There are some people that have no trouble sharing their feelings. They are devoid of the fear and anxiety that most of us feel about sharing something personal or potentially controversial. Down deep, you’re jealous of these people.
Openness provides a level of freedom that eludes those that are more private. It’s important to be able to share your feelings and concerns openly.
But why does putting our feelings into words, talking with a therapist or friend, writing in a journal, help us to feel better?
A 2007 brain imaging study by University of California at Los Angeles psychologists reveals why verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense.
When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger. Scientists see a robust amygdala response even when they show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can’t even see them.
But does seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face change our brain response” The answer is yes, according to Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience.
“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,”
said Lieberman, lead author of the study.
The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences.
It has also been implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions, but exactly what it contributes has not been known.
“What we’re suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions –labeling emotions — that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for,” Lieberman said.
If a friend or loved one is sad or angry, getting the person to talk or write may have benefits beyond whatever actual insights are gained. These effects are likely to be modest, however, Lieberman said.
“We typically think of language processing in the left side of the brain; however, this effect was occurring only in this one region, on the right side of the brain,” he said. “It’s rare to see only one region of the brain responsive to a high-level process like labeling emotions.”
Many people are not likely to realize why putting their feelings into words is helpful.
“If you ask people who are really sad why they are writing in a journal, they are not likely to say it’s because they think this is a way to make themselves feel better,” Lieberman said. “People don’t do this to intentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have that effect. Popular psychology says when you’re feeling down, just pick yourself up, but the world doesn’t work that way. If you know you’re trying to pick yourself up, it usually doesn’t work — self-deception is difficult. Because labeling your feelings doesn’t require you to want to feel better, it doesn’t have this problem.”
Share Your Feelings
Your concerns can’t be addressed if you’re unwilling to share them. You have to face your challenges alone if you keep them to yourself.
Share your feelings and enjoy the resulting freedom it provides:
1. Be more accepting of others. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if you’re afraid to share your feelings, you may be judgmental of others. Naturally, you would expect others to judge you, too. It’s impossible to accurately judge others. There’s always more going on than you realize. Be accepting of others and you’ll expect others to be accepting of you.
2. Start small. Share something small, but relevant. Once you see that you can share your feelings without negative repercussions, you’ll be more likely to share them again.
3. Determine the source of your fear. You may fear judging, rejection, ridicule, or embarrassment. Perhaps attacking that fear is the first logical step to lessening your anxiety around sharing and openness.
4. Be brave. There’s no way to be 100% comfortable about sharing your feelings until you’ve done it several times. There’s a certain amount of courage required at the beginning. Be brave enough to share your feelings. It becomes easier over time.
5. Encourage others to share their feelings with you. You might feel more comfortable if your conversation partner goes first.
6. Stay in the present moment. You generate feelings of fear by worrying about the possible outcomes. Stay in the moment, and your fear will dissipate. Avoid imagining the worst possible outcome.
7. Calibrate the other person. Others are often careless when they believe something doesn’t matter. You’ll find that others are more empathetic and understanding if you let them know that something is important to you. It can be as simple as, “I want to tell you about something that’s important to me.” Put others in the proper state of mind before you share.
8. Be honest. The willingness to make yourself vulnerable will enhance your results. If you’re sharing something that displeases you about the other person, it’s important to empathize first. Sharing your feelings requires consideration of the other person’s feelings, too.
9. Take a deep breath and just do it. The anticipation is usually worse than the actual event. Sometimes, you just have to go for it. You can do it. Focus on how much better you’ll feel afterwards.
Change isn’t easy. Sharing can be scary, but the benefits outweigh the anxiety experienced. In time, you’ll learn to share your feelings and worries more easily. It just takes practice.
Focus on the benefits you’ll receive and let the words flow. The other person will appreciate your effort and you’ll find that you get what you want more often.