Monday 31 January, 2022

The Importance of Expressing Your Feelings During Cancer

Maya Maria Brown, M.A. Counseling Psychology, is an international mental health professional. She is a full-time Relationship Expert at Coupleness, helping couples form healthy habits for their relationships.
Learn and understand what feelings are, the role they play in our lives, and the importance of expressing your feelings during and after cancer.

Feelings are a fundamental part of the human experience, and engaging with them can benefit us as we go through life’s challenges.
Emotions and feelings are different; there are 4-8 basic human emotions, but over 4,000 English words for different feelings.
Having a rich vocabulary for our feelings can help us communicate our feelings with our loved ones.
Our feelings might feel big and scary sometimes, but feelings are not the enemy, and feeling and working with them can help us thrive.

This article is written in collaboration with Coupleness.

Why we need to talk about feelings

When someone says, “Let’s talk about our feelings,” how do you react?

Some of us might jump for joy, excited to dive in. But many of us find it difficult to open up about our feelings because we don’t know how, we want to protect ourselves from being hurt, or because we’ve been taught that our feelings aren’t valid.

When it comes to cancer, our feelings can be complex and difficult to sift through, which makes delving into them and sharing them more of a challenge.

But the truth is, we all have a lot of feelings, all the time. They affect us directly and indirectly as we make decisions, have experiences, and interact with others. So it’s probably a good idea to understand what feelings actually are, and how working with our feelings as we go through cancer can benefit us.

What do we mean by “feelings?”

According to Dr. Bryn Farnsworth, emotions are associated with bodily reactions that are activated through neurotransmitters and hormones released by the brain. Feelings are the conscious experiences of these emotional reactions.

Think of it this way: there are a limited number of emotions that humans experience. As Irina Yugay points out, “Most scientific studies recognize 4 to 8 basic emotions, which are universal for all people.”

The most common emotions in the world of psychology are:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Anger

It might surprise you to know that these emotions actually only last 90 seconds. That’s how long it takes for the physiological experience of an emotion to pass through our systems. Our feelings are what stem from these emotions and can last much longer.

Unlike emotions, feelings are much more variable. There are over 4,000 English words for feelings. Our feelings are subjective, and highly dependent on the different things that make us who we are in a given moment. This can make them extremely complicated to understand and work with.

But don’t worry, that’s what we’re here for. Let’s take a look at how we can understand the world of feelings.

How being specific about our feelings can help

When trying to express to your loved ones how you’re feeling, it can be helpful to have a rich vocabulary to pull from. Putting words to your feelings can increase your chances of being and feeling understood by your partner.

Some of us feel our feelings super deeply, and can perceive and express tiny shifts and nuances between all our different feelings.

On the other hand, some of us are only aware of the broad brush strokes: happy, sad, angry.

The specificity with which we feel and identify our feelings refers to our level of emotional granularity. Emotional granularity is the adaptive value of putting feelings into words with a high degree of complexity, which mirrors our inner lives.

When we have trouble identifying our feelings with specificity, this is called clumping. We clump together groups of emotions that are similar to one another, without understanding or acknowledging the variations between what we’re feeling.

Here’s an example: a clumper might say that they feel sad every time they are in a low mood. Someone with emotional granularity might say that today they feel disappointed, yesterday they felt melancholy, and another time they felt despair, and so on.

Developing emotional granularity can have huge benefits in our lives and relationships. People who have high levels of emotional granularity:

  • Are less likely to have strong, explosive reactions to things
  • Are less likely to turn to substances to regulate our emotions
  • Are more likely to find positive meaning in negative experiences
  • Are skilled at regulating our emotions, and can take on new perspectives and express feelings in healthy ways.

People who are clumpers are less good at all of those things, and tend to experience more physical and psychological challenges than those with emotional granularity. So it’s safe to say that working on understanding our feelings and developing our emotional vocabulary can be a real priority for all of us.

Here’s more on how to face cancer when you don’t feel ready.

Our feelings are not the enemy

Going through cancer can bring out all kinds of feelings that we might not want to feel. It can be easy to make our feelings the enemy, doing everything we can to avoid them and lock them away.

We can also feel pressure to feel happy and grateful and other positive emotions that might not be as accessible to us.

Neither of those options encourages a connected experience with yourself or your loved ones.

Dr. Marc Brackett says, “Perpetual happiness can’t be our goal. We need the ability to experience and express all feelings in order to achieve greater well-being, make the most informed decisions, build and maintain meaningful relationships, and realize our potential.”

It might not always feel safe or helpful to feel the full spectrum of our feelings, and to share our feelings might seem unimaginable. And that’s okay; we can have boundaries and containers for our feelings so we only engage with them deeply when we feel safe and supported.

It’s okay to feel the dark and scary things. If they are your feelings, they’re real, and they matter. They are your natural reaction to going through something difficult and painful. If we try to pretend these feelings don’t exist, they won’t just go away. Our feelings live in us and with us, whether we acknowledge them or not.

You can start by journaling about your feelings on your own. Once you externalize them, getting them out on paper, they might already feel less big and scary.

Connecting with yourself and your feelings can then make it easier to share your feelings with someone else.

Want more support with this? Check out this article on 7 practical tips on how to open up about your feelings with your partner.

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