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How to Know When You Are Having a Feeling

How do you know when you are having a feeling?

As the pioneer of the concept and full theory of CEN — or Childhood Emotional Neglect — I receive hundreds of questions every week about CEN, what it means, how it works, its effects, and how to heal.

Many readers of my books and blogs have very personal, thoughtful observations and questions to share. In fact, I have learned quite a lot from receiving, reading, and answering them.

Of all those many questions there is one that I receive over and over and over again. And then again. And the next day, there it is again. I get it so often because it’s a key piece of the cause of CEN and a key building block for CEN healing too. In fact, it would be hard to overstate its importance.

How do you know when you are having a feeling?

My answer to this question is not quite as simple as most would like. It’s complicated by the fact that every human being is different.

How Do You Know When You Are Having A Feeling? 3 Signs

Note: Any one of these signs is an alert that you are having a feeling. You do not need to have all three.

  1. Physical sensation: Emotions are literally physical sensations that reside in your body. If you know that you are someone who is unaware of your feelings it may help to pay more attention to your body, paying special attention to the sensations that may come and go. Emotions are often felt in the belly or chest or throat but they can also be in your arms, legs, hands, head, or any other part of your body. Watch for a physical sensation and when one happens, stop and take note.
  2. Physical pain or symptoms: Emotions that are not acknowledged or attended do not go away. They hang around under the surface of your life and can cause physical symptoms like headaches, backaches, fatigue, restlessness, jaw clenching, chest tightness, or an almost endless list of other physical symptoms. In fact, research shows that, for example, repressed anger has been linked to heart attacks. When you notice a physical symptom, stop and ask yourself if you might be repressing an emotion.
  3. Surprised or confused by your own behavior: Our actions are driven by our feelings. When you are aware of what you’re feeling, you have the opportunity to use your brain to consider the feeling you are having and plan your actions. This puts your behavior under your control. If you are surprised or confused by something you do, consider the possibility that you are having a feeling of which you are unaware. Pause to think about this.

What To Do If You Notice One of the 3 Signs of Having a Feeling

The 3 signs above will, hopefully, alert you to the possibility that you may be feeling something and that is an excellent start! But the signs will not tell you what you are feeling or what it means. To help you with that, I created an exercise to guide you. I first shared it in my book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s called The Identifying & Naming Exercise.

The Identifying and Naming Exercise

Step 1: Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.

Step 2: Ask yourself the question: “What am I feeling right now?”

Step 3: Focus on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on: “What am I feeling right now?”

Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word.

Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, skim through the Feeling Word List in the Resources at the end of the Running On Empty book, and see if one or more words jump out at you.

Step 6: Once a word jumps out at you, say it out loud. “I feel ______.” Does it sound right when you say it? Does it feel right when you say it? Does it feel partially right but you need more words to describe it?

Step 7: When a feeling word seems like it may be accurate, you are ready to move on to the next step, which is trying to figure out why you are feeling that.

We will save Step 7 for another day because right now we’re trying to help you know when you’re feeling something. Learning the other feeling skills is easier once you have become more skilled at this first one.

The Takeaway

Your emotions are literally physical sensations that reside in your body. When you fail to notice and acknowledge a feeling, it can become a physical problem for you or it can make you act in ways that may be undesirable or regrettable or simply confusing.

Learning how to identify when you are having a feeling is a vital skill for living a happy and healthy life. When you grow up in an emotionally neglectful family you sadly do not have the opportunity to learn it. In fact, you learn the opposite: how to ignore, deny, belittle, and block off your feelings.

Now, as the adult you are, you have the power to make some new choices for yourself. You can choose to focus, choose to learn, and choose to feel.

You can choose to start valuing your feelings and using them to know and understand yourself better. You can start down the path of healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s never too early or too late to choose yourself.

When You Feel Emotionally Numb, Do This To Feel More Alive

When you feel emotionally numb, what can you do? Is there anything that can make you feel better?

There are many feelings that can make us human beings uncomfortable. Anger, sadness, hurt, anxiety, fear, loss or grief, for example. Most of us would not choose to feel any of these. In fact, we will often go to great lengths to escape and avoid feeling them.

But there is one feeling that can be more intolerable than any of those. It’s in its own category because it is not like the others.

I have seen this feeling drive people to do extreme things to escape it, like take risks, harm themselves, put themselves in dangerous situations, or even consider suicide. Many people feel this feeling, but few have words to describe it.

