How to Express Emotions

For many people, expressing emotions is easy—or even overwhelming. At the slightest emotional moment, some people begin crying, get angry, become overly excited, feel happy, or experience any other range of emotion.

For others, understanding how to show emotion can be confusing. Whether you grew up thinking showing feelings was bad, or you have never felt things very deeply, navigating emotions is complex. Here’s how to express emotions—plus the science behind why some people feel them more intensely, while others don’t.

Why Do Some People Experience Emotions More Intensely?

The answer to why some people experience more emotion than others is complicated. For some people, their childhood environment didn’t encourage them to express their feelings. In households where parents aren’t affectionate or don’t show emotion, that can continue with their kids.

In other cases, it’s the societal influence that makes people reluctant to show or even have emotions. For example, in western society, it’s common for people to expect men to be bad at showing emotion. Since people say boys should be tough, the perception is that they can’t show when they’re sad, hurt, or even angry.

Though many people can see the phenomenon happening in families and couples all around them, science backs it up, too. Studies show that there are “small but significant gender differences” in emotional expressions.

Adult women show emotions more, studies show, especially the positive ones. Women are more likely to internalize negative feelings, though. At the same time, men don’t show feelings as much, but their physiology—blood pressure and cortisol responses—show they’re experiencing emotions, researchers say.

Scientists say that to understand these differences better, we must look at childhood development. What happens during infancy and early childhood can have significant effects on kids’ later lives. The same way personalities emerge, so do emotional traits and expression.

Why Do Men Hold Their Emotions in More?

It’s a fact that most men are less emotional than women. But why?

Psychology Today quotes a male author who writes about psychology and emotions who says that boys grow up learning that showing emotion is weak. Often, it’s their fathers who push the macho values on them, saying boys don’t cry.

The thing is, those developmental studies on children and emotions show that in infancy, there are few differences between boys and girls. But then, as children grow, boys tend to have lower language abilities than girls, which can lead to more negative emotions since they can’t express themselves.

This makes sense, especially when you consider that even not-yet-verbal boys sometimes act more aggressive than girls. In western society, though, the adage “boys will be boys” tends to come up a lot. So, as the boys get older, they learn it’s important to be tough, and it’s okay to be angry—but nothing else.

Research supports the hypothesis that we’re socially conditioning boys not to feel their emotions. Or, at the very least, we’re forcing them to keep those feelings inside and invisible.

Generally, it’s acceptable if boys, teens, and men get angry. But that leaves an entire spectrum of emotions out of the equation.

Are Women More Emotional Than Men?

On the flip side, women face opposite expectations. In general, women can be emotional, sad, moody, and more—though they may receive a label of being dramatic or a drama queen for it. The one emotion that isn’t acceptable in women is anger, for the most part.

Still, people almost expect women to get upset over small things, act “crazy” when they’re feeling angry, and talk about their emotions all the time. People seem to think that emotional instability is a personality trait for women.

And yet, research suggests that men experience just as many emotions as women do. The difference is that men simply don’t show it. Scientific American confirms that women smile more than men. Women also tend to “exaggerate facial expressions” more.

One study used a facial coding system to investigate how men and women respond emotionally—via their expressions—to different videos. Women did smile more in the study, but men offered up just as expressive facial movements—though they were more inclined to make angry faces. Unfortunately, this research echoes what most of us already understand about the differences between men’s and women’s emotive expression.

The thing is that feeling and discussing emotions is healthy for everyone, men, women, and children. While society, in general, places limits on what people can and cannot feel or say, it’s crucial that we go beyond those limits.

Communication issues surrounding emotions can lead to relationship and other problems, both with family and romantic partners. Fortunately, there are ways that grownups and children can learn to accept and express all emotions more effectively.

How to Encourage People to Express Emotions (From Childhood)

Though we’ll cover how to express emotions for adults, it’s worth noting that starting in childhood is far easier. For parents, daycare staff, teachers, and even doctors, encouraging children to experience and manage their emotions can help tremendously.

Start by Modeling Emotions for Young Children

Children tend to naturally express their emotions from day one, anyway. Babies and infants cry, toddlers and preschoolers have tantrums, and adolescents become moody. At some point along the way, though, society is feeding the children expectations.

