Every day we feel a variety of emotions – happiness, anger, fear, and sadness, among others.
Unfortunately, expressing these emotions is not as easy as feeling them.
Hence we collaborated with 10 experts to create the ultimate guide to express emotions.
Monica Elden, LMFT
Coach | Therapist | Owner, Wellbeing Embodied
If you notice a pattern of difficulty in expressing your emotions, don’t worry – it’s very common. I know, I have taught communication skills for both work and personal development since 1989. Unfortunately, we don’t yet learn this in school.
There is another reason why it’s hard – sharing your feelings is self-revealing can feel vulnerable.
For some people asking for what you need means you will be seen and that may not have been safe in the family you grew up in. If you are someone who doesn’t usually share your feelings, there is likely a very good reason why you developed this way.
For example, in your family, you may have survived the erratic temper of a parent by becoming invisible. A child who grew up in that environment with a raging parent might quickly learn that safety meant staying out of the way and not be self-expressed.
There are a few steps I recommend to prepare yourself before you start opening up.
The preparation steps are so often overlooked and yet are so key that these suggestions focus exclusively on what to do before you have a conversation:
Offer yourself compassion
The place to start any challenging behavior change is with self-compassion.
Read related article: 12 Best Self Love Books
Making behavioral changes can feel uncomfortable at first. Sharing your feeling or asking for what you need is a form of self-disclosure.
Studies show that people are more resilient in making a change when they are kinder to themselves.
Let yourself try something new and expect that you will make mistakes.
If you saw a friend trying a new challenge, what would you say to them so that they knew they were supported? Try saying that to yourself.
Examine core beliefs that prevent self-expression
I take people through this process and when they discover the number of negative messages, it can be surprisingly daunting.
You can do this on your own by journaling all your beliefs about how you should and should not be in the situation.
Reading your thoughts on paper is a great way to get some distance from their power over you. You can keep the beliefs that work for you and let go of the ones that don’t.
It also can be a great topic for discussion among friends and family.
Identify underlying needs, clarify goals
Before you share, get clear on what you want. Emotions and needs are universal, a part of being human.
Do you need to be heard without someone trying to fix it for you? What are your intentions for sharing? What outcome do you hope for? Are you trying to get them to change their behavior?
This one is tricky – While we can’t always change another’s behavior, we can get lots of relief from being heard and understood without judgment.
Empty your bucket
If what you want to say is emotionally charged, you may want to practice with a friend first or write in a journal.
You want to make sure that you are not swept up by emotions of anger, guilt, or fear so that you can express yourself in a clean way without using emotions as weapons.
Sometimes I invite people to share all their thoughts, judgments, and upsets with me before they talk with their friend or family member.
I just listen, encourage and invite more until there is nothing left to share. Try it – it can be very freeing.
Not everyone is interested in how you feel. Think about how this person has responded to you in the past and consider adjusting your message. You don’t want to bare your soul with someone who is regularly critical of you or at a time or place that doesn’t work.
Children’s Book Author
Be vulnerable enough to let yourself feel emotions freely
Long before we can even speak, we experience emotions; we cry, we laugh, we jump with surprise or gasp in fear. As children, we have no filters nor does the brain have the cognitive development to evaluate how and why we feel a certain emotion; therefore, we express them as they come up.
Emotions are meant to be experienced and not suppressed.
Emotions tell us how we respond to something and they are very important to our psychological well-being.
If we suppress our emotions and try to push them down or swallow them up instead of expressing them, they will, eventually and inevitably re-surface.
On the other hand, there is the danger of expressing every single emotion we experience, which is not healthy either.
This usually occurs in histrionic personalities. These kinds of people are exhausting to be around.
All their energy is spent on going from one emotion to another, with little control over themselves.
I believe the way to experience emotions is, first of all, to be vulnerable enough to let yourself feel emotions freely.
Often, we censor ourselves because we don’t want to look silly or weak if we let our guard down and show sadness, for example.
Once we are experiencing a particular emotion, it is wise to stop for a moment and first identify the emotion. Sometimes we’re angry, but if we stop to label it, we often find that underneath the anger is fear.
