3 Ways to Get in Touch with Important Unfelt Feelings

Release time: 2020-10-20 10:57

3 Ways to Get in Touch with Important Unfelt Feelings

When you experience a feeling, you tend to know it. New research on the psychology of emotions suggests there's value in tapping into the feelings that lurk under the surface.

Can you honestly say right now that you know everything you're feeling? When was the last time you did a thorough feeling check? Perhaps you believe that now, during this stressful period of the coronavirus pandemic, there's no time to stop and think about your worries as you cope with the many demands on your inner reserves. You go about your day adhering scrupulously to all the public health guidelines that you believe will protect you and your family from this illness that you dread. Why would you bother to waste your precious time on pointless self-reflection? 

Although you might think it’s adaptive to go about your business without tapping into the underlying uncertainty and fear that lies beneath the surface of your conscious awareness, ignorance in this case may not be bliss. According to a newly published journal article by Katherine Tullman of Northern Arizona University (2020), getting in touch with your “unfelt feelings” may be exactly what you need to do.

What, you may wonder, is an "unfelt feeling"? How can you not feel something that you, well, feel? Tullman argues that this unlabeled sensation may not be one that you label, but exists nevertheless. In contrast to an emotion that, by definition, is both “felt” and labeled, an unfelt feeling is one that arises independently of your conscious awareness, affecting your actions whether you acknowledge it or not. 

Tullman believes that one of the problems with an unfelt feeling is that you can’t exactly use introspection, or looking into yourself, to identify its presence. Returning to the example of anxiety in the face of the pandemic, that unfelt feeling might become reflected in scrupulous adherence to facemask wearing and social distancing. This, on the one hand, could actually be adaptive if this behavior results in protecting yourself or your family.

On the other hand, what if these unfelt feelings lead to behaviors that are not so adaptive? Do you constantly look online for new information about how COVID-19 is spreading? Are you unable to sleep? Do you get angry at people you care about for no apparent reason? Without awareness of your feelings, these unchecked behaviors can take over your life.

Where do these unfelt feelings come from? According to Tullman, something must be happening in your nervous system to start the chain of events leading from that unfelt feeling to your behavior. In her words, “to have a feeling is to have an occurrent mental state, X, where X is constituted by or causes a bodily change that plays a psycho-behavioral functional role and is appropriately related to (supervenes on, is constituted by or some other physicalist relation) a brain state” (p. 24).

This rather complex definition therefore assumes that there is some physiological basis for a feeling. That "brain state" is more specifically a function of the body's autonomic nervous system registering those feelings whether you recognize them or not. Consider as an analogy that sense you have that someone, whether a stranger or your cat, is looking at you. Something within your nervous system causes you to look back, even though you didn't consciously register their gaze.

Watching your own behavior, whether it's sleeplessness or staring back at your cat, could therefore become an important "tell" for tapping into that unconscious sensation. Tullman points out that there's another piece of data that you can use to acknowledge an unfelt feeling based on the way others respond to you.

Your verbal and body language, as well as your overt actions, can signify to the people around you what you’re feeling now even if you’re not aware of it. They can see you freeze if someone gets within the socially un-distant six feet of you, and view the terror in your eyes if someone else's face mask seems to be getting too loose. If they share a bed with you, they can attest to your steady stream of sleepless nights. Although your feelings may be unfelt to you, they can be amazingly obvious to onlookers.

Tullman’s proposal that unfelt feelings can drive behavior suggests, importantly, the actual behavioral consequences of keeping those feelings under wraps. You'll act on the basis of those feelings, actions that could have unintended consequences. As suggested in Tullman's analysis of Jane Austen's "Emma," perhaps you've been engaging in a "secret" flirtation (i.e. not known to you) with someone who, like yourself, is already in a committed relationship. Before you know it, you could be heading into dangerous territory if you don't stop and examine your feelings.

Fortunately, your unfelt feelings don't have to be unfelt forever, nor do they have to lead you down the path of behavior you'll later regret. These 3 steps can help you break through the unconscious barrier that prevents you from this important type of self-awareness:

1. Accept that unfelt feelings can provide you with useful information about your actual psychological state. It’s possible to act in ways that can harm or benefit you without necessarily being able to put those feelings into words. This first step will allow you to admit to the possibility that you're not always in control of your emotional reactions.

2. Watch what you’re doing. Now that you accept the idea of unfelt feelings, use your own behavior to provide you with cues. Consider this simple example based on one of Tullman’s paper. You grab a glass of water without realizing you were thirsty. Why did you get the water? You must have been thirsty, Similarly, if you look down at your own body language when in a tense situation, then perhaps you’re actually nervous even though you thought you were fine.

3. Watch how others react to you. You may try to fake a positive feeling when you’re with someone you don’t like, but if that person moves away from you or says something hurtful, maybe that feeling wasn’t so positive after all. If you need to get along with this person, then you also need to adjust what you’re saying and how you’re acting in order to smooth the troubled waters.

To sum up, Tullman’s insightful analysis of unfelt feelings can give you a better understanding of yourself and the unidentified feelings that drive your behavior. Getting in touch with those feelings, even in difficult times, can help promote your mental health and emotional fulfillment.


Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

psychology today