Parents and caregivers can give kids a strong emotional start by modeling and accepting emotions from the beginning. Child development experts recommend identifying and expressing emotions with your child.

The steps include naming the emotion and trying strategies to express it in a healthy way. Emotions include both with the basics like happy, sad, mad as well as more complex ones like brave, curious, confused, proud, frustrated, and peaceful.

Once you put a description to the emotion, talking through it—even with young toddlers—can help. Experts say that offering ways to calm down, like taking a deep breath, asking for a hug, or finding a quiet space to relax in, can help kids to process feelings.

Showing kids your range of emotions can help, too. After all, children learn from what their parents and caregivers do, so seeing you manage anger without yelling or showing happiness with a happy dance can influence them more than talking about feelings will.

Other ways to show kids it’s okay to feel things is by reading books about feelings, making emotional faces together, and praising your child when they choose a healthy way to express a feeling.

Help Older Kids Recognize That Emotions Are Normal

By elementary school, both boys and girls seem to know what society expects and typically conform. Teenage hormone surges aside, most kids learn it’s not okay to be overly excited to see their parents after school or to have strong emotions about friendships (if you’re a boy).

Very Well Family notes that emotions can be a tough abstract concept. Even for elementary-age kids, feelings aren’t always crystal clear. But as kids get older, it is easier to put names to emotions and provide outlets for those feelings.

Modeling and teachable moments are still big with adolescents. Open discussions on all types of topics—including feelings—can keep you in the loop with your child’s mental health and overall emotional state. Using our words is always key to resolving conflict and tough feelings without physical outbursts.

Don’t Tell Children Not to Cry

While the uber-masculinity in western culture often leads parents to tell boys, especially, not to cry, that’s not a good idea. Worse, some parents or caregivers specifically say things like “big boys/girls don’t cry.”

Experts say this is harmful to children, and it’s something all parents should avoid doing. Parenting expert Tracy Cassels, Ph.D., notes that telling a child not to cry devalues their emotions. It says that they’re crying for “nothing,” which means their feelings don’t matter.

Especially if a child has a small injury, like a scrape or bumped head, telling them not to cry says that you don’t believe that they’re hurting. For small children, those things can hurt both physically and psychologically, says Dr. Cassels. Children often cry for psychological reasons such as embarrassment or anticipation of a scary event, too, she notes.

Further, repressing crying leads to repressing other feelings, Dr. Cassels says. Letting children cry and making a safe space for them to feel should be parents’ top priority, she explains.

Plus, crying is a legitimate physiological reaction. The brain registers sadness, and the endocrine system sends hormones to your tear ducts.

Crying can happen to anyone and in any scenario when emotions are strong enough. It’s nothing to feel shame over, for adults or children. As tough as it might be for parents—especially those who worry over others’ opinions—let kids cry and reassure them while they do.

How Not to Express Emotions

Before we dive into how to express emotions, starting with how not to show them is important. One unfortunate side effect of tamping down emotions, especially in men, is that violence tends to come from it. It’s worth noting that violence is never a good way to express emotion.

Even for kids who are angry, actions like punching pillows or kicking the couch can wind up being harmful. Feeling angry is okay but learning to destroy property or use your body in potentially damaging ways isn’t a great concept.

Another no-no is blaming others for your feelings. It’s not a healthy or effective way to get your point across when dealing with other people. More on that below.

Apart from these caveats, there are tons of ways to express emotions that are healthy and beneficial.

How Adults Can Learn to Express Emotions

Although starting in childhood is one way to encourage children to experience and express emotions, many adults need the same care. Unfortunately for most grownups, there aren’t many classes or seminars on how to be emotional. The good news is that there are plenty of strategies and resources for learning how to express emotions in positive ways.

Learn to Label Your Feelings

The same way it works for babies, learning to label feelings can be helpful for adults, too. Recognizing how you’re feeling is the first step toward working those emotions out—and sharing them with others as applicable.

Giving a label to the feeling also gives you a way to decide a course of action. If you’re someone who struggles with identifying complex feelings, this step is especially vital.

