety?

"I'm just angry" you tell yourself.

"I'm over-reacting. I shouldn't be this upset!"

You fail to look at the right part and the "injury" begins to fester.


I gave one of my clients their very own copy of the above wheel, and I have a copy for them when they have sessions with me. Something amazing happened: they were able to say they were "angry" (which was even a big step) and when challenged to be more clear, was able to dial it down to "disrespected" and "let down."

Then magic happened. More started to pour out - the whole story - they were looking at the wound, finding the splinter so that it could be removed. There needed to be a boundary set with a very special person in their life. There was fear there, more specifically worry about being rejected or thought worthless by this person if they set the boundary and expressed how they were feeling. We were able to work through those things and make a plan together because we looked at it. Saw everything that was needed to be seen and stoped looking in the wrong place!

We all do this. Most cultures don't have a built in teaching around social emotional awareness. Luckily schools are now bringing it in to the classroom and more parents are learning how to be present with their kids to help them explore the big feelings that they are having. Even better, Disney made a whole movie about it!

Remember the update being installed at the end of the movie: Adolescence.

More complicated operating system, more feelings, more unexplored territory. More human-ing.

Download a copy of the wheel. Start by just reading them. Think about what that feeling means. Ask yourself if you've ever felt that. You might be surprised where you find yourself.

And remember - we do the SAME thing with JOY.

Let's all get better at naming our emotions.


Want the wheels? Here are the links

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1 Comment

Sep 01, 2022

Thank you Jenn. This is so helpful for my own personal life as well as for me as a partner and parent.

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