It can be hard to open up, but sharing can benefit our relationships and well-being.
You’re sitting there looking at your friend, or partner, or therapist. You meet their questioning gaze, knowing you have the chance to share… but the words seem stuck in your throat.
You might feel your heart racing as you try to figure out what to say. Maybe a part of you wants to open up, but another part just isn’t so sure.
Maybe you’re not even sure how you feel.
Expressing your feelings can be a complicated process for some, and feeling uncomfortable sharing isn’t uncommon. But why do you feel the need to hold back? And is there a way to learn this valuable skill?
Have you ever left an important conversation kicking yourself for not saying how you felt, or wishing you had just let go and shared your true thoughts?
Many things can make it harder to open up — it might be related to what you’re feeling, who you are, and how you relate to others.
When the story you want to share with someone brings up big emotions, it’s common to hold back. Some experiences feel too painful or traumatic to talk about.
Whether you feel like you don’t want to burden the listener with those big emotions, or it’s just too much to feel those emotions, it can be more difficult to share your feelings and story as a result.
In addition, the experience of trauma itself can make it harder to name, describe, and share your feelings, according to 2014 research.
Trauma and attachment issues are often linked.
For example, one study involving refugees suggests experiencing traumatic interpersonal events can make it harder to form secure attachments with others. This lack of secure attachment often means less trust in other people.
Lack of secure attachment due to trauma can make opening up especially difficult. Also, insecure attachment causes some people to feel reluctant to share their feelings, fearing rejection.
In some families and cultures, it can feel like being your authentic self is risky or even discouraged. If most people around you put up facades of “having it all together,” sharing raw, real, or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings might not feel safe or appropriate.
In his book “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions,” Dr. James W. Pennebaker writes about a
He found people were less likely to talk about certain childhood traumas, like parental divorce or sexual abuse. He also noticed that some traumas were easier to talk about if they were seen as socially acceptable.
If you find it difficult to open up, consider whether you’re grappling with social norms that make it harder to share.
It’s likely you know someone who can talk with absolutely anyone they meet. These highly social people may be more willing to open up about their feelings because they’re just naturally more comfortable in situations that require disclosing personal information.
How social we are is tied to personality.
Some research suggests that extraverts tend to be more social. But the same research also highlights that it’s easier for most people to be sociable in positive, low-pressure situations.
On the other hand, if you’re naturally more reserved (aka introverted), it might be more difficult to express emotions — even to someone you’re close to.
Opening up about your feelings can feel like a relief and even be good for your health.
In a 2014 study that looked at the health of call center employees, greater well-being was connected to being able to talk about negative events at work.
Research also suggests talking about our feelings can help with emotional regulation.
If you find it difficult to talk about your feelings, you can develop skills that make the process easier:
Take a deep breath
There are many benefits to deep breathing. Besides helping you gain a sense of calm, deep breathing may:
- support your memory
- improve cognitive function
- help you learn
If you’re feeling stressed out when thinking what to say, or can’t remember how you feel, it may help to pause and take a few deep breaths.
Taking time to breathe can also help you ground yourself and connect with what you’re feeling before expressing those big emotions.
Constructively sharing your feelings is a skill. And just like any skill, it can take practice.
For example, you might find your first session with a therapist feels awkward and anxiety-inducing. But after a few sessions, the words begin to flow as you feel more comfortable sharing your emotions.
The same can be true of conversations with your loved ones and friends — and even with yourself. As you practice this skill, you may find it easier to share your feelings when the moment calls for it.
Identify and accept your emotions
A big part of effectively sharing emotions is correctly identifying your feelings.
Because difficult emotions can often be complex, it’s essential to take a moment of self-reflection to identify what you’re feeling and then permit yourself to feel those feelings.
For example, you might start by asking yourself, “What am I noticing, feeling, or thinking?” If it’s hard to identify a feeling, you could focus on sensations in your body first. Is there any tension or stress there? Sensations in the body can often be clues about our feelings, like anger.
Choose the right listener and the right time
The “wrong” listener might be anyone who isn’t willing to understand, who puts you down, or who invalidates your feelings.
If you need to process something difficult, it’s a good idea to choose someone who’s open, understanding, and empathetic.
For example, if you’re experiencing depression, you may not want to talk to your aunt who doesn’t understand it. Instead, you might choose someone you trust with your emotions, like a best friend.
Imagine your feelings as a piece of glass art. You’ll want to hand it to someone you’re confident will treat it with care.
It’s also key to pick the right time. Trying to have a meaningful conversation when your listener is distracted or in a bad mood could lead to an unsatisfying or frustrating experience.
Is someone you care about having trouble opening up? Here are some quick tips for helping them:
- agree to discuss the issue
- state your intentions
- center and ground yourself before the discussion
- take responsibility for your part in their emotions
- communicate in a way that will promote trust, openness, and safety
- don’t fall into the trap of justifying your actions
- be patient
- show appreciation
- thank them for sharing
As you practice being a good listener, your loved one may feel more comfortable opening up without feeling fearful, hesitant, or anxious. Over time, this can help strengthen the relationship and benefit both of you emotionally.
Need some more tips on helping a loved one express their emotions? You can learn more here.
Opening up can be challenging for all of us. This might be because of:
- past trauma
- attachment style
- social norms
- how you were raised
- how comfortable you are with the emotion
If it’s not easy for you to share your feelings with others, there are also ways to get some practice, like developing skills to name emotions and choosing the right person to share with.
It’s natural to have a desire to be both heard and seen. But sharing emotions can be difficult — you might want to open up, but feel like something’s holding you back.
Developing skills to open up (and be a good listener to others) can ultimately help foster empathy, compassion, and a sense of closeness in your relationships.