October 13, 2020

The Problem with Asking, “How are you Feeling?”

When I first started reading self-help books to improve my relationships and learn how to generally not suck, I found a nifty strategy for cutting through social superficiality to a deeper level of another person’s experience.

I learned to ask about feelings.

This was a great shortcut that skipped the surface level content and transactional niceties comprising many of my daily interactions. 

For example, instead of asking, “How was work today?” I could inquire, “How are you feeling about your big work project?” The latter question was supposed to give me a deeper connection with and understanding of someone—as opposed to the factual details the first question elicits (that is, “Work was good. I answered emails all morning then took a few meetings.”)

“How are you feeling?” This question prompts not just a recounting of the events of someone’s day but their reaction to those events—how this person has been affected, changed, impacted by the external world buzzing around them, and how he has perceived reality. 

With this newfound superpower, I felt I could have much more interesting and connecting conversations with friends and family—and even strangers. Step aside, questions about favorite vacation spots and what you do for a living; I’m going to get to the juicy stuff. 

It was odd that after a few years, this question began to fall flat. It felt uncomfortable to ask, and it felt even more uncomfortable to receive. As I continued to work on myself, develop self-awareness, and learn to better identify the subtleties of my emotional states, I expected this question to become easier to answer. After all, I was more tuned into my body than ever and had a larger vocabulary for describing my experience. Instead, this question became more and more confusing. 

I found a big clue as to why in the book How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett, which is a dense read but one I highly recommend. 

Lisa Feldman Barrett studies the science of emotion, and her book addresses outdated research and popular concepts about what emotions are and how they are formed—research that, as it turns out, has been based on narrow and flawed studies. 

According to LFB, there is no unique “fingerprint” for a particular emotion. Emotions present differently in different people at different times, and what one person describes as “anger” or “sadness” looks and feels completely unique to them—at both a brain and body level.

This basically means that emotions aren’t real in the way we’ve been taught to believe. They are the mind’s interpretation of bodily states and are constructions of reality based on past experience. Emotions do not originate in specific areas of the brain, and they cannot be differentiated from reason or thought because emotions are thought—and they are more under our control than pop psychology suggests.  

So how does this relate to asking people about their feelings?

Well, I realized that when I ask someone how they’re feeling, I’m essentially asking how their brain is currently interpreting their physical state, and this person could construct dozens of different realities based on the same data from their body. In other words, this individual could be feeling many, many things at the same time, and their predominant emotional state could shift within a matter of seconds.

That’s the limitation of the phrase, “How are you feeling?”

When I’m asked this question in a context where only a brief reply is appropriate or possible, it requires me to summarize—and therefore narrow—my reality down to a small subset of my internal experience. When answering this question under the pressure of time, I sometimes feel I am arbitrarily choosing which emotion to reveal, and worse, I often feel locked in that particular emotion.

For example, if I tell someone, “I’m feeling anxious today,” then I’ve socially identified with that emotion above the others and find that I’m more likely to frame the rest of my day through the lens of anxiety and fear. 

I’m a huge proponent of finding ways to deepen relationships and have more meaningful connections—I’ve dedicated a lot of my life to this—so I’m definitely not knocking the use of feeling words or questions. However, I am realizing that inquiries into someone’s emotional experience require a big time and energy investment if they’re going to lead to deeper understanding and connection. We can’t ask, “How are you feeling?” in the same way we ask, “What did you have for lunch?” 

In order to really answer this question of feeling, people need time to reflect on their inner experience, have the energy to work out their thoughts aloud, believe that it is safe for them to be vulnerable, and trust that the other person is willing to listen. 

Maybe a quick snapshot of feelings is better than nothing, but maybe the ostensible thoughtfulness of this type of brief interchange is actually getting in the way of developing meaningful, authentic relationships. 

Understanding another person’s world takes a lot of effort, and, in some ways, we will never be able to fully grasp each other’s experience.

But my new challenge to myself is to not ask this question unless I have the capacity and capability to really hear the answer.



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