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Why you don’t know what you’re feeling – and how to fix it

Highly sensitive, highly intelligent people can sometimes be fairly clueless about their emotional life.
It seems contradictory – how can someone so sensitive and so switched on be so dim when it comes to how they’re feeling. Surely they can do that, right?

Wrong.

When you have super-sharp senses, and a very quick mind, your emotions can get left behind.

Your mind is so busy processing the masses of data coming in through your sensory inputs (what you see, hear, smell…), or is so absorbed in intricate thought processes, that your emotions go unnoticed, unregistered, and underground.

From day one, you’ve been receiving all sorts of information through your senses. Some of it is much easier to process – and faster too. You learn to focus on your faster senses – very often this’ll be what you see, or hear, or both.

You develop a tendency, a leaning, towards this type of sensory information. It’s sharp, it’s clear, it’s interesting – you want to know more, so you look and/or listen more intently.

VoilĂ , a positive feedback loop on strengthening your already strong sight or hearing.

The emotions, on the other hand, give us information in not so clear and obvious ways. It’s not as immediately interesting either. Imagine the highly sensitive baby or toddler who finds an amazing object which sparkles, tinkles, rings, squeaks, and has all sorts of patterns to it too. Are they going to be focused on that, or rather on the gently flowing and shifting background sensations of something that they don’t really know yet (ahem, their emotions, ahem) but then ooh! Shiny! Squeaky toy!

Some people grow up in environment where emotions are restricted, for example with unspoken rules like ‘nobody gets upset in our family’ or ‘you can feel anything you like, as long as it’s anger!’ As you grow up, it’s harder and harder to recognise your emotions because they’re not allowed. You need time and space – emotional space – to find out what you’re feeling.

Of course, some people get the double whammy: high sensory sensitivity AND family rules that say you’re not allowed to feel (much) anyway. What a bind!

Learning to feel your emotions – especially when your experience is dominated by exceptionally sharp senses and mind – is totally possible. It takes time, effort, and, yes, a certain amount of botheredness (i.e. motivation) to do so.

Often, the motivation to figure out your emotions comes when your emotions get to the level of being so damn interfering in the rest of your life that you have to do something about them.

You might realise one day that some of your friends have different experiences of emotions to you – and you feel as though you’re missing out on the happiness plugin. Or the excitement one. Or the basic-contentment plugin.

Maybe you’ve been brilliant at motivating yourself and been a high-achiever – up to a point. After that point, you completely fail to motivate yourself at all. To do anything. Ever.

There are species upon species of depression. Urgh.

Or you’re emotionally unstable, flipflopping all over the place.

Or you’re fine – mostly – and then, as if by stealth, a volcano of rage or self-hatred erupts from the bowels of your being and you stumble about in the dark asking yourself what the fuck was that?

That was your emotional life, bursting through from underground like an unwelcome army of moles in your pristinely-mown lawn.

In short, something happens that prompts a thought in you of ‘oh bugger, I need to fix this.’

Actually, a lot of people get stuck at ‘oh bugger’ and don’t move into solving the problem. Sure, wallow in it for a while, but then get on with sorting it out.

So how do we sort this out? What the heck do you need to do?

Depending on your personality, your resources, your environment etc, you have various options available:

Observe your body. Don’t navel gaze. But see what you do. My feet – no, really – were my pathway into my emotions. My observant boyfriend noticed that when I was happy, I jiggled my feet. Wow – revelatory! Notice how your body moves, see if you have any patterns of movement (twitches, stims, tension) that indicate a particular state.

Start simply. On the simplest level, your emotions tell you ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like this.’
I like this: happy, joy, pleased, glad, proud, excited, exuberent, energised.
I don’t like this: anger, sadness, guilt, rage, rejection, shame, embarrassed, hate.
Then add in different levels of intensity (ok – pleased – happy – excited – exuberant – ecstatic) and you have some mental models to guide your recognition of different emotions.

Expand your vocabulary. Read lists of emotions. I’m serious! It’ll take you five minutes, max. Become more familiar with these words and you’ll start to notice more. Which brings me to my next point:

Spot emotions in other people. It’s a hell of a lot easier than seeing it in yourself. Watch people – in real life, films, TV series. Read fiction (get yourself some recommendations). Get some models of what emotions might look like when you have them too.

Notice what happens to you when you’re with people. Your friends. Colleagues. Family. Be aware of whether people tend to have a good or bad effect on you. Some perfectly decent adults become horrid teenagers with their parents again. Some friends and colleagues will totally wind you up and press all your buttons, leaving you reaching for a beer or five. With some friends, you just feel at ease, comfortable.

Get a counsellor. Invest in your emotional development. We don’t all learn how to handle our emotions when we’re growing up. Some counsellors (pick yours carefully) will be able to hold space for you to get in contact with your emotions and to put names to them, to get to know them and how to use them in your life. With the self-knowledge – and knowledge of emotions – that you get through counselling, you’ll be better equipped for life in general – and better able to help other people too.

Work with your body. Yoga, martial arts, running, cycling – anything that permits you to both move and to be conscious of how you move. Emotions are largely felt through our bodies, so the more you move, the more you can be in touch with yourself.

Get your body worked on. The less active version of the last point. Go for a massage. Sauna. Jacuzzi. Allow your body time and space. Cuddles with someone you trust can also work wonders. To take it up a level, work with a body psychotherapist, a cranio-sacral therapist, or a kinesiologist – all of which help you to connect your mind, body and emotions more.

Which one of these are you going to start with?

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