Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 27, 2021

Tips for expressing how you're actually feeling

By CECILIA VORFELD | April 4, 2019

Oftentimes when you are talking to a friend, it’s about how your day is going, what you’ve been up to recently and vice versa, all that surface level stuff. If we are being honest with one another, that’s just small talk. Once you tap into your feelings, then you really start to listen to what the person is saying and understand how they are feeling. 

“Feeling busy” isn’t really a feeling. Feeling “overwhelmed” because you have a lot on your plate, that’s a proper emotive word. A Place To Talk (APTT) helped me to learn the value of feelings and encouraged me to be more open about them. I would like to encourage you all to do the same and to try not to hide from your emotions but instead to dig a little deeper.

When I first came to Hopkins as an international student, I was surprised by everyone saying, “Hi, how are you?” when you walked by. “Typical friendly Americans,” I would think to myself. But I noticed that they would never stop to hear your answer. They just kept walking. I would stop and begin to explain how I was doing, but most of the time the other person wouldn’t stop like I had, probably because they were rushing off somewhere with no time to sit and chat. This meant that I had to keep walking too.

I soon learnt that these people did not actually want to hear about how I was doing. They were just saying it to be polite. All you can actually fit in as a response before the other person walks away is a short phrase or one word sentence like “Good” or “Doing well.” I’ve even noticed that people barely try to fit in another “How are you?” or just “You?” to allow their peer to respond. These questions and responses have to be kept so short that our replies are almost always positive. 

I think this is because we know that if we were to respond with something negative like “I’m having a bad day” or “I’m actually not doing too well,” the other person would feel like they had to stop and talk to us about it. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to burden people, especially if they looked like they had somewhere to be. People never seemed to have the time to truly listen to how I was feeling, so I started ignoring them and their emotions as well.

We all have feelings. They are a very natural thing and need to be validated, yet society doesn’t really teach us to be in touch with them. Most of the time I find myself repressing a lot of how I’m feeling, instead squeaking out the lie of “I’m fine” in those short responses to someone I’m walking past. It reminds me of that meme with the cartoon dog, sitting down at a table with his hat on and a cup of coffee, smiling, while flames engulf the house around him. 

Learning to talk about my feelings was certainly hard at first, especially when I was facing difficulties. I would just repress those negative feelings. I didn’t want people to think I was struggling. I would lie to myself, convincing myself that “I’m fine” when I clearly was not. Being vulnerable with people in that way was scary for me, but A Place To Talk gave me that space to truly express how I felt. 

There was no judgment, no expectations of how I should feel. My feelings were treated as valid and heard for what they were. In APTT those peer listeners are sitting shift 7 p.m. - 1 a.m. every school night just to listen to you. They aren’t allowed to do anything else but sit there and listen to whatever anyone has to say.

They aren’t going to push you away because they have other, more pressing things to do. Instead, they love having people come and talk to them because that’s what they are there for! I certainly love it whenever people come and talk to me during my shift.

Of course, old habits die hard, and I would often avoid taking ownership of my feelings, projecting them on to others. “You know when you feel like [blank]” was a phrase I often used to distance myself from my own feelings. 

If I did tell people how I felt, I would immediately minimize it in order for it not to sound like a big deal, such as “I feel so anxious, but it’s not important. Everyone feels that way.” But why say it if I don't mean it or want anyone to notice it?

I know firsthand how noticing and acknowledging these feelings can be so important to the speaker; it’s worth a try. Look out for emotive words such as “sad,” “frustrated,” “down,” “guilty” and so on. One of my favorite questions to ask someone when I notice them use one of these words is “What does feeling [insert the emotion they used] mean to you?” 

We all experience our emotions in a unique way, and unpacking a vague term like “weird” can really help to better understand what someone is trying to say. You could even just parrot the feeling word that they used. For example, if it was “upset,” you could make it into a question like “Upset?” or “Upset, how?” This is a simple way to dive deeper into what another person is trying to express. It clarifies things for both yourself and for the speaker. 

Don’t be afraid of feelings. Embrace them! You will have a more worthwhile experience expressing yourself and listening to others this way.

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