Of course, many emotions have specific symptoms. Research suggests that emotions manifest in different ways throughout the body and in different places. While not everyone feels emotions the same way, the biological processes are similar across most people, a study of 700 participants proposes.

For example, feeling anxious can involve a hyperactive nervous system, endocrine activity, and musculoskeletal responses (tingly feelings). And in the study above, participants colored in a sheet that illustrated where they felt certain emotions.

The results were fascinating, showing emotions like happiness flowing through the whole body. Depression, on the other hand, was a lack of sensation over most of the limbs. All this to say that physical sensations are often helpful indicators of what you’re feeling.

Some People Can’t Explain Their Emotions at All

Do you feel like it’s tough to figure out how to describe what you’re feeling? You might have a clinical disorder. As US News explains, alexithymia is a condition or personality trait that involves not being able to recognize, identify, and describe your emotions.

It’s not a clinical disorder—technically it’s a subclinical condition, say experts—but millions of people struggle with it. Health problems can come with it, too, including migraines, hypertension, sleep problems, eating disorders, and more. Physical symptoms often feel more severe than they are, too.

The primary symptom is a lack of emotional awareness. Unfortunately, such a condition can cause relationship and communication problems for people who experience it. The inability to relate to others is a serious problem, and it can spur anxiety, too—though you may not realize that’s what it is.

Scientists also call alexithymia “the opposite of emotional intelligence.” People who exhibit alexithymia might have attachment avoidance, too.

Researchers speculate that alexithymia can stem from two places. One, it can happen in people who experience emotional suppression growing up. Two, it can affect people whose brains are attempting to cope with psychological trauma (often after surviving a form of abuse). But in some rarer cases, alexithymia can happen in conjunction with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions.

Treatment can be a challenge, though. People with alexithymia might have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other mental health challenges. It’s even challenging to recognize the condition in people with other health challenges, mental or otherwise.

Experts say that checking in with your emotions can help you determine whether you might have this condition. But, it’s more likely you’ll notice it in others—and if you do, having a frank discussion about it may help.

Use “I Feel” Statements

Psychology Today says that adults should use “I feel” statements instead of using accusatory language; “You make me feel…” Saying that someone makes you feel a certain way removes your sense of responsibility about your feelings. Taking ownership of how you feel is crucial for navigating complex emotions.

But blaming feelings on others doesn’t help you make progress. It can also cause the other party to feel hurt and antagonistic toward you. They might retaliate, which winds up feeling like an exchange of insults rather than a discussion of emotions. You will feel more empowered if you take ownership of your emotions, too.

Have Calm-Down Strategies Ready

After identifying your emotions, you need to have strategies ready to manage them. Especially when dealing with confrontations with others, knowing when to step away and calm down is vital. If you feel angry or frustrated, taking a step back from the situation can help you cool off.

Whether it’s an argument with someone or frustration with a task, physical distance can calm your mood. Relaxing in a quiet place, going for a walk outside, or listening to music may help calm your body’s flight or fight response to the problem.

When you’re feeling scared, a similar approach can help. Of course, if you feel fear because danger is near, you first need to escape the danger. But if it’s fear over an impending dentist appointment or plane trip, calming strategies like deep breathing and even meditation may help.

Fear and anxiety are two emotions that deep breathing can help with, though you may find it useful for other feelings, too. The American Institute of Stress recommends deep breathing for 20 or 30 minutes each day to help alleviate stress and anxiety. Even without the meditation aspect, deep breathing has restorative benefits that can help calm you.

Find Ways to Get Energy Out

Calming down with deep breathing and a break from stressful situations are great for anger, fear, or frustration. But what about the other extremes: sadness and grief?

With extreme sadness or grief, you know that the emotion may stick around for a while. Especially if you lose a loved one or experience a traumatic event, emotions can stay with you.

In most cases, distraction is a helpful technique for managing these downer emotions. Many people find that engaging in projects helps distract them. A creative outlet also provides a way to work through complex emotions without having to talk about them.

Journaling, creating art, or even building things with your hands can help with sadness and grief. After all, every emotion involves energy. It’s what you choose to do with it that determines its effects.

Similarly, anger and frustration also require an outlet. Instead of punching or kicking household objects, consider exercise.

