How do you communicate with an emotion? This is not about talking ABOUT your feelings, but talking TO your feelings. It’s important, because emotional intelligence depends on a healthy two way communication loop; knowing which emotions are speaking and what messages they’re sending, and effectively sending messages back to them. So how do you to get the message through to a feeling?

Words are so logical, so left brain. How can words get through to a feeling which is more of a right brain experience?

Naming emotions is a good first step. When our kids were little, they wore t shirts with cute little emotional faces on them. They had Italian words for various emotions under each face, which was a good reminder that the faces of emotion are universal even if the words change. We encouraged the kids to name their feelings, and match them to faces. But it’s the next step where the communication seems so important. Once you’ve named a feeling, how do you reframe it? Once you know what it is, how do you show it that you’ve got its back, hear it and don’t need it to control you?

Some emotions, especially fear, are part of the ancient parts of the brain. Fear is a biggie, a stubborn evolutionary carry over; not rational in many instances but still insistent and debilitating. How do you communicate with fear?

You have to get beyond words. Metaphors and images that push beyond words, communicate directly with the subconscious parts of the mind which is where fear loiters. Metaphor is powerful. Author Orson Scott Card said, “Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.”

It’s no accident that we talk about being as happy as a pig in slop or as mad as a cut snake (an Aussie classic). It’s far more effective to say that you’re gutted about a disappointment than sad and more powerful to say you’re fuming than just angry. What you’re feeling may well be part of the sadness or anger family. But sad doesn’t describe the half of it. It’s too mechanical, almost formal like calling a good friend Mr or Mrs. Emotions need nicknames to really get through to them. The word “sad” is Greek to the subconscious mind. It’s just a sound, and metaphors help to translate words into pictures that the mind can process.

Or else maybe you’re not even sure what the emotion is. If you compare a vague feeling to something tangible, it can help. If you feel disoriented and in a funk, you might say it feels like a roller coaster reminding you to slow down and regain balance.

Colors can communicate with the subconscious. Maybe you’re feeling blue, or red hot passion or green with envy. The powerful thing about colors is that they are all shades of each other. Even by matching an emotion with a color, it can shift, like nature’s colors that are always changing. Emotions pass through color’s shades, like the rise and fall of seasons.

If you’re living with grief, think of it like a wave. Like a wave, it subsides with time. When the wave of grief feels overwhelming, stay with it and remind yourself that “this too shall pass” because that’s what waves do. Fight the waves, and you will exhaust yourself. Go with them, and they will subside more quickly and you will become stronger with every passing wave. Nothing can be transformed until it is fully accepted.

Pulitzer prize winning author Jeffrey Eugenides made a great observation about emotions in his novel Middlesex.

Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.

Now there are some masterful metaphors. Most of us aren’t Pulitzer Prize winners. But its not about the quality of your metaphor. It’s about authentic metaphors. It doesn’t even need to make sense to anyone else because its not primarily about talking ABOUT your feelings. It’s about talking TO them. When it comes to emotions, its okay to have your own private language; whatever makes you feel more empowered.

Next time fear rises up from your reptilian brain, think of it exactly like that. As a reptile! It’s a dinosaur. It may have a warning for you. But if you’ve looked both ways before crossing and fear is still roaring at you, remind it that it went extinct many years ago. You heard it but can take it from here thank you very much.

Get creative with your emotions. They’re right brain sensations, so let your right brain help to harness them.  Draw them, sing them, and act them out. Communicate with them through body language, gestures and facial expressions. Get on their wave length, and you can start to tap their energy rather than being zapped by their energy.

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  1. Kenneth Vogt says:

    Another way of seeing this is to look at emotions as thoughts you experience in your body rather than in your mind. Metaphorical language often gives life to a physical description and that is right on track for the experience you are having with an emotion.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Obviously, you have never suffered chronic suicidal depression due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Your optimism is nice, but of no advantage to someone about to take their life after years of struggling with suicidal depression. Are you another one of those who would ask me, “What are you depressed about?”

  3. Laura says:

    Thank you. This is so relevant…especially when working with children and teens who should be playing, twirling and smiling more often, as they embrace each developmental phase. The expectation of course is they will be met with environmental provisions to learn and practice. How wonderful it would be for parents/adults to have more tools that parallel the developmental phase of the child/teen, so they may diversify how to teach & guide them.  I see at each age, a special and unique language presents itself to the world and as adults we must provide the brush for the paint, so expression happens and dialogue begins.     

  4. Laura says:

    Hello. I discovered your site today and I felt illuminated. After commenting on an article; Language of Emotion, I received reply #99266, that I believe is a wide misinterpretation of my comment. I dont know where to see my comment so I may check myself as I am always open to ideas…and I dont know how to reply. Sadly, it seems the reader experienced the meaning of my comment negatively  and would never know that my life’s commitment has been  working with those who suffer with a mental illness. I dont minimize emotions…ever. This was my first experience commenting on a site and every word was typed with loving intent and a deep understanding of emotional pain.   Thank you. 

  5. Laura says:

    Oh.  As I submitted the last comment, I see you just posted everything.  Thank you. 

