How do I figure out what I am feeling? Give me a practical tool!

My client said to me: “I was looking right at her. I could see hear her rage—almost feel it on my skin! Why the hell couldn’t I respond? What is wrong with me?”

He described time-after-time looking at his frustrated hurting wife, and simply feeling everything and nothing all at the same time. This supremely intelligent man could lead a company, fix all our tax confusions, and be a “world’s best dad” candidate, but he couldn’t tell you what he felt. The only thing he could name was anger.

A strange moment occurs when you find yourself being asked, “what about you, how do you feel?”, or “why won’t you respond to me?” and there are no words. Many of us have had that experience of mentally rummaging around, becoming desperate for an answer, and looking to everyone else like a deer-in-headlights. Clients tell me its maddening, annoying, depressing, normal, and I tell them—"yes, I hate that too. To me it feels defeating”. (And I’m a therapist, certified to help people, seeking a PhD, and I too get lost, stuck and defeated by this).

But there is a way! Trust me. I get stuck sometimes because I forget and don’t take the time to attend to what is really going on inside of me. Before I get to it though, are you someone who doesn’t know at all, or do you simply know that you get angry and blow up? Either way, you are in desperate need of the same solution.

The interpretive experience. Whatever happens, and however you find yourself feeling (or clueless of the feeling), something just happened in the tangible world. I know that sounds obvious, but it is pivotal. Whatever just happened created an experience for you, and your body and brain interpreted it in a specific way before you had the chance to realize it happened. Brain and body science have taught us how our perceptions are fast and frantic, and our bodies react based on our past memories before we have a chance to think about it. This is the essence of interpretive experience.

To make it concrete: think about the kind dad who suddenly erupts with anger when his kid asks him to play. What the heck happened? The interpretive event unlocks it. In the split second that dad heard the demand, what was his experience that interpreted it? Let’s slow down and look. He was tired—check. He had been working on the yard all day—check. He had been disagreeing with his wife—check. He is contending with a potential lay off—check. He had just had one more request—check. So, stop there. What is the interpretation, or the “theme” if you will? Demands and pressure. Dad’s interpretation is of being drained, used up, uncared for and demanded from. The interpretive event is critical. If you had all these pressures and demands, felt uncared for and unloved there is a deep pool of experience inside of you (feelings!). Anger is simply the emotion that tries to stop all the mess and pressure inside—it is trying to get some space and say “I’m done here—I’m in need!”.

What does dad need? He needs to know just how drained he is. Just how tired of giving he is. Just how much he wants someone to care about his needs. Then he can attend to this, and make a better choice with his kid. He might say, “I’m so tired right now, I’d love to play with you later but for now I need an hour”. Maybe he might even recognize he needs to set something up with his friend—simply hanging out and chewing over the stress with a beer. Nothing special. Nothing fancy. But worlds away from hurting his kid and feeling crappy about himself afterwards!

Investigate your interpretive experience. Whether you are angry or just blank, ask yourself, “what has just happened, and what led up to this”. Then say to yourself, “what do all these things mean to me (being ruthlessly honest with yourself)?” You will find with practice that the interpretive experience is the key to helping you understand what you are deeply feeling. You may be showing anger, or be blank on the surface, but believe me, there is a pool below. When you slow down, accept the pool of feelings are there, you will feel better as you acknowledge it and express it. After all, the pool is what feels most important to you and is driving you at that moment.

I wanted to share this idea of the “interpretive experience” because it comes up so frequently in my work with others. It can feel odd, frustrating or anxiety provoking to start looking inside like this. I know from my own experience that it isn’t always simple and straight forward. I gave a “straight forward” example above, but life can be far more complex. At St Louis Counseling Center we deal with complexity and improving lives all the time. If you would like help figuring out your interpretive experiences we’d love to do that with you.

By Paul Loosemore

Paul Loosemore