For example, if we are mad at our spouse for being late one night, underneath it there may be a fear of abandonment which might lead to a feeling of sadness; so, underneath the anger, there is really fear and sadness. Emotions can be tricky like that.
Read related article: The 16 Best Anger Management Books
It is important to experience a particular emotion as a temporary feeling. Too often, we get stuck in a particular emotion. Staying stuck in a particular emotion such as sadness or anger can lead to a more permanent state such as depression.
It is important to process what and why you’re feeling a certain emotion so you can let it go.
Too often we identify with emotion by saying I am sad when in actuality, we are only feeling sad. It is important to make this distinction so that we feel more empowered.
As humans, we have the luxury and burden of being highly emotional beings. I think to best experience being fully emotional people is to keep our hearts open.
We also need to be able to identify the emotion without labeling ourselves as emotion.
We need to be able to look at our emotions objectively if we want to learn about ourselves more deeply, especially as we get older.
When we experience joy and happiness, everything’s fine, but if we’re experiencing anger or fear or sadness, these are big emotions that usually have triggers for us. These triggers can lead us to the places in ourselves that most likely need healing.
The key, I think, is that we should be responsible for our own emotions.
How we feel is often based on our perceptions. One person can get his feelings hurt by someone; whereas, another may easily brush it off.
We also need to take back our power by owning our emotions and not blaming others for how we feel.
Instead of saying “I’m mad because you did this and this.” We could rephrase it by saying: “I feel mad because when this happens I feel like…” This gives back the power to the person who feels angry at someone else, so they don’t fall into the victim role.
I am happy that children are learning about emotions at a very young age. When I was growing up, we didn’t even talk about emotions.
My mother was quite stoic and my father was absent. I learned to deal with things on my own, but it would have certainly helped to talk about how I was feeling, especially during the divorce.
I wasn’t given the tools to express how I was feeling, but luckily my tears flowed abundantly and that made up for my lack of words.
Clinical Psychologist | Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Expressing emotion is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves.
It is important that the way you are expressing your emotions is effective so that you may be heard by others.
If we don’t express our emotions in a calm and clear manner it can cause a disconnect with the person we wish to express emotion to.
Expressing your emotions in a positive way brings you closer to loved ones and solidifies relationships.
When we share our feelings with another it helps us to verbalize what we think and what we need. This brings clarity to the situation and can help solve problems effectively.
For example, a good way to begin a discussion with another about your emotions is to make it about you rather than them.
This helps them not become defensive and to hear you. “I feel sad right now and want us to talk”.
This is much more effective than, “you hurt my feelings again and you do it all of the time”. How you say what you are feeling is significant in determining if you will be heard.
Master-Certified Life Coach | Author
It helps to understand what emotions are
Emotions are energy in motion – vibrations in our bodies that we can feel physically – that are usually described in one word. Happy. Sad. Angry. Scared.
Happiness has a vibration. Anger has a vibration. Sadness has a vibration. Fear has a vibration.
Emotions are not thoughts or ideas. They are not concepts with long, vague descriptions. They are not opinions or judgments.
The way emotions feel in my body may be different than the way they feel in your body.
Sometimes emotional vibrations are uncomfortable. I’ve learned that allowing myself to feel an uncomfortable emotion has never, ever hurt me or anyone else. The earth didn’t open up and swallow me whole, nor did I explode into a million pieces.
Acting on emotions without consideration is a different story.
So what does the expression of emotion look like? Tears and laughter are two very common examples.
And they are different than, say, acting on an emotion like anger, which might look like yelling or taking destructive action.
We’re used to acting on emotions without fully noticing them.
This is because we’re generally not taught to notice or otherwise pay attention to emotions. In fact, we were pretty much taught the opposite – to ignore, resist, and even distrust them.
Every human being has the capacity and the ability to literally feel every human emotion. Even the ugly, uncomfortable ones.
We’re built to feel all of them, so it stands to reason that we’re capable of feeling them without harming ourselves. Our bodies are great at feeling emotions, and they are amazingly efficient at it.
Consider the story of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neurologist who had a stroke. In her book, My Stroke Of Insight, she describes that after her stroke, she was unable to resist feeling emotions.
