How we hide from our feelings by turning emotions into ideas
When was the last time you said out loud, “I’m sad.” Or, “I feel angry.” Or, “I’m ashamed of what I did.”?
If you’re anything like me, probably not so recently. Like, maybe not since you were 6.
As a society, we tend to avoid using plain emotional language to describe how we feel. When asked how we’re doing, it somehow feels strange to say “I feel sad,” as though it’s too childlike and simplistic.
Instead, we say much more adult things like: “I’m upset.” Or, “I’m just spread too thin.” Or, “I’m really worried.”
I’m going to make the case for why these more adult words and phrases we use to describe how we feel—upset and worried for example—aren’t really emotions at all. And why our habit of using them allows us to think we’re communicating how we feel, when in reality we’re doing the exact opposite—hiding how we feel.
Terms like upset, spread too thin, and worried sound a lot like emotions, but in fact, they’re imposters, installed by our unconscious brain in order to obscure rather than clarify how we feel. And with near constant repetition over the course of decades, they’ve consolidated their power and become so habitual and dominant that most of us aren’t even aware of their existence.
I call these more sophisticated and adult ways of describing how we feel intellectualized emotions. Here’s an example: Suppose we’re angry at our spouse for putting away the dishes the wrong way for the 15th time. After dinner, they can tell something’s wrong, so they ask, “What’s wrong?” Instead of plainly saying, “I’m angry that you put the dishes away incorrectly again,” most of us tend to respond with either outright denial (“Nothing/I’m fine!”) or an intellectualized emotion (“I’m bugged,” “I’m just a little upset,” “I’m just sick of you not listening to me”).
In all three of those examples, we’ve essentially transformed a hot emotional feeling (angry) into a slightly cooler idea (upset). The difference is subtle but important. When something’s bothering us emotionally, most of us have an unconscious verbal habit of rejecting plain emotional vocabulary and substituting a more vague, abstract, an intellectualized idea to communicated how we feel.
Now, there are likely a lot of reasons why we’ve all developed this psycho-verbal habit: Everything from the family communication styles growing up to cultural norms and conventions probably play a role.
But most important for our purposes, there’s a psychological vulnerability in describing how we feel with plain emotional language. Somehow, saying “I’m sad” is more uncomfortable and raw than saying “I’m upset.” And to avoid this emotional vulnerability and discomfort, we intellectualize our emotions to keep them at a distance.
We’re able to do this—to intellectualize our emotions—through two tricks of language:
- Umbrella Terms. Umbrella terms are generic words that act like containers for many possible feelings. If you got fired from your job, there are probably A LOT of emotions swirling around your head (mad, terrified, disappointed, confused, despondent, etc.). These emotions can feel less overwhelming when we package them up in the linguistic container of “upset.” Sort of the psychological and linguistic equivalent of a junk drawer: Too much junk that you don’t know what to do with? Just box it all up, put it under the bed, and you’ll feel much better. Common umbrella terms include stressed/stressed-out, weird, upset, fine, okay, overwhelmed, off, etc.
- Metaphors. Spread too thin is a really great metaphor for what happens when we have too much going on in our lives. We’ve all experienced having only a sliver of butter left and trying to make it cover the entire slice of toast. And while they’re illustrative and evocative, metaphors can also be shifty and vague, perfect vehicles for pretending like we’re saying something without actually having to say it. While this fuzzy and interpretable quality of metaphors is a strength when writing poetry and fiction, it’s a liability when it comes to our emotional health because—like the containing property of umbrella terms—it allows us to hide how we really feel. While everybody basically knows what spread too thin means, there’s still a lot of ambiguity.
What’s so bad about intellectualizing our emotions a bit? Especially if it helps us avoid pain?!
In small doses, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Your dry cleaning guy doesn’t need to know the intimate details of your guilt over that argument with your sister-in-law on Christmas Eve. So when he asks how your Christmas was, saying “Oh, it was fine…” is probably, well, fine.
The problem lies in the habit of avoiding plain and specific language when describing how we feel. And like all habits, its power is its danger. The ability to automate decisions and form routines makes us more efficient and opens up resources for other things. If everyone went around emoting everything they genuinely felt in every interaction all day everyday, nothing would ever get done. A little emotional suppression allows society to function.
But when that emotional suppression and hiding becomes a firmly engrained habit that we can’t shut off, it makes us rigid and inflexible. Specifically, when we’re in a habit of not talking to ourselves or others about how we feel in a plain way, it becomes difficult to do so when it’s truly necessary. And this can become problematic in a few ways.
