Question: I’m not sure I feel the way normal people do. What’s it like to have emotions?
You seem to be so passionate and emotionally driven. It seems that people like you feel things deeply. What is that like? I’d like to experience this but I’m not sure I am capable. Not for any specific reason that I can think of that is hindering me, I just can’t. I used to think everyone else was just being hyperbolic all the time, but now I think maybe it’s me that is not feeling what other people feel. The main emotions I can identify in myself are anger, discomfort/sadness, and calm/comfort something like that. Tell me about the emotions you feel doing your regular day-to-day things. I want to know what it’s like.
Answer: We all experience emotions a little differently. Here’s what it’s like for me.
Hey friend, thanks for your question. You’re right that I am passionate and emotionally driven, and while you seem to see it as a strength, this is one of the things I’ve been criticized for the most in my life. I have been labelled highly sensitive and too emotional more times than I can count, and it never occurred to me that someone with the opposite “problem” would want my perspective. The emotions I experience in a single normal day can be all over the spectrum, and sometimes I envy people who are on a more even keel. But since you asked, I will share. Keep in mind, however, that I’m not convinced there’s such a thing as normal, and if there is a big difference in our ways of experiencing the world, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In general, I feel things very strongly. I cry easily in movies, and I can’t watch violence. When I was younger (before I had therapy or a meditation practice), I would often feel overwhelmed and even controlled by my emotions, which were influenced by everything from rude drivers to bad weather. My mental and emotional state were never within my own control, and it was exhausting. Learning to meditate was a major key to getting in control of myself in that regard. Therapy has also been helpful because it provides a safe space for me to talk through the thoughts and feelings that require my attention.
I’m currently in better mental health than at any point in my past, so here’s a “normal” day in the life of someone who has A LOT of feelings. I wake up groggy. I guess that’s not an emotion. I like to be snuggled in the morning. Is snuggly an emotion? Sure. Sometimes I feel cranky because I want to keep sleeping and anyone who tries to make me get up and be responsible is a jerk. Cranky is a sub-category of anger, but for me, it’s a sort of self-aware, consciously ridiculous anger. It’s like existential rage about waking up with a side helping of laughter because the alternative is death. The best solution for this problem is coffee and snuggles. I have a LOT of feelings about snuggles. I love snuggles. I feel warm and fuzzy and happy when I’m being held, or just cuddling with a cat.
When I write before work every morning, I feel thoughtful, inspired sometimes, bored other times, excited when I get a good writing prompt or question, and annoyed when I get something trollish or ignorant in my inbox. I also sometimes feel nervous about giving a good answer or about the possibility that I might misread the question or give bad advice. Sometimes I grab hold of one of these emotions and carry it around with me all day. It’s a real bummer when I get stuck on my morning writing and spend the rest of my day beating myself up about it. But if I have a really productive morning, it can give the entire rest of the day a little extra sparkle.
At work, I feel a whole host of things, including … Annoyed by tedious paperwork, excited about new opportunities, and pumped about getting paid — I secretly love invoicing day and have a whole playlist for it. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the things on my to-do list that I don’t even want to think about. Sometimes I feel anxious about money because people don’t always pay their invoices on time and that has an impact on everything else in my world. I might also feel apprehensive about taking on a task I don’t feel ready for or starting a conversation that might be hard. Sometimes I feel playful or creative during the day when I get to do work that involves brainstorming and creative planning.
Because I have an anxiety disorder, all of my days feature an undercurrent of anxiety. Some days, the anxiety is extremely loud and seems to drown out everything else. Some days it’s relatively quiet. Most of the time, other people cannot tell what’s happening under the surface, so I always try to tell someone if my anxiety is getting too revved up. When I feel anxious, it’s important for me to not be alone with it, so I am always talking about my feelings, which helps to distinguish between them, label them in a more useful way, and choose better responses to them.
Throughout my life, I have been told that I am too emotional, too sensitive, or take things too seriously. Just as you thought everyone else was being hyperbolic, I have often felt like others were being intentionally obtuse. I thought perhaps others were just switching off their emotions and going through life purposely thoughtless and numb. That made me feel absolute rage. People would tell me, “You think too much,” and my response was, “you think too little!” But maybe we’re just different.
For whatever reason, it turns out not everyone experiences emotions the way I do, so like you, I have felt … not normal. I’ve learned to embrace my wide range of feelings because it’s part of who I am and it won’t change no matter how I judge it. Yet, there are days when my nervous system feels exhausted from all the goddamn emotions. On those days, I go home and spend some time being quiet and alone. Sometimes I lay face down on the floor and I don’t move or talk to anyone.
You might say the emotions I experience are mostly sub-categories of the things you described. Examining and naming my emotions accurately is a key part of managing my mental health. In order to prevent a panic attack, it’s important for me to be able to identify the difference between strong emotions. It’s one thing to be annoyed by circumstances, and it’s different to be angry about injustice. It’s one thing to feel intimidated by someone, and it’s different to feel threatened by them. When I recognize the differences between these emotions, I can make better decisions about how to respond to them.
Here’s an exercise you can try: Carry a small notebook with you for a week. Each day, write down the emotions you’re feeling. Since you may not be accustomed to paying attention to emotions, decide on a few times per day that it would be convenient to do a check-in. Perhaps once in the morning, once at lunch, and once before bed. Keep it simple — just make a note of what you’re feeling and any related events or circumstances. There are also apps you can download to do this. After a few days, you might see a pattern or start to see subtle differences from one day to another. There’s no need to judge yourself for what you do or don’t feel. Just take the opportunity to get to know yourself a little better without trying to change anything.
I’m curious about whether you truly feel fewer emotions or if you just haven’t had the permission or tools to examine the ones you do have. I suspect that a very high number of people go through life trying not to feel because feelings are hard, and socially, we’re aggressively trained to ignore or denigrate our own emotions. Even people who have rich inner lives often wear a stone mask because letting their emotions show feels too vulnerable. Still, there are many factors from our genetics and neurology to our social training that cause us to have varied emotional experiences, and your experience being different from mine doesn’t make either of us wrong. One of the neat things about being human is that we’ve evolved all these different traits that serve different purposes, which is why neuro-diversity is so important. It’s likely that there is a unique advantage to your natural way of processing emotions, so I encourage you to pay attention to your strengths in this process.
You didn’t exactly ask for advice, but I do hope you’ll take the time to examine the emotions you have identified in yourself and note the circumstances in which they arise and the varying intensity of feeling. You might start to identify more types of emotion than you could distinguish at first, and it could teach you something about the unique way that you experience life.