“You’ve got to express yourself in life, and it’s better out than in. What you reveal, you heal.”
– Chris Martin
Effortless expression often seems to be the province of the highly charismatic and successful. We all know people who never bat an eyelid when it comes to explaining how they’re feeling, never hesitate, never question, and somehow always manage to articulate themselves in a calm, clear way that’s easy to understand and empathise with. Even when they’re in turmoil, their self-awareness is high enough that they can explain the reason, ask for help, and hold people to account.
These people often seem far more ‘together’ than the rest of us. We all wish we could handle life – and particularly the messy aspects that come with emotions – with half the poise and grace they muster on a daily basis.
Yet it seems impossible. Many people find it incredibly difficult to express their feelings. It doesn’t come naturally to them to wear their heart on their sleeve, open up, and leave themselves vulnerable.
Stereotypically we think of men as being the ones who struggle most to talk about their emotions. The image of the stoic family man who takes everything on the chin, shoulders every responsibility, weathers every storm, and serves as the rock keeping everyone around him steady because he is, himself, unshakable, is difficult to dispel. Society has certain expectations, and a lot of men struggle to express themselves as a result. Doing so seems to go against the very essence of what it means (or rather, what they’ve been conditioned to believe it means) to be a strong and successful man.
However, the inability to express yourself is not tied to your gender, age, career, or any other demographic. It’s an issue that can affect anyone, at any time.
It’s Not Just You Struggling To Express Yourself…
Everyone experiences emotions that are so complex and overwhelming they’re incapable of expressing them. For some, this is a rarity, yet for others it happens on a daily basis.
Struggling to express your thoughts and feelings is a common affliction, and one that can impact your emotional and physical health, as well as your personal and professional relationships, career and confidence.
That promotion you missed out on because you couldn’t step forward and say you wanted it. That perfect person who got away because you never quite managed to tell them how you really felt. All those misunderstandings, arguments, missed opportunities, and dramas that never would have happened had you been able to calmly explain your thoughts and feelings.
Over the course of your life, the inability to express yourself can wind up costing you an awful lot.
The good news is, self-expression is something you can learn to do, no matter who you are or how impossible it might seem.
If you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable, in a way that is (we’ll be honest with you) not going to be comfortable, you can unbottle all those pent up emotions and step into a lighter, unburdened version of yourself.
But doing so begins with understanding, both of yourself and why you’re finding it so hard to talk about your feelings. Here’s why expressing yourself is so hard, and how to teach yourself the fine art of self-expression…
Why Is It So Hard To Express Yourself?
People find self-expression difficult for different reasons. For a lot of us, it’s the pressure of constantly trying to say things in exactly the right way. We want to be insightful, witty, helpful, empathetic, diplomatic, and funny, all at the same time. For others it’s the fear of saying the wrong thing, while yet others are plagued by worries over what will happen if they’re misunderstood.
Some of us get so stuck in our own heads, we find it impossible to express ourselves in a real way, in the real world. This leads to a sense of disconnection, and even greater difficulty finding ways to express thoughts and feelings.
As with many aspects of mental health, once the problem exists, the fact of its existence perpetuates it.
The longer you allow it to continue, the harder it is to tackle and solve the issue.
But before you can learn to express yourself it’s important to get comfortable with the fact you currently can’t. Often, simply admitting that you struggle with self-expression is uncomfortable enough that you avoid acknowledging it. You may pass yourself off as the ‘quiet type’, or view yourself as ‘laid back’. Perhaps you even convince yourself and those around you that you’re so chilled out you don’t think or feel much of anything at all, and this is why you never express yourself.
It’s not that you’re failing at self-expression, you simply have nothing to say.
Once you recognise that, in reality, everyone has thoughts and feelings, and everyone should feel comfortable expressing them, you can consider the ‘why’ that’s preventing you from doing it.
With so much going on in people’s lives it’s impossible to cite a single reason that explains the difficulties coming with self-expression. However, there are some common threads that crop up again and again with individuals who find it hard to express themselves.
Does any of this sound familiar?
You Have Low Self-Esteem…
We’ll start with one of the most common reasons – and it’s likely to be one you’re not consciously aware of. On some level, you don’t believe you’re entitled to express yourself. The thought of asking others for what you want, or telling them how you truly feel seems…selfish, indulgent, or simply unrealistic.
