Reframing Thoughts: I Suck at Emotions

The picture shows varying yellow emoticons and reads Reframing thoughts: I suck at emotions with a thought bubble on the right.

My psychologist recommended a book for me after our last session. Like a good student, I picked up a copy online and I've started reading it. In case you're wondering, the book is called Coping with Trauma Hope Through Understanding Second Edition by Jon G. Allen, Ph.D.

If you are wondering why I'm reading a book on trauma, I'm going to just put the G-rated version out there. It's because I have experienced trauma in my life. I think my psychologist thinks I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And quite frankly, she's probably right. I guess it might be too soon for a formal diagnosis on that front. Now, you might be wondering what kind of trauma, you may even be assuming that it is war-related. While PTSD is a common diagnosis in war veterans, and yes, I am a veteran; I can assure you my trauma is not war-related. Rather, it's buried deep in my bucket of rocks I carry with me everywhere I go. (It's not a literal bucket, but that's a story for another day.) My trauma comes from my childhood, and it's not G-rated. While many close to me know the story (or at least bits of it), I'm not quite ready to write about it, so we are going to leave it at that.

So, I'm laying in bed reading my book, my husband is watching an episode of Gold Rush, and I read this paragraph. I reread it. I read it again. Then I say out loud "I can totally relate to this". I proceed to read the paragraph out loud to my husband.

"Cultivating emotions--mentalizing emotionally--is the best path to avoiding emotional excess. Persons who suffer with trauma often find themselves blindsided by sudden eruptions and emotion: they go from zero to 100 m.p.h. in a split second. Yet I believe that they're blindsided because they've been suppressing their feelings, which gradually intensify until they can no longer be suppressed; then they're expressed indestructive ways. Cultivating greater awareness of your feelings is preventative: you cannot influence what you do not know1."

This whole chapter on emotions, has me feeling down and emotional. Thinking to myself, "I suck at emotions". If you're anything like me, you might be wondering what exactly are emotions? I know we all have them, but really, what are they? So, let's look at some definitions. According to Oxford Languages emotions are "a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others." according to Merriam Webster emotions are defined as "a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body"

The picture shows a grey silhouette of a head with various sizes and colors of paper coming up out of the top of the head.
See when I read these definitions and reflect on the book, I realize that my emotions are just coming from my frontal lobes and they are primitive and that I can't really "suck" at them. So what is it I'm really trying to express? (Here's where I answer my own question - it's like talking to yourself but in writing, so it's ok.) The problem is not that I suck at emotions, it's that I suck at mentalizing. I'll admit I still didn't really get it after reading pages on the topic in the book. I needed a better foundation to tuck this concept of mentalizing into my brain. The book simplifies mentalizing down to "thinking about feelings". 

To my surprise, Oxford Languages and Merriam-Webster don't have anything listed (from a basic browser search). You will find lots of literature on the topic though. Wikipedia,, and your more or less confirm this statement that mentalizing is just thinking about feelings.

So, I don't suck at emotions (you don't either). I suck at mentalizing. And really, it's not that I suck at mentalizing, it's that I don't really do it and I'm not well practiced in this skill. You see, I've spent years practicing the skill of internalizing, pushing down, not thinking about my emotions. When you think about the idea of mentalizing, it's probably why any type of psycho-analysis/treatment includes some amount of "how does that make you feel?" And "what do you notice when you think about that?".

Woman looking at a wall of post-it notes with her hand in her hair. That reads (Me mentalizing, but replace all the post-it notes with emotions.
In conclusion, I guess I need to work on thinking about my feelings. It's not likely to be easy, and I'll surely hit some bumps. But I guess I'll take a moment to stop and think about how I feel. Really, every blog I'll write here is really just me mentalizing. I hope that if you think you suck at emotions, you too can learn to shift your thinking and ask yourself "why do you think that?". I have to give a big thanks to my boss on this one for being an amazing ally and just listening; and, knowingly or not, challenging me with the "why do you think that?" question in our interactions. One thing I learned in the book is that for some reason, mentalizing is easier when you discuss the issue, feeling, emotion, etc. with another person. 

If you are looking to be an ally, I encourage you to keep an open mind, be open to mentalizing with your peers but don't force it. Expressing emotions can be vulnerable. Be patient and encouraging, and try on your inner psychologist hat by asking "why do you think that?". Don't try to solve any problems or "fix" the other person, just listen and empathize.

1. Coping with Trauma Hope Through Understanding Second Edition by Jon A. Allen, Ph.D. Copyright 2005 American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc. Page 47


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