I try not to get bogged down in semantics, but I tend to be a bit fastidious about conversations surrounding emotions.
First of all, there is the word for the emotion itself. When asked how we are feeling, we tend to give rote answers; I’m feeling good, I’m feeling tired. Descriptive in the simplest sense, yes, but so broad and unnuanced as to prevent any real understanding.
Lately I’ve been challenging myself to find more specificity in the way I describe my emotions, which is more challenging that one would think, because we are all so habituated to distilling our feelings into a few very limited categories. I’ve been overworked and underslept a lot lately, so let’s go with “I’m feeling tired”.
What are the things that I find tiring? A long run is tiring. I long argument is tiring. A night of disrupted sleep is tiring. Hours spent staring at scores is tiring. Arguing with our health insurance for the umpteenth time is tiring. Thinking about the amount of travel I have coming up is tiring.
Once I can identify what’s making me feel tired, I start to do a bit of digging, because the tiredness after a run is completely different from the tiredness contemplating an over scheduled future. When I finish a really tough run, I feel the kind of satisfying tiredness when my energy is used up. I feel spent. When I work on complicated travel logistics that will take me away from home for weeks on end, I feel like I’m not going to have enough energy. I feel burned out.
Arguing with health insurance gives me the feeling that the issues are never-ending. I feel weary. A night of little sleep can make me feel lethargic or debilitated, depending on the number of hours I managed to get. Hours spent staring at scores are straining and exhausting. An extended unpleasant argument without resolution leaves me spiritless.
If I can be more specific about how I’m feeling, the possibility of really being understood improves exponentially; the impression and mood of “depleted” is strikingly different from those of “sleepy”, both of which fall under that “tired” category. It’s a way of providing clarity for others, and, more importantly, for ourselves. And even if our concept of “depleted” differs from whomever we’re talking to, at least it opens up the possibility of talking about what we mean by the word, allowing us to fully express ourselves. Specificity allows us to be both more precise and more meaningful.
Second, there is the manner in which we use these precise and meaningful words. I practice Vipassana meditation, which is a practice that aims to observe our thoughts and emotions as they are, without judgment or attachment. It’s predicated on the idea that thoughts and emotions are passing, and that these fleeting things are something we experience, but they are not us.
And that distinction is important. I think many of us get into trouble because we start identifying with our emotions when they are simply an ever-changing part of the way we encounter the world and ourselves. Emotions are not permanent, and we aren’t our emotions.
So I often catch myself saying things like “Oh, I’m just exhausted”, as if I embody exhaustion and that it is a part of who I am. What I really mean is “I feel exhausted” – that I feel the sensation of exhaustion and am experiencing it in the moment. Exhaustion is not a part of my core being, and I am not a manifestation of exhaustion.
You might argue that it’s a matter of semantics, but I firmly believe that words matter, because they externalize our sense of our own reality. So when I say “I feel exhausted”, I accurately describe a feeling that I’m holding in myself for the moment, but it’s not who I am. There is a tremendous difference in “feeling” vs “being”, and there is liberation in the understanding that feelings are not permanent.
And feeling both understood and free is pretty great.