In the intricate tapestry of human interaction, emotions play a crucial yet often concealed role. Elizabeth Strout, a masterful storyteller, once poignantly remarked, “People either didn’t know how they felt about something or they chose never to say how they really felt about something.” This statement, profound in its simplicity, captures the essence of our complex emotional landscapes. It speaks to the silent struggles we all face, the internal battles between understanding our feelings and expressing them to the world.

The Complexity of Self-Understanding

Understanding our own emotions can be a bewildering journey. Unlike tangible problems, feelings are nebulous, shifting with time and perspective. Often, we might experience a vague sense of unease or joy without pinpointing its source. This lack of clarity can stem from various factors:

1. Cultural Conditioning
Many cultures teach individuals to suppress or overlook their feelings. Expressions like “big boys don’t cry” or “keep a stiff upper lip” discourage emotional introspection, leading people to lose touch with their true feelings.

2. Fear of Vulnerability
Admitting our emotions, especially the negative ones, requires vulnerability. The fear of being judged, rejected, or misunderstood can lead us to push these feelings into the background.

3. Overwhelm and Confusion
In a world that’s perpetually in motion, taking time to sit with our feelings can seem daunting. The cacophony of daily life drowns out our inner voices, leaving us confused about what we truly feel.

The Silence of Unexpressed Emotions

Even when people do understand their feelings, expressing them can be an entirely different challenge. The reasons for this silence are manifold:

1. Social Norms and Expectations
Society often dictates which emotions are acceptable to share. Expressing anger, sadness, or fear can be seen as weak or inappropriate, leading individuals to mask their true emotions with a façade of indifference or happiness.

2. Fear of Conflict
Sharing genuine feelings can sometimes lead to conflict. To maintain peace or avoid confrontation, people might choose to keep their emotions hidden, even if it means internalizing stress and resentment.

3. Personal History
Past experiences shape our willingness to share emotions. Individuals who have faced ridicule or dismissal in the past may become reticent to open up, preferring the safety of silence.

The Impact of Hidden Emotions

The decision to not understand or express our emotions can have significant repercussions. Bottling up feelings can lead to emotional and physical distress. Anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments like headaches and high blood pressure can be linked to repressed emotions. Moreover, relationships suffer when true feelings are withheld. Authentic connections require honesty and openness, and without these, relationships can become superficial and strained.

Finding a Path Forward

Navigating the landscape of emotions is no easy task, but it’s a journey worth undertaking. Here are some steps to help bridge the gap between feeling and expressing emotions:

1. Cultivate Self-Awareness
Mindfulness practices like meditation and journaling can help individuals tune into their inner world, making it easier to identify and understand their emotions.

2. Create Safe Spaces
Building environments where emotional expression is welcomed and respected is crucial. Whether in personal relationships or broader community settings, creating a culture of empathy and non-judgment can encourage openness.

3. Seek Professional Support
Therapists and counselors can provide valuable tools and insights for navigating complex emotions. Professional support can help individuals articulate their feelings and develop healthier ways of expressing them.

4. Practice Emotional Literacy
Expanding our emotional vocabulary can aid in better understanding and communication. Learning to name our feelings accurately is a powerful step toward expressing them effectively.


Elizabeth Strout’s observation highlights a universal truth about the human experience. The gap between feeling and expressing emotions is a chasm many of us navigate daily. By fostering self-awareness, creating supportive environments, and seeking professional guidance, we can bridge this gap. In doing so, we not only enhance our own well-being but also build deeper, more authentic connections with those around us. Embracing our emotions, in all their complexity, is a courageous act that enriches our lives and the lives of those we touch.