One of the things I have noticed is the difficulty clients have in identifying their feelings. Often they answer the question: how are you feeling, with an answer about what they are thinking. I notice this especially when they talk about the problems they might be having with relationships. There are so many reasons why people have difficulty defining what they are feeling. What comes to mind for me is they often focus on looking outward for answers rather than inward. It is much easier to say what they think instead of sitting for a moment and thinking about what they feel. Another reason for not being able to say what they are feeling comes from the fact that as a society we spend very little time unoccupied.
The constant distractions of technology, work, family, and media create an atmosphere of constant stimulation. When we are so busy, we do not even think about feeling because we are always doing! We as counselors are familiar with “being in the moment” and “mindfulness” –and the recent surge of mainstream interest helps to encourage focus on simplifying and being in touch with our experiences.
Other reasons clients have difficulty identifying feelings may have to do with what was acceptable in their culture or family. Many baby boomer clients are of a generation that valued stoicism and “toughing it out”. Men especially, were raised to hold in their feelings and if they slipped out, it often came out as anger. It seems that women have a slightly easier time talking about feelings – but struggle in communicating them in their relationships, especially with men. Many cultures emphasize keeping feelings hidden so to not appear weak or vulnerable.
So where do all these unacknowledged feelings go? We know as counselors they exist, and that they are causing trouble in client’s lives. In the quiet and calm atmosphere of a counseling office, the chance to slow down presents itself. As we sit with clients and help them unearth the buried, filed away for a rainy day feelings, we begin to experience the rich complexity of the person. What takes shape is the client’s ability to define who they are, what they like, what they fear, and what they cannot do without. They are surprised sometimes at what they learn about themselves, what they forgot, and what they need to go on in their lives. It is when clients begin to find, know, and communicate their feelings that self- esteem grows and relationships flourish, and that is the reward of finding those feelings.
Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.