‘How do I feel?’ Are you crazy?

You know one way of guaranteeing that I don’t talk to you about anything? Ask me straight, ‘how do you feel?’ or ‘how does that make you feel?’ I’ll tell you how asking that question makes me feel- it makes me feel that you can go take a long walk off a short plank. “How do I feel?” What a joke.

Do you not get it? Half the time I have absolutely no idea how I feel. I can feel ten emotions in ten minutes, some of them contradicting each other. I can’t makes sense of it all. And even if I can make some sense of it in my own mind, I have no way of knowing how to express it.

Asking me to tell you how I feel is sometimes a bit like asking someone to tell you how to tie their laces. You know how to do it, how to physically do it, but you just can’t tell someone how to do it. You have to show them. And that’s what I do a lot of the time. I’ll show you I’m angry at the abuse I’ve experienced by being aggressive. I’ll show you I’m upset and need some space by colourfully telling you to get lost. I’ll show you how crap I feel about myself by not eating. I’ll show you I have intolerable emotional pain by cutting myself. And most of the time I will be able to show you how I feel before I even know in my head how I feel or why I feel that way. The information is in there somewhere, I just don’t know how to mentally access it, to put it into words.

So don’t go asking me straight up how I feel. I’ll just think you have no idea, are not worth talking to, listening to, having anything to do with. You’ll be nothing more than a nosey clueless therapist, worker or teacher. And it’s not just us, the gals and lads who have had a tough time, the ones who are acting out, who find these ‘how do you feel?’ questions stupid.

Most teen boys on the planet will tell you that directly asking them about feelings in general, and theirs in particular is just about the most embarrassing exposing thing you can do to them. You might as well ask them to stand on the table and strip naked. I know where I’d tell you to shove that idea. Feelings, talking about them, writing about them is something that comes way more naturally to girls, they even like to do it. Not all girls, but a lot of them. To be fair, some girls who get in loads of trouble are a bit more like lads; they often aren’t into talking about emotions and stuff either. But in general girls know how to pump the verbal emotional well, and sometimes too well. Ask them how they feel and they are way more likely to welcome and answer the question than squirm in revulsion.

Yeah, I totally do need to get to grips with my feelings and how they affect what I do, but not by being asked in this way. I ain’t no emotional well-pumper. Ask me how I feel, even in a spirit of helpful understanding, and I will not gush, far from it. In fact, all you’ll get me to do is vandalise the pump so that nothing will come out. But there is a way to get me to at least let trickles come out, which will probably grow to a reasonable sort of flow. It’s about understanding how I cope with life and coming at it from my angle.

If I’m in front of you because of my behaviour, then I am clearly a ‘doer’ in trying to cope with my life, rather than a talker. I’ll clobber other kids to try and make me feel better; I’ll drink or take drugs to try and forget; I’ll self-harm. I won’t go and talk to my mates, to a teacher, a youth worker, a relative. This is mostly to do with not wanting to expose myself, make myself feel more vulnerable and insecure than I do already. So I’ll try to cope in other ‘doing’ ways, often with bad results.

What you need to show me is that sometimes doing is not enough, and sometimes I do need to talk in order to break the cycle of my actions. You need to show me that there is no shame, no judgement, no need to feel scared in doing that. But you need to do it in a way that respects my inclination to ‘do’ rather than talk about feelings.

Tell me that I need to talk about my feelings, and I will show you exactly what silence sounds like. Show me how I can talk and how I can express feelings without losing my sense of dignity and you will hear my voice.

So how do you get me to talk?

When trying to get to the bottom of why I am behaving in a particular way, explore the triggers for the behaviour, not the feelings triggers but the ‘what happened?’ triggers. Like Dad shouting at me, or another kid taunting me, or just being ignored.

Instead of asking me how I feel, ask me what I did. Remember, my natural inclination is to ‘do’. I cope by doing, so I am far more likely to talk about doing than feeling. You’ll never get me to move from doing and not talking about how I feel, to not doing and talking about how I feel. That’s too much of a quantum leap. It’s a bit like asking a snake to tap dance. It just isn’t going to happen.