3 Reasons the habit of intellectualizing our emotions can be dangerous.
Reason 1: Mental Health depends on emotional clarity
I see the problem of intellectualizing emotions all the time with my therapy clients who are struggling with some type of mental health issue. Like most of us, many of them have a strongly engrained habit of intellectualizing their emotions and aren’t aware that they’re doing it—avoiding plain language when describing how they feel. Unfortunately, this habit makes it really difficult for them to open up in therapy about how they feel, which is generally a prerequisite for making progress on any mental health goal.
- Been having panic attacks for months? Working through anxiety’s going to be pretty tough if you can’t talk about your fear.
- Depressed for the past year? There’s a good chance some combination of anger, sadness, and guilt are going to need to be addressed, and plainly.
- Always fighting with your spouse? Effective communication—especially about feelings—is going to be an integral part of the solution.
Reason 2: It’s hard to change yourself if you don’t know yourself
Even though many of us may be fortunate enough not to be struggling with some sort of mental health difficulty, we all want to work on ourselves to some extent: We want to feel more motivated and excited in our work, more present and connected with our family, more cheerful and less critical with our friends, etc.
But, like being lost in the wilderness, it’s hard to arrive at your destination if you don’t know where you are. Similarly, it’s difficult to change how we feel if we don’t really know how we feel in the first place.
And this is the second danger in our habit of distancing ourself from how we feel by intellectualizing our emotions: By avoiding talking specifically about how we feel, we avoid thinking specifically about how we feel. And if we do that long enough, we really don’t know how we feel.
Like any other skill—speaking Mandarin, playing the Cello, or power lifting—if we stop practicing, we lose competency. And it’s no different with our emotional lives.
The habit of intellectualizing our emotions leads to a kind of cartoony impression of how we really feel—that we’re stressed or fine—but that’s rarely an accurate picture of something as complex and nuanced as a human being’s emotional life. So before we can change how we feel, we have to establish the habit of describing how we feel in plain, genuine language. No metaphors, no vague generic terms, just plain emotions.
Reason 3: It gets lonely
The last major downside to being stuck in a habit of intellectualizing our emotions is that it’s isolating. One of the primary ways we human beings forge connections with each other is by being vulnerable and sharing intimate aspects of ourselves with others. Think about all the gory details that a best friend or close siblings knows about you. They don’t know that stuff about you because you’re close; you’re close because they know that about you (which only happened because you shared).
While uncomfortable, and even painful, sharing our feelings humanizes us and makes us relatable. Nobody wants to be friends with someone who’s just fine all the time. We all crave connections with people, not robots.
Unfortunately, if we’re too afraid or uncomfortable to share how we feel, we end up isolated, lonely, and feeling even worse. And this can be a difficult cycle to break out of.
How to De-Intellectualize Our Emotions
Below are a few tips for getting started changing your emotional language away from the intellectualized and general toward the plain and specific.
- Awareness. Start to recognize and pay attention to your go-to intellectualized emotions. If you’re not sure what they are, ask a spouse, family member, or co-worker you’re close to. Do you tend to say you’re stressed all the time? Or maybe it’s pretty good or depressed (depression is a diagnosis not an emotion).
- Prepare Alternatives. If we want to start eating more healthily, resisting unhealthy food isn’t enough; we also need to keep our home stocked with healthy alternatives. Similarly, if we want to be more plain in the way we describe how we feel, it makes sense to prepare some good alternatives ahead of time. Try this: Google “emotions list,” print one out, and carry it around with you. Whenever you notice yourself using an intellectualized emotion, pull out your list and find a more appropriate emotional word. Do this enough and those real emotions will get easier to pull up and use on your own.
- Lean into the discomfort. The biggest reason we avoid using plain emotions to describe how we feel is that we worry that it will be too uncomfortable, either to us or someone else. We worry that if we acknowledge our sadness, we’ll sink back into depression; or that if we communicate our anger, we’ll make our spouse feel guilty. In other words, we intellectualize our emotions because we’re afraid of them and their consequences. But while emotions can be uncomfortable, they’re not dangerous—no one ever died from guilt or became depressed because of sadness (in fact, there’s pretty good evidence that it’s the avoidance of sadness that leads to depression). In any case, to get over our fear of our own emotions, we need to start being willing to experience them and build up resilience. Start small: Instead of telling your spouse you’re just tired, explain that I’m a little frustrated that you….
Expressing how we feel in plain, clear language can be surprisingly scary and uncomfortable. And in order to avoid this discomfort, we all tend to intellectualize our emotions—to take a genuine emotional feeling like sad or scared, and verbally wrap it up in a less intense idea like upset or stressed. While this is a natural and even useful tool at times, it can come with serious downsides if it becomes a mindless habit and our standard operating procedure, including staying stuck in mental health struggles, having trouble with personal development goals, and getting caught in cycles of isolation and loneliness. But in small ways we can begin to change our emotional language—by consciously choosing to use real emotions to describe how we feel, we can start to take steps toward more clarity about how we truly feel.