Early into working with my current therapist, he started having me log two emotions a day. The simple formula worked like this:

  1. What’s the emotion? Be specific — not just “sad,” but “lonely” or “disappointed” or “nostalgic.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.

The Emotions

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.

The 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.

The Body

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.

The Point

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.

Yeah. No.

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?

About the Author

  • You talk about social media being a trigger for feelings of jealousy and inferiority. There’s a well-documented mental health crisis among college-age students, and one of the primary causes appears to be the rise of social media over the last several years. For all the ways in which social media helps us connect with each other, it also has had lots of negative effects, including the ease in which it can produce those feelings of jealousy and inferiority.

    • Social media is the wooooorst. I predict in 10-15 years we’ll look back on these social media years and ask ourselves, “Can you believe we used to post everything about our lives on there??” I say that now still feeling the pull to post regularly as part of my “career” or “brand,” but it’s done increasingly begrudgingly. Longing for the day when we’re all off social media so I don’t have that FOMO.

  • I am also one who promotes the stoic outlook, and I have realized that feelings must be dealt with. I resonate with the exhaustion with therapy. I haven’t even been at it that long, but I sometimes just want to feel normal. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, nor do I think stoicism is always a bad thing either.

    If I look at Christ’s example, it is one of charity so I presume maturity is something like this: 1) know thyself (and thy feelings); 2) deal with thyself (and thy feelings); 3) get over thyself and focus on others. No, not to the point of self harm, no not ignoring your own needs, but rather to increase the amount of responsibility you take upon yourself so that your capacity for love increases as well.

    • Hooray, a fellow stoic. You’re welcome here, AJ. You said it so succinctly: I just want to feel normal. I’ve had that thought again and again, therapy visit after therapy visit, mental health bill after mental health bill, wondering when it will ever end, if it ever ends, or what “ending” or “success” even look like at this point? I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I do know I’m proud of myself for taking this initiative with my mental health and growing in self-awareness, rather than continue to pretend I’m okay.

  • Thank you for your vulnerability and sharing this Tom! It seems like stuffing or ignoring emotions is a common thing for guys that struggle with porn and sex and instead of listening and understanding emotions and handling them in a healthy way, we just act out because those emotions get trapped and porn or acting out sexually is a way to release them… Maybe we didn’t have parents that were attuned to our needs and taught us how, but they say it is a skill that can be learned. Anger is also a way that emotions manifest when not handled in a healthy way and we become explosive.

    I also like how you talk about connecting with others helps with good emotions and also to deal with the negative ones. I have found that to be true and helpful for me as well. Healthy people can reflect back to us our emotions and help us understand ourselves and how to handle things. Often we are more compassionate and more gentle with others than ourselves.

    With the triggers, I am wondering if you would be wiling to explain that a bit more? What kinds of things do you feel jealous or inferior about? They say triggers are roadmaps that show us ways to heal. Are there patterns of not feeling loved or body insecurities or what specifically do you think is causing the trigger? Are there false ideas about yourself that can change and could bring healing?

    I am also highly sensitive and I think it is because of past trauma of unhealthy relationships and not taking care of myself. I am especially hyper vigilant and paranoid and sensitive with close relationships because I am afraid I will be abandoned and hurt, because of past hurts. Do you find this to be true with you?

    Thank you for sharing this. I admire the work you are doing. Hearing your journey and what helps you, helps me too!

    • Honored that any part of my journey could help you too, Mark. Those things that I’m jealous/inferior about…man, that could be a blog series all on its own. I do have some physical insecurities, but I also more readily recognize most humans have something about their bodies they wish were different. So I feel less alone in this respect than I have in years past. There’s a slew of things I experience jealousy for, though. Still working through a lot of those. Becoming self-aware of those things has been a vital starting point for me in this work.

  • Interesting post, Thomas. We all struggle with our emotions sometimes. I found the book, The Velvet Rage, helpful for getting in touch with some of the emotions I had always tried to push away. Peace.

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