I once had a friend tell me a story about how he received news that his neighbor back home had suddenly passed away while he was in treatment. The neighbor was an older woman who acted as a sort of surrogate grandmother for him since he had lost both of his own at an earlier age. She had lived next door to him his entire life and whenever he was sick at school, she would go and pick him up and take care of him until his parents got off of work. Whenever he needed something, she was there, and so her passing was a large loss.
His counselor in treatment brought him into her office and told him the news, which had been relayed to her by his father. Both the counselor and his father knew that my friend would be pretty broken up by the event, as he was very close with his neighbor but yet, the reaction that my friend had to the news was not what he or the others expected.
He at first started to feel upset, or at least he thought he did, and so his counselor asked him what he was feeling. He told her, ‘I don’t really know,’ so she handed him a sheet paper with a list of emotions and asked him to circle the ones he was feeling. My friend circled a number of them, to which his counselor astutely said, ‘There is no way you could possibly have all of these emotions going on.’ My friend paused for a minute and said to her, ‘You know I honestly don’t feel anything right now about it. I know that I should but I just don’t.’ She assured him that this was perfectly normal and sent him back to group.
Now just to it make clear, my friend is not a sociopath because later on when his mind was clearer, he mourned the loss of his neighbor, but rather what happen is that he experienced something that many of us experience early on in our recovery, that is, he had trouble with how to identify feelings in sobriety.
Why It Is Difficult to Identify Feelings in Sobriety
Just how you identify feelings in sobriety can be difficult, but isn’t only a difficulty that people in recovery face. Addicts and non-addicts alike have difficulty describing what they feel, and this in part is because of the programming that society does to the individual.
When you are child, you feel and then you express that feeling without any judgment attached, but through years of being told to not be sad, or to calm down your excitement, you begin to craft your reactions to stimuli on societal norms rather than on how you are feeling. If you are a boy and were raised under the traditional pseudo-masculine ideal that men don’t cry, then you never show sadness because it is a form of weakness and so on and so forth, until you arrive at a point where you react entirely off of how society wants you to react, rather than what your emotions are dictating.
For the addict and alcoholic, this is taken a step further which hinders their ability to identify feelings in sobriety because they have for so many years numbed themselves out through drug and alcohol usage. Many addicts and alcoholics only know two emotions, happiness and anger and this is because the drugs and alcohol did not allow for other emotions to be present. If they were angry, they could use more and if happy, they could celebrate by drinking or drugging. Beyond that, their emotional vocabulary is rather limited and so their ability to identify feelings in sobriety is also limited.
How to Identify Feelings in Sobriety
Unfortunately, one of the only things that can help a person learn to identify feelings in sobriety is time. The longer that they stay sober, the more experiences they will have and therefore, the more experiences they will have with feeling. As strange as ‘more experiences with feelings’ may sound, it is the truth when it comes to growing emotionally in sobriety. A person with 3 months sober only has 3 months worth of experiences to draw from, whereas a person with a couple of years will undoubtedly have faced a number of difficult and wonderful experiences and learned how to handle the emotions from both.
Going along with this, when a person does work on themselves, either through the Steps, therapy, or some other form of self-discovery and healing, they will also become more attune with what they are feeling and be able to identify these feelings quicker. They will know when they are getting angry and be able to quell these feelings if necessary before it explodes into rage. They will be able to identify that they are anxious or stressed out and therefore be able to do something about the underlying uncomfortable emotion.
Feelings Are Not Facts
While it is important to be able to identify how you feel, it is equally as important to understand that feelings and thoughts do not dictate who are you. Like my friend who initially felt nothing at the loss of his neighbor, this act of non-feeling does not define who he is. It does not speak to a lack of empathy or a dangerous emotional disorder, it just simply means he did not feel anything at the time.
Understanding this can do wonders for your ability to identify your feelings because you will no longer attempt to dissuade negative feelings when they come up, or label them as bad and therefore avoid them. Both negative and positive feelings have a place in the human psyche and in order to fully experience your life, both will arise from time to time. When they do, allow them to express themselves and pass. Do not attach too much meaning or emphasis to them and you will notice that your life improves as a result.