Without that ability, all the while retaining her curiosity about the human mind, she found that for her, an unresisted emotion would last about 90 seconds.
We feel surges of love. Surges of anger. Surges of grief. And then they recede. Even an emotion as intense as grief or anger gives us a break.
Sure, they come around again, and as long as we let them flow on through, they will again recede.
But sometimes, because we’re afraid to feel a feeling – or because we think certain emotions are bad or wrong – the fear intensifies the already uncomfortable emotion.
When we resist anger, we create more anger. We get angry at our anger. We worry about our anxiety. We’re disgusted by our hate.
We create more pain by telling ourselves we shouldn’t be in pain. We don’t want to feel that uncomfortable feeling!
And so, because we assign a negative meaning to emotions like anger or jealousy, we tend to spend a lot of time avoiding, stuffing, distracting, and intellectualizing these emotions – so we don’t have to feel them – because we consider them ugly and uncomfortable.
Now, consider the difference between resisting an emotion and just letting it vibrate. Imagine that you’re about to experience an emotion you find uncomfortable, like panic or terror, but you will only experience it for two minutes.
Once the two minutes is up, you’re done. What would it be like to just experience it? Without avoidance, resistance, numbing? What might you notice?
This is what I mean when I talk about safely feeling an emotion. And yes, it takes practice, but it’s fascinating to experiment with this.
The more you experiment with feeling your feelings, the more you will learn from them.
Even better, when you focus on literally feeling the emotion in your body, the faster it goes away! The more you practice notice and feeling emotions, the easier it gets.
I figure, if your body is capable of feeling all the emotions, then all feelings are valid and worthy of being felt. They’re all useful. They all have messages or even lessons for you.
Now let’s talk about safely expressing emotions, which includes verbal and non-verbal expression.
It’s interesting to watch little children express emotion. Think about an angry or distraught toddler who throws herself to the floor, kicks her legs and flings her arms.
What she is doing is letting her body feel and express the emotion. Or if she’s sad, she cries, sobbing and shaking, using her whole body.
The same goes for expressing joy, with a full-body laugh! Our culture and our families down through the generations have taught us, however, that some emotions are bad – or at least that certain expressions of certain emotions are bad and wrong.
For instance, we teach toddlers that the grocery store floor isn’t the best place to express anger. And somewhere along the way, we also learn that some people don’t like the way we express certain emotions.
If we want attention, love, or approval from them, we quickly learn to stop expressing these emotions, or maybe even feeling them altogether.
And sometimes we see someone expressing an emotion we deem ugly, and we decide we don’t want to be like them!
So how do you safely express emotion? Especially an emotion like anger, which can also feel dangerous?
It’s important to remember that feeling anger (or other so-called “negative” emotions) does not make you a bad or “un-evolved” person.
You are never “above” having feelings. Emotions like anger become a problem if we pick up a knife and stab someone with it because we’re angry. Or if we scream at them.
It’s okay to let it take as long as it needs to take to feel your pain. It’s not okay to treat people poorly while you’re doing it.
Clinical Therapist | Movement Therapist | CEO, Chicago Dance Therapy
An unconventional way to express your emotions is through the body
As a dance/movement therapist I always incorporate the body into my psychotherapy sessions.
It is difficult to release emotions if we do not acknowledge or increase awareness about where we hold our emotions because believe it or not they are not just in our heads.
Movement is the ultimate form of expression that it accessible to everyone.
Here is a simple guide to embodying your emotions. Identify where you feel an emotion by recognizing sensations that come up.
Try thinking about a situation or scenario that evokes that emotion and track where and how you feel it in your body. Being aware of where you hold emotions in your body brings an ability to process them and express them more fully.
Remember that movement isn’t just exercise or physical activity.
It is how we “move” through life. How we interact with others, how we sit, stand, walk, gesture.
Movement is in everything we do and lack of movement speaks volumes. If you are looking to express your emotions, turning your attention to the body is a great place to start.
Therapist Trainee | Clinic Manager, Kern Wellness Counseling
Expressing emotions is difficult for many reasons, yet the process of identifying those emotions, in general, is not necessarily highlighted as much as the former.