Incorporate Physical Activity into Your Routine

Exercise is good for your health, of course. It’s also great for emotional regulation, says Psych Central. Aerobic activity boosts your mood, one study found, and people who exercise often can confirm that fact.

One study had participants exercise before watching a sad movie clip, then a funny clip. People who exercised were happier overall after, while people said there was ‘nothing they could do’ to feel better continued to wallow in sadness.

That study, and others, suggest that the myriad benefits of exercise include emotional regulation functions. And most people know that when they’re feeling angry or upset, using their bodies to burn off the energy tends to feel good.

Of course, if you feel like punching or kicking things, consider taking up boxing, soccer, or martial arts. Any physical outlet is better than nothing, but one that you enjoy might become a healthy habit that sticks with you.

Offer Up Explanations for Your Feelings

When your heavy emotions are a factor in conflict with other people, being able to verbalize and share them is essential. And after you step away to calm down, as necessary, you still need to navigate the issue with your spouse, partner, friend, family member, or colleague.

Starting with the “I feel” statements is a great beginning. But Psychology Today also recommends explaining more about your feelings. Saying that you feel angry doesn’t tell your coworker that you feel they were criticizing your performance. Telling your spouse that you feel sad doesn’t explain that you feel neglected.

Adding context to your emotions can help the other party understand the part they may have played in the situation. It can also help clarify things for you, shedding light on why you’re feeling the way you do.

Another helpful strategy for follow-up discussion is by using the phrases “When you…” and “I feel” to describe events and feelings. This way, you set the stage without pointing blame. Hopefully, an open discussion will result in mutual understanding.

Avoid Bottling Things Up Inside

Especially for people who grew up thinking emotions were bad, it can be challenging to let them out. You may feel tempted to bottle things up. Keeping negative feelings inside only makes you feel worse, though. It doesn’t allow others to help you or see their part in the way you’re feeling.

Even if you’re not ready to speak about your feelings with another person, journaling might help. Self-reflection through art or writing might help you come to terms with feelings and figure out ways of articulating them.

Being alone with your thoughts can offer clarity, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with a person or situation. Having a clear head is a great way to start expressing your emotions.

Talk to a Trusted Friend or Family Member

If you’re having a conflict with a person or worrying over a situation, talking with a trusted person can help. From role-playing potential scenarios with a friend to asking a mentor for professional advice, there are many ways that talking to others can help you figure out complicated emotions.

Even when you feel extremely happy or excited, talking with loved ones can help you feel more grounded. Plus, you can bet that if you’re excited about something your family thinks is a bad idea, they will do their best to help you see things from a realistic perspective.

Ultimately, speaking with others can also help clear up conflict. Maybe you’re having issues with your spouse. Let’s say you talk to your best friend about it, and they offer a new perspective. By discussing your feelings and the situation ahead of a one-on-one with your spouse, you have time to consider their side from different viewpoints.

Say What You Feel When the Stakes Are Low

Expressing emotions can feel like a bomb is about to go off. Especially when it comes to negative emotions, opening up might have undesirable side effects. But that means it’s even more important to speak up when the stakes are low.

Sharing emotions when you don’t have much to lose—such as when a date asks where you want to eat, but you hate sushi—can help you build up to those bigger moments that truly matter. Rather than shying away from every conflict, start with small ones and take steps toward more significant ones.

Saying how you feel could mean saying no to extra projects when you feel overwhelmed already with PTA responsibilities. Expressing emotions daily might mean sharing that you feel anxious about the house becoming messy.

Rather than waiting until a conflict is about to blow up, practice exuding confidence in sharing your emotions in daily moments. Then, when the situation does become high stakes, you can feel confident that you’re not overreacting or acting hastily.

Final Thoughts on Expressing Emotions

Expressing emotions isn’t always easy. For children and adults alike, talking about how you feel might be embarrassing or anxiety-inducing. But with practice, anyone can become better at managing and expressing their emotions in a range of scenarios.

From interpersonal relationships to coping with anxiety and other emotional challenges, naming emotions is a huge part of daily life. Fortunately, anyone can start working on their emotional intelligence by taking small actions each day. In no time, you’ll be an expert at sharing how you feel (without hurting others’ feelings in the process).

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