I call this feeling the “unfeeling feeling.” The best way to describe it is a deep sense of emptiness or emotional numbness.

Here are some important facts to know about emotional numbness.

5 Important Facts About Emotional Numbness

  1. You have the unfeeling feeling for a reason, and you are not alone. Other people feel this way too. But everyone does not feel this way.
  2. The emotional numbness you feel is a message from your body. Your body is trying to tell you something, and it is vital that you listen.
  3. This message from your body is one of the most valuable and important ones you will ever receive.
  4. The message is this: Your feelings are blocked off.
  5. The likely cause of your blocked-off feelings, and hence your emotional numbness, is Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice, respond to, and validate your emotions enough as they raise you.

When you grow up with your feelings ignored or unwelcome, your young brain builds a wall to block them off. It’s an effective coping mechanism that helps you avoid being a “problem” in your childhood home.

But this effective coping mechanism backfires when you grow up. As you move into adulthood, you need your emotions. If you were a boat, your emotions would be your engine, anchor, and rudder. They should be not only grounding and rooting you but also motivating, directing and guiding you.

When your emotions are blocked off, your body feels it. Something vital is missing. You sense this deeply, and it does not feel good. Just as your body knows when you are hungry or thirsty, it also knows when your feelings are blocked. You are emotionally numb.

When You Feel Emotionally Numb, Do This To Feel More Alive

And now for the good news. If you feel emotionally numb, there is plenty of hope for you. I am going to give you answers.

There are two ways to address your emotional numbness. One is short-term coping, and the other is long-term solving. To truly address the problem it makes sense to do both. But in this article, we are going to talk about short-term coping. How do you manage the unfeeling feeling when you get it?

Trying to avoid or escape the unfeeling feeling will not work. It’s natural, when you feel numb, to try to escape it by using external or physical stimulation. That’s why so many people might go shopping, sky-dive, drink, use drugs, gamble or even harm themselves. When you’re feeling this, it seems like something extreme will solve it by making you feel something…anything seems better than nothing at that moment. 

But when you take any action like this to escape numbness, you are only setting yourself up for more numbness in the future. Plus the numbness can drive you too far, so you are at risk for overspending, over-drinking, or excessive risk that might harm you.

There are, however, a few far healthier and more effective things you can do. First, it’s very important to take note that you are feeling emotionally numb or empty. Second, you must do the opposite of escape or avoidance. The key to dealing with numbness in the moment is to go straight at it.

In other words, the best way to cope with numbness is to try to reach your blocked-off emotions. To do this, you must focus inward, not outward. You must reach out to your emotions.

4 Healthy Ways To Cope With Emotional Numbness

  1. Remember and reimagine a time when you felt a strong emotion: To do this, close your eyes. Think about a time in your life when you felt strong hurt, happiness, sadness, pain, loss or joy. Put yourself back there and try to relive it in your mind. As soon as you contact a feeling, allow yourself to feel it. Think about what you are feeling, and about why this was such an intense experience for you. Once you do this, you will find that your numbness has left you.
  2. Do The Identifying & Naming Exercise: I specially created this exercise to help you get in touch with your blocked-off feelings. To do it close your eyes, clear your mind, and focus your attention. Then ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Try as hard as you can to identify a feeling in your body. Any feeling at all. If you feel nothing, keep trying. If you become frustrated, congratulations. You are having a feeling. As soon as you have a feeling, your numbness will be replaced. (To learn more about how to do the Identifying & Naming Exercise, including additional helpful steps, see the book Running On Empty.
  3. Meditate: This is a way to not only focus inward but also to take control of your own mind. Meditation is the surest way to go straight at your numbness instead of escaping it. It may seem impossible, but just trying to do it is a way of proactively challenging your numbness.
  4. Reach out to someone you like or love: The feeling of numbness thrives on disconnection. You cannot feel numb when you are feeling connected to another person. Connecting, talking or laughing with someone is an excellent way to extinguish your emotional numbness.

When you feel emotionally numb, choose an option above and do it to feel more alive.

But overall, the best way to not only manage but extinguish, emotional numbness from your life is to heal the Childhood Emotional Neglect you’ve been living with all these years.

To find out how to remove Emotional Neglect from your relationships, and banish numbness from your life by replacing it with connections to others, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.