So many of us have grown up believing that showing your emotions is a sign of weakness. It’s the stereotype of ‘real men don’t cry’ compounded by the constant depiction of emotional women as ‘crazy’ or ‘high-maintenance’. When you have high self-esteem you’re able to recognise that these are societal mores you can set aside.
You see that your thoughts and feelings are valid, relevant, and that expressing them is healthy and necessary.
Yet when you have low self-esteem, those same social mores completely undermine your confidence, leaving you feeling too self-conscious to express yourself. More than that, you feel that doing so would be in some way burdening the people around you.
You already feel vulnerable, and expressing yourself would make you even more vulnerable. It seems like you’re revealing your weaknesses.
In reality, learning to effectively express yourself is one of the most empowering things you can ever do.
You’re An Emotional Perfectionist…
A lot of us view certain feelings as inherently negative – jealousy, anxiety, sadness, anger. These are all emotions we’re taught are bad. They’re to be avoided at all costs. They’re a burden to both yourself and others, and when you feel them you should brush them off, ‘snap out of it’, or simply ‘let it go’.
Sadly it’s not that simple.
Emotions are neither positive nor negative. It is how you choose to act on your feelings that creates positive and negative consequences. Bottling up your ‘negative’ feelings will create negative consequence for you, both mentally and physically.
It’s very easy to believe people will belittle you, reject you, or see you as weak and vulnerable if you admit to feeling emotions you view as undesirable. Yet it’s only through expressing these feelings that you can work through them, and find healthy ways of managing them so that they don’t impact upon you and your loved ones in a negative way.
You’re Afraid Of Conflict…
One reason we avoid sharing our feelings and fully expressing ourselves is that honest discussions often lead to conflict. If you believe that healthy relationships don’t include arguments it can be very difficult to honestly share your feelings. Often the most important things you need to get off your chest are going to cause friction, and perhaps even upset people. It could be that you’re upset, angry, or frustrated yourself, and even if the other person isn’t offended by what you say, you’re not sure you can have a conversation about it without getting angry or upset.
If an argument seems inevitable, it’s frequently easier to simply avoid having the conversation. You coast along, avoiding tackling what is troubling you, and frequently this lulls you and the people around you into believing you have an excellent relationship.
After all, you never argue.
But the quiet facade is just that – a smokescreen covering a lot of unspoken tension, worry, and hurt.
Getting everything out in the open can be uncomfortable, but it’s the only way to have a truly honest relationship that is respectful and mindful of the needs and feelings of everyone involved.
You’re Trapped In Hopelessness…
Following on from the fear of conflict is the sense of hopelessness that sets in when you believe there is no improving a relationship or situation.
It’s very difficult to put yourself and others through the emotional turmoil and trauma of a difficult conversation if you find it impossible to believe any good will come of it. If it seems like you’ve already tried everything under the sun to rectify a problem or improve a relationship, and nothing has worked, it can be impossible to believe a simple, honest conversation could make a difference.
Maybe you think your partner is too stubborn to ever change, too insensitive or selfish to ever understand, or so emotional themselves that there is no room in your relationship for your feelings because you’re already suffocated by all of theirs.
Feeling this way traps you in a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as you give up on self-expression due to the hopelessness of your position, your own attitude supports the prediction you made; nothing changes, therefore change isn’t possible. You fail to consider that the only reason change isn’t happening is because you’re not taking any action that could instigate it.
There’s No Room For Your Feelings In Your Relationship…
That feeling of hopelessness is especially problematic if you have people in your life experiencing difficult emotional times. Perhaps they’re depressed, experiencing anxiety, or have a mental illness that is challenging to manage. When this is the case, it’s very easy to push your own feelings aside in order to care for their emotional wellbeing.
They may become more stressed or upset at times they feel you are unsettled. You are their ‘rock’, and they need you to be reliable at all times. It’s understandable that you would do everything possible to care for someone you love, but in the long-run shielding them from your emotional needs and failing to express yourself or be honest with them is damaging to both of you.
Aside from anything else, you can’t take care of them if you’re not taking care of yourself. Beyond this, love is a two-way street, and they should be supporting you even as you support them.
You’re Waiting For People To Read Your Mind…
We all like to feel understood. Often at times of emotional turmoil the most pressing concern on our mind is whether or not the people around us know us well enough to understand what we’re feeling. It’s difficult to share your feelings if you’re afraid you’ll be misunderstood.
You may find yourself trapped in the position of craving someone magically intuiting how you are feeling, without you having to say anything. Not only does this save you an awkward conversation, it would also prove that they know you, understand you, and care enough to consider your feelings.
