Early into working with my current therapist, he started having me log two emotions a day. The simple formula worked like this:
- What’s the emotion? Be specific — not just “sad,” but “lonely” or “disappointed” or “nostalgic.”
- What triggered that emotion? Again, be specific — not just “while at home” but “while thinking about an old friend” or “seeing a family member’s Facebook post.”
- Where do you feel that emotion in your body, and what is the sensation? Yes, again, specifically — not just “in my chest” but “an electric charge near my heart” or “wobbly knees.”
And so for the last year I’ve been meticulously logging my feels in a little journal. I carry it around with me everywhere. Lord help whoever comes across that book if I accidentally leave it behind in a coffee shop one day.
At first, I kinda scoffed at the idea. Me? Journal my feelings? What, like I’m not in touch with them enough or something??
I don’t know if y’all know this, but I’m a Four on the Enneagram — yes, the sarcasm is strong with me. Fours are emotional creatures. We feel things. We feel things deeply and often. A leaky faucet doesn’t do the metaphor justice; my heart feels more like a fire hydrant turned loose on a city street.
Handling the hydrant has challenged me my whole life, but especially these last few years. I’ve seen some success. And I also recognize how much room I have yet to grow.
As a gay/SSA man I feel especially sensitive to the ails of this world, as I’m sure many reading can relate (Fours or otherwise). Particularly with matters of sexuality and masculinity, something isn’t just “sad” to me; it’s tragic. Something isn’t just “shameful”; it’s demoralizing. And something isn’t just “scary”; it’s crippling.
A growth path for Fours, indeed for all of us, is approaching feelings more objectively, separating one’s identity from them, not letting them totally seize the mind, body, and soul. I’ve certainly been seized during seasons of grief, rejection, and confusion.
Escaping enmeshment with my emotions all starts with naming them. I used to think I was good — excellent, actually — at naming my emotions. I’m a Four, after all. I deal with feelings like clay spinning on a wheel, or paint splattering a canvas.
Maybe I am indeed better at naming my emotions than the average (straight) person, certainly the average (straight) man. But over the last few months I’ve recognized how much more I can build this practice. Of getting more specific with my feels, particularly the ones that produce the most discomfort.
One such difficult emotion is anger. I used to think I just never got angry. Not me! I’m a blond blue-eyed well-mannered little Christian boy.
I know better now, but I honestly don’t know what to do with my anger. Do I go for a run or push myself with a hard workout? Do I scream into my pillow, or in the woods? Do I punch something??
If any emotion is inherently “bad,” it’s anger, I’ve always told myself. My solution? Just don’t ever get angry.
Only out of control men get angry. Meatheads. Bullies. Self-unaware idiots get angry.
But not me.
I don’t get angry.
Alas, I’ve realized over all these months of logging my emotions that I, Thomas Mark Zuniga, do indeed get angry. My gay anger might just look different from meathead anger.
My therapist gave me a handout of emotions and their subcategories, which I’ve taped to the inside of my feelings log, and I now realize anger hits me on the regular: frustrated, humiliated, self-critical, others-critical, jealous, disrespected, annoyed, withdrawn, numb, dismissive.
And the infuriating list goes on.
The more I practice getting specific with my anger, along with other dominant emotions like fear, sadness, joy, passion, love, guilt, and shame, the easier it gets to recognize them and not live in denial of them. I just feel like an emotionally healthier man when I’m aware of what feelings are churning within me, like how I feel physically healthier when I know what food or supplements I’m putting into my body.
I’ve gained greater awareness of the array of emotions I experience on any given day, feelings spurred by all sorts of triggers.
This part is always fun. What thought or action or social media post made me feel that first infusion of the emotion? The more conscious I’ve grown of my emotional triggers, particularly venomous emotions like jealousy and inferiority, the more I can place myself in wiser situations moving forward.
You can never fully prevent or escape the reach of a given emotion, of course. Jealousy, inferiority — two of my biggest emotional struggles — can creep in any time, if I let them.
But I can also not be on social media as much — prime real estate for both my jealousy and inferiority to flare. Whenever I do go on social media now, I’ve changed my settings and installed browser extensions that hide all those “like” and follower counts wherever I go. So, I never know if something I’m interacting with is “popular” or not; if I like it, I like it, regardless if anyone else on the planet does, or doesn’t, or how much.