By asking what I did, I will start to talk, and you will end up exploring my emotions, but in an indirect non-threatening way. As part of me telling you what I did, some expression of feeling will come in, reasons as to why I did what I did, the emotions underlying the actions. You can end up having a conversation something like this:

‘So what happened yesterday?’
‘Well I punched him, didn’t I?’
‘Why did you punch him?’
‘He just wouldn’t shut up about my trainers/ sneakers.’
‘… so you were angry?’
‘Too right I was. Stupid dick.’
‘What was he saying about your trainers?’
‘He said they were crap and did my Mummy choose them?’
‘Why didn’t you like this?’
‘He made me look stupid, made me look like a baby or some’in’.’
‘So you don’t like it when people make you look small?’
‘Yeah I guess… I hate that, man… It totally sucks.’
Does anyone else make you look or feel small?
‘Mmm, I guess when my Dad yells at me.’

You see? Not one question directly asking me how I feel. You just let me talk, reflect back what I have said and enquire further with the right questions. If I think you are enquiring into what I do, rather than directly at what I feel, then I am way more likely to talk and in the course of us talking, if I don’t feel threatened or nosed upon, I will gradually spill the beans. The beans of why I do what I do, the emotions that motivate me.

Reflecting back what I have said and asking the right questions makes me feel like you understand me, you ‘get me’. And that is the kind of person I can talk to, someone who doesn’t make me feel like I am standing on the table, starkers. You show me that talking about emotions doesn’t have to be scary and emotionally dangerous for me. I can keep my dignity and my emotional clothes on. You just have to do it in a way that helps me keep my dignity, and often it is a stealthy operation. I often won’t realise we are talking about how I feel until after the conversation, if at all. I’m just talking about my life and what I do.

And you know what? If you talk to me about this stuff in this way, while doing something else at the same time, like playing cards, I am even more likely to spill the beans. For one thing, you are distracting me from what we’re talking about. Remember I’m a doer, that’s why I’m in the pickle I’m in, so get me doing the ‘doing’ that comes naturally, to distract me from the fear of what doesn’t come naturally, the talking.

Even people who like to talk often do something at the same time. When was the last time you had a chat in a boring room with nothing to distract you at least slightly, so that you could look down or momentarily focus on something else other than the topic of conversation? People tend to meet with people while doing something- drinking coffee, eating some food, going for a walk or playing sport. And when you’ve got a difficult conversation to have, the activity becomes so important. It reduces the pressure, the tension. So why would it be any different for me? I don’t want to get the special treatment of your visual spotlight. It doesn’t work for you, so why on earth would it work for me? If we must sit in a room, at least chat with me while playing a board game, doodling or something. Better still play pool, where we can constantly move about. Your ability to get me to talk depends on it.

As I said before, often I do need to talk as a way of addressing my issues and behaviour so that I can break the cycle of coping badly. But as I am a ‘doing coper’ rather than a natural ‘talker coper’, talking as a single, long-term coping strategy for me probably won’t work, particularly once our time together has ended. Yes, encourage and help me to find someone who I feel I can talk to, but you know what will work a whole load better? Help me to get involved in a constructive activity that will help me to cope. Help me to be a constructive ‘doing coper’ rather than a self-destructive one.

De-stressing is a pretty major need for most of us so find something that does exactly that. For some that might mean joining a craft group, others a sports team, others just taking their mind off their troubles by helping others with theirs. And you know what? I will probably find my support network right there- friends, role models, people who will come to care about me. And the end result- people I might be able to talk to if I feel the need, for the times when the just ‘doing’ isn’t enough.

So in trying to get me to address the underlying emotional causes of my outward behaviour you need to respect that I am naturally a ‘coping doer’ rather than a ‘talking feeler’ and adapting your approach accordingly. Yes I need to learn to address my feelings, but you need to show me that I don’t need or have to emotionally strip-off and that there a variety of ways of exploring and talking about emotion. If you want to hear me, you’ve got to let me talk in the way I think and talk. To ask me to do anything else is only to ask me to stop talking.

Anger management not working?

2 comments On ‘How do I feel?’ Are you crazy?

  • Great post with some good pointers in enabling young people to talk and be listened to. However I wouldn’t under estimate young people in expressing their feelings. I do ask the question and I do sit in a room with nothing to distract us apart from each other. Within many of my sessions young people embrace silence and simply talk, especailly with empahtic encouragement and active listening.

  • Hi James,

    Thanks for commenting, always appreciated. You raise a really important point, and I too have had many great sessions with young people in very plain, still, quiet settings. Sometimes keeping it simple can be really powerful, as you say. Always in the forefront of my mind when writing these posts are the most challenging disengaged teens whose natural inclination is to run a mile from talking at all and this is the angle I was coming from on this one too. Your comment has helped me to clarify this with additional pointers for readers so thank you!


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