  6. ian says:

    hi Laura, thank you for your comment. I dont think the anonymous commenter was referring to your comment, but to my article. I also feel that this person misrepresented my article. Anyway, the main thing is to keep the commitment to being real and honest with emotions and doing whatever we can to support each other with kindness. Love to all.

  7. […] How do you communicate with an emotion? This is not about talking ABOUT your feelings, but talking TO your feelings.  […]

  8. Cathi says:

    I believe that  all emotions that arise in us are meant to be felt by us. Fear for me, is one of many emotions that our culture and population in general is afraid to feel .  All negative emotions are characterized the same way as far as I am concerned. We do not like to feel these uncomfortable emotions so therefore we store them within our bodies, at great risk.  The risks are loss of energy because of  all the energy needed to repress the emotions  and the inability to be present in our lives because the negative emotion is pulling us back to a time in our past when we originally felt the emotion.  And of course there are all the physical ailments that are too numerous to mention that are a symptom of emotion repression. For me being as present as possible  is so important. Being aware of triggers and when something does come up I try to allow myself to feel the feeling. And there are so many different methods to use. Writing, talking to a friend, exercise, a good cry or something more advanced like eft or other work.  We must not be frightened of ourselves, especially our primal selves. We are a wonder!  And the beauty of life is that every emotion passes through us and  is then released. We are always free and never bound by our emotions.  Lets love ourselves enough to feel ourselves. The good the bad and the ugly. Keep up the good work on this site. 

  9. Shereen says:

    Good but exhausted. Thanks Ian  

  10. Ron Davis says:

    What I use and have the most success, for those wanting to experience understanding and therefor change are the six questions.  We use them in our Attitudinal Change Circles.  These question are the following.  Six Steps to Freedom Step 1. – I am upset Step 1 in the conflict/upset resolution dance is to acknowledge, own, that I am in conflict or upset. The conflict serves a purpose and will lead to a joining if resolved.Step 2. Me. It is about me.The conflict is not about the other person. (In comes that little voice “Yea, right.”) The conflict is never about anyone but me. Trust this step even if you don’t believe it yet. Without this step, peace and joining will not happen. It is about me. Ok ok, so it’s about me. I now know that blaming anyone for the conflict will not get me what I really want and that is to be happy to be at peace.Step 3. Feel the feeling.How do I feel? It is surprising to see how hard it is to really know how I feel in order to go to:Step 4. Remember when I felt this way before. How is that feeling familiar? Now I have to become a detective. I am looking for the source of this feeling, when did I first feel this way? Go back as far as I can in my memory. And after a little searching I’ll remember an incident when someone said or did something that made me feel that way.  Now follows:Step 5 Establish what my judgment of myself was at that moment. What is my perception? How did I interpret the situation? What was my judgment of myself in that situation? What did it say about me that that person acted or spoke that way? What kind of a person deserves to feel this way?Step 6 Embrace the Truth about me.Now I must shift my old perception. My judgment of myself at that moment was wrong. It said nothing about me. Whatever happened way back when was not about me. Who I am is unchanged and unchangeable.  The belief I formed about who I am is wrong and doesn’t serve me. I now correct that belief. There are a number of ways I can do that. Affirmations help. (I am Love. I am whole. I am peace. I am innocent) I tell myself that I can see the situation differently. Forgiving myself for believing (thinking, feeling) that I am…….(you fill in the belief) For example: Forgive me for believing that I am weak. (Unworthy, unlovable, shameful, undeserving of love, that whatever I do, I will never be enough. You name it: most of us have one or more of these limiting beliefs.) You may have to do this more than once; old beliefs are sometimes hard to shake. So there it is! Now, I’M FREE Ron’s notes:I have found that when a person becomes familiar with this pattern, they can jump to Step 3 and carry on from there. The key is to stay in that feeling so that should it appear again in everyday life, easy recognition can be made.  This provides the opportunity to move into the changed perception experienced in Step 6.  As long as they totally Own the feeling/beliefs. This means totally remove any judgment of others and completely own them.Additionally, I have found that the initial use and questions are administered by someone else who is with the person.  This is a great process of working with others and completely begins at Step 1 each time.  Once a person becomes familiar with the steps they can be done quite simply and easily by oneself and beginning at step 3.When at Step 6, in a group (circle or with a friend) the person looks directly into the eyes of their partner and states “Forgive me for believing that I am weak. (Unworthy, unlovable, shameful, undeserving of love, that whatever I do, I will never be enough. You name it: most of us have one or more of these limiting beliefs.) This in the beginning may be difficult however I’ve found that if the guide or partner says exactly what they know to be the limiting beliefs.  Then ask the other person to carry out saying it when looking directly into the eyes of the other.  The response by the other is “I hear you or they can repeat what they have heard and ask if that is right” The movement experienced in these steps is absolutely phenomenal. The appearance of the person will absolutely change looking softer and relaxed.  I’ve found it helps to tell the other person of their appearance change.       

  11. ian says:

    thanks Ron, that’s super helpful

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