It’s understandable, but since people aren’t mind readers, they’re going to struggle to know exactly what you’re thinking if you’re not willing to tell them. They may sense you’re upset, but your very inability to speak about it will likely put them off broaching the subject – your own actions are telling them you’re not ready to talk about it.
If you’ve ever given someone the ‘silent treatment’ because they’ve upset you, as a means of demonstrating your hurt feelings without having to actually talk about them, you have fallen into this trap.
It’s a common tactic used to make someone feel guilty for hurting us, or notice that something is wrong, yet it’s both inappropriate and hurtful to both yourself and whoever you’re ignoring.
How To Express Yourself…
You may have more than one reason for finding it so difficult to open up. You may also find different reasons apply at different times, and with different people. Once you have a better idea of the ‘why’ behind the problem, you can start to work on ways of fixing it. Here are some simple but effective mindset shifts you can make, plus some top tips on how to express yourself…
Impress Yourself And Everyone Else Will Follow…
Putting yourself ‘out there’ can be terrifying, especially if you’re worried about the judgement of others. The simplest way to avoid this feeling is to spend some time really getting to know yourself before you share who you are with other people.
Part of this is ensuring you fully understand yourself before you try to articulate it. But another vital piece of the puzzle is knowing yourself well enough to be impressed by what you see. This will go a long way towards mitigating the worry over what other people will think of you.
It’s a lot easier to believe they will be kind and give you the benefit of the doubt when you have a positive view of yourself.
When you’re comfy in your own skin the opinions of others matter less, and you will find that even if they take a negative view of you based on what you’ve said, it won’t feel like the end of the world.
At the end of the day people will judge you – most of them can’t help it. You can either live your life trying to impress other people, or you can live your life impressing yourself.
Do that, and you will genuinely impress most people, while those who are unimpressed by you won’t put a dent in your ability to express yourself.
Know What You Stand For (And Stay Standing)…
One way to really get to know yourself (and impress yourself) is to figure out what your core personal values are.
What do you stand for?
Understanding this is vital to shaping and understanding your identity. It will allow your true personality to shine through. It will give you a compass to navigate by, that will help you feel confident in expressing your thoughts and opinions, because you already have a clear view of where you stand on various issues.
More than that, don’t let yourself be swayed.
If you decide you stand for something, stick to it. Unless someone or something offers a truly compelling argument that forces you to shift position, stick to your principles.
This doesn’t mean being inflexible or stubborn – you can still listen to and understand opposing viewpoints – but it will help you stay true to yourself.
Accept That Expressing Yourself Is Intimate…
When you truly express yourself you are sharing a piece of your psyche with another person. Possibly even a group of people. However you look at it, this is an act of intimacy. It may not be intimate in the physical or romantic sense, but even in situations where you’re expressing yourself to a platonic friend, colleague, or complete stranger, the act of sharing your true thoughts and feelings is intimate.
If you can accept that as a necessary aspect of personal growth and the creation of healthy relationships, you will no longer find it – or the various fears that come with intimacy – daunting.
Start With Something Small…
When you’re feeling really uncomfortable about sharing your feelings, start with something small. Don’t jump headlong into your biggest most complicated issues. Begin by expressing small grievances, minor irritations, worries you’re fully aware are foolish but nag at you regardless.
By getting comfortable talking about the small stuff you can gradually work your way up to talking about the really big stuff.
Turn To The People You Trust First…
Similarly, the people you choose you express yourself to are an important choice. Certain people will put you at ease. Don’t try to have a difficult conversation with a difficult individual right out of the gate. Instead, choose the person you trust the most, and begin by sharing something with them that you’ve never told them before.
It could be your best friend, a partner, parent, or sibling. It doesn’t matter who it is, but choose someone you trust, who is already comfortable with their own feelings and expressing themselves – this is vital.
There’s nothing worse than trying to learn to express yourself with someone who can’t express themselves!
Keep A Journal…
At the end of the day, the best way to learn to express yourself is to start to express yourself. To do that you need to know what you are thinking and feeling – otherwise, how can you possibly be expected to articulate it? One great way to do this is to keep a journal. There are a lot of great mental health benefits to journaling, and using a journal app is a great and easy way to learn to express yourself.
Zen Buddy offers a simple and easy way to keep track of what you’re thinking and feeling, allowing you to understand yourself better, and share yourself with others. Signup below to be first in line for a free trial of our brand new meditation and journaling app when it rolls out later this year…