Before one can express emotion, this would assume he or she knows exactly what to express
In a sense, meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking, is involved in this process of identifying emotional content. Once mastered, or when one feels competent enough, then emotional regulation becomes more conceivably susceptible to practice.
So how does one understand the nuances of each emotion in order to identify it’s conception? The answer: a good ol’ story to help remember this concept.
There’s a known Greek-born slave by the name of Epictetus (it means acquired for you logic junkies) who posited the following idea: “It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.”
Seemingly Yoda-like in its delivery, Epictetus knew exactly what he was talking about regarding the genesis of emotion: it all begins with a single thought.
Now that we know where some emotion has the capacity to be birthed (e.g., from thoughts), we can work backwards in order to find the deeper meaning of why we feel the way we feel.
For example, a gentleman quickly shifts into a race car driver on a public street and is fuming with anger and expresses it using a vehicle. So, where the heck did this come from in the first place?
Well, right before this occurred, someone had cut off the gentleman on the road which forced him to slam on his newly installed brakes.
What are some thoughts that could have crossed his mind?
- “Oh my God, I just changed my brakes, I don’t need this.”
- “What an idiot, he thinks he’s better than me, I’ll show him!”
- “I’m gonna get back to him and cut him off and show him my favorite finger.”
Dozens of thoughts as such can easily flood our system, and in its inception comes emotion (e.g.., anger from humiliation and frustration).
As you can see from just one example, Epictetus wasn’t too far off with his claim.
This is helpful for those who would like to understand their emotions before expressing them outwardly.
The process of figuring out where emotions come from is both mindful and calming.
Who knows, if its anger you’re trying to reveal, perhaps the step-by-step process of identifying emotions will make it easier to express.
If it’s concern, sadness, anxiety or some other nuanced feeling, again, this process of identifying can be helpful.
Tips for those who want to express emotions:
#1 Identify where in your body is feeling different or new.
Perhaps your neck is tighter from anger or maybe your palms are sweaty from nervousness. Maybe you feel as if a boulder is on your chest as you describe depression.
#2 Identify the thought that manifested from the event (e.g., thinking “What an idiot” after getting cut off on the road.).
#3 Give allowance to yourself and sit with these feelings. Feelings aren’t wrong, and this is good practice in identifying true feelings.
#4 Lastly, communicate newly identified feelings in constructive ways:
- start new hobby
- communicate with a spouse or friend
- seek therapy
- meditation/ mindfullness
- take a walk near nature or anything else that get’s the body to speak your feelings.
Identifying and expressing emotions is much like a muscle: it’s going to take some exercise, rest and nurturing before it gets any easier.
Just keep practicing and you’ll get the hang of it before you know it.
Certified Life and Weight Coach
We are not taught how to express our emotions, and this is because we aren’t taught how to really feel them.
Our emotions can quite literally run away with us. Have you ever found yourself losing your temper, or crying when it was really not your intention?
Typically, we resist, avoid or react to our emotions. None of these will lead to expressing your emotion in a genuine, honest way that is healthy for you or your relationships.
So, how should we express them?
First, we identify what emotion we are currently feeling – try to refrain from thinking “good or bad” – use emotional language. Are you frustrated, angry, disappointed? The more specific, the better!
Second, it is so important to identify why you are feeling that emotion, what is going on in that mind of yours, what are you thinking about that is causing you to feel that emotion?
For example, when I think that my boss doesn’t appreciate me, I feel mad.
It is important to recognize that I can have this thought on a Saturday afternoon when my boss is nowhere to be seen.
Third step – feel your feeling.
Yes, sit with it. Too often we turn to social media, food, or other welcome distractions to avoid negative emotions. This is never helpful.
Sit, close your eyes, think about where this feeling is in your body. Feelings are just vibrations in your body, they are never harmful, they always pass.
For example, when I feel nervous, I feel the vibration in my stomach and a louder beating in my chest.
Once you have sat with your thought, wait for it to settle. It will. The pounding will calm, the movement will slow, the feeling will pass. This is why experience such a range of emotions in any single day!
Fourth step – notice how you want to react.