I also have no idea how many “likes” any of my own posts get, something that’s surely helped my mental health as I avoid countless comparison traps to other people’s tweets and Instagram posts. I don’t even know how many followers other people have, whether they’re a friend or a famous person.
Ignorance online really is bliss. I highly recommend clean slates for social media if you also struggle with comparing.
Not all “triggers” are sinister, though. Something I’ve noticed while logging my feelings is this: I’m far more likely to log the “negative” emotions like fear or sadness than the “positive” ones like love and passion. That’s probably some of my Fourishness coming into play. But for every uncomfortable emotion, I aim to log a redeeming one, too.
Like whenever somebody writes me a thoughtful letter to YOB’s PO box (PO Box 843 / Asheville, NC 28802!), that triggers an emotion of love — of appreciation, affirmation, and worthiness.
Or whenever someone joins me on a hike or road trip, I feel a trigger of passion — of inspiration, connectedness, and gratitude.
And whenever we hold a YOBBERS retreat, for instance, I feel that blessed trigger of joy — the acceptance, the contentment, the hope. I feel it permeating the air, connecting us, drawing us closer to one another and closer with the Lord.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of logging my feelings is placing the emotion somewhere in my body. A lazy answer for where I feel most of my emotions is “my chest” or “my gut.” But I’m striving to connect more with my body, about where exactly in my chest or gut I feel things, and what exactly any feeling’s sensation is.
Is “woozy” a valid sensation? I feel woozy in my gut a lot.
I internalize everything. Some people yell and bellow, otherwise projecting their emotions for all to see and hear and roll their eyes at; meanwhile, I stifle them, squash them, shove them deep, deep down. Most everywhere I go, whatever’s going on inside, I feel this need to present a stoic, controlled exterior (when I’m not recording a podcast, anyway).
From a young age I felt that I shouldn’t show my emotions. Daniel talked about this dynamic on his Enneagram Seven podcast, about not showing too much enthusiasm for fear of appearing less masculine, maybe, or even a little “gay”?
Whatever the reason, I feel that need to withhold in me, too. I wonder if anyone else reading can also relate?
As a kid when I couldn’t express myself externally, I locked myself in my bedroom and journaled up a storm. Filled notebook after notebook with feelings, thoughts, and more feelings — hundreds, if not thousands of pages oozing with ink from my heart.
I suppose journaling so much was better than not expressing anything at all. But it’s a labyrinth inside my heart, a heart that connects to the rest of my body. Where on earth does my sadness go? That anger I’ve long denied or struggled to name — goodness, where does anger express itself in my body?
And what do those emotions feel like, wherever they go in my body? On my therapist’s handout I love these verbs for how some emotions feel: bubbly, bloated, clammy, hollow, jumbly, puffy, shivery, tingly.
It’s kinda fun to describe how different emotions feel in different parts of your body. I get a kick out of it as a writer, anyway.
Journaling is great and all. But how desperately I needed a human outlet for all my bloated emotions as a kid. How I still need that today.
Sitting down for five minutes a day to log two emotions, I sometimes wonder about the point of it all. Am I some kind of mental patient, a sociopath, someone so out of touch with his feelings? Surely I don’t need to do this as a 35-year-old man.
And then when I get frustrated with this exercise, I log this as “anger” and complete the dang exercise.
I mentioned earlier how becoming more self-aware of my emotions helps me put myself in wiser situations. That’s certainly one benefit of this exercise. Another one? The chipping away of my pride and self-deception.
Oh I’m a Four, oh I’m gay, oh I’m a Christian, oh empathy is among my top-5 strengths on Strengths Finder, so therefore I must be thoroughly in touch with my feelings and prepared to handle them — and anyone else’s! — at any given moment.
Noticing what I feel, when I feel it, and where I feel it is making a difference in how I handle difficult emotions — not just for the present moment, but for decades yet I’m convinced.
Hopefully you find this feelings exercise helpful! Give it a try for a week and see what happens. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.
Do you have trouble naming your emotions, or placing them in your body? What other practices help you with emotion management and greater emotional health?