Maybe you want to cry, yell, or maybe you shut down completely. Understanding how you want to react is so important before we can go on to change it!
Final step – get proactive.
Plan ahead of time. Who do you want to be? If you were in control of your emotions (which you are), how would you want to portray yourself in certain situations?
Maybe you do not want to shout, cry, or stay quiet. Think about someone you admire. How would they behave if experiencing certain emotions?
Here’s a secret … That behavior is available to you too.
The truth is, we never know how anyone else (including someone we admire) would react. However, asking the right questions reveals how you would like to behave.
Final things to consider when expressing your emotion:
- Timing – not everything has to be an instant reaction.
- Goal – what do you want from the outcome.
- Honesty – showing up as your true self will always be better than pretending to be someone you are now.
I travel full-time as a housesitter, where I live in other people’s homes and care for their pets. That means I’m constantly dealing with unfamiliar people who are under a bit of stress as they prepare to leave their home and pets while they go on holiday.
Often, I’m in a foreign country and grappling with cultural differences while expressing emotions. Yikes! That can be a challenge.
Here are my tips for recognizing, processing and expressing emotions:
Determine if your reaction is actually about the other person, or if it’s a reflection of something you are upset about yourself
For example, sometimes I get really frustrated with someone — especially when I’m traveling and under stress — but what’s really going on is that I’m frustrated with myself and just projecting that on the other person. (Don’t you just feel sorry for airline counter and gate personnel who have to deal with this all the time?)
Own your own emotions and enlist help or sympathy
“I’m just really upset right now and having a hard time resolving this problem. Perhaps you’ve been in this situation yourself? Can you help me?”
Even if you believe the other person is the cause of your distress, it can be really powerful to empower them to resolve your dilemma.
Apologize when you’re wrong — and do it quickly
A long time ago, I learned that “eating crow tastes better when it’s warm.” Don’t let things fester!
Clean them up as authentically and as quickly as possible.
For bigger, lingering emotional issues, do The Work by Byron Katie
It’s a fast, simple process that helps uncover the deeper issues that keep us “stuck” in challenging emotions.
Founder/CEO, H.K. Productions Inc.
Deciding how to express your emotions determines having a level of self-awareness to identify what would work best for you.
Some may find it easy, therapeutic and refreshing to express their emotions through the arts. That can be painting, sculpting, singing, or acting. Others may find healing in writing, poetry, private counseling or even sports.
Expressing your emotions is personal, vulnerable and raw; that is why it’s essential to choose an outlet that allows you to feel free once done.
If you don’t know what would be best for you, try different methods to decide which one(s) resonates deeply for you.
Experience is truly the best teacher and in this case, your inner being will decide for you.
Digital Marketer | Freelance Writer | Owner, The Thrifty Dad
I’ve been writing since I was five. It started as an escape, a way to let my imagination run wild. During my formative years as a teenager, however, I realized it was turning into something else: a healthy outlet for expression.
I fostered my passion for writing into something even more serious after high school, deciding to major in creative writing. Throughout college, I transformed the highs and lows, the first kisses and breakups, into fictional stories that were unrecognizable compared to their basis.
Not only did the whirlwind of emotions that is college translate into great stories, it made me even more aware of how I was feeling and processing things.
As a result, I became better at dealing with people. The shy kid from high school became a seasoned retail worker in college, speaking with hundreds of strangers every week. Confidence replaced hesitation and weakness.
I’ve now been writing professionally for several years, primarily as a content marketer. While this isn’t the same as writing short stories, it’s still an incredible outlet for expressing oneself.
Sure, I have to fulfill the needs of the client and match their brand and voice, but I also get to pour every ounce of my energy into my work.
Obviously, everyone won’t carry this level of passion for writing, but I still wholeheartedly believe writing is an incredible outlet.
Set aside a few minutes before bed and jot down some thoughts from your day. Or, start a doc on your phone and capture moments from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep.
The goal isn’t to create a masterpiece but to simply allow yourself to be vulnerable for a moment.
Taking off your armor and putting yourself onto the page or screen is invigorating, relaxing, and creates incredible self-awareness. There’s nothing like it.