Why It’s So Hard To Talk About Feelings

The Art Of Living— Rene Magritte

When people ask “what’s wrong?” that’s actually the most difficult question to answer. Feelings don’t have reasons. They are, by definition, unreasonable.

Take my dog, for example. Sometimes she’s behaving extra ratchet, stealing food or humping stuffed animals. These are feelings, but she doesn’t need doggy therapy. She just needs a walk.

Or take my son. He’ll get really worked up about the wrong color plate, but we don’t need to talk about it. Psychoanalysis of toddlers just makes things worse. We just change the plate, or distract him and move on.

My point here is that animals and children obviously don’t have words for their feelings, but we take it for granted that adults do. And we don’t. Marriage has taught me that.

My wife and I have been having the same few fights for nearly a decade, usually about food. These fights never get ‘solved’ because it’s never really about what we’re talking about. It’s about all the things we haven’t been talking about. All the love that’s gone unexpressed or the offenses that have gone unaddressed for weeks. And it all comes out over me chewing guava too loud.

This tension comes out in words, but that’s not what it is, any more than Rene Magritte painted apples. Emotion is expressed in many ways, but it’s always much more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes it’s a complete contradiction. Who the fuck knows? We barely even hold our emotions inside our own body, they’re intrinsically connected to other people, to dead people, to cultures, to our collective imagination.

The idea that we can put “what we’re feeling” into words is actually farcical. Who are we, Picasso? Even that guy was an asshole, so whatever problem expressing yourself is supposed to solve, it obviously doesn’t work. Artists seem miserable.

I return to the point about children, because that’s how I see everything now. When do we actually grow up, and when does the child disappear? My mother-in-law does counseling and most problems she sees go back to childhood.

A friend was telling me why he doesn’t want to take the COVID vaccine and he started by talking about his childhood, stuck between his parents fighting. What do these things have to do with each other? On the surface, nothing. But on the emotional level, everything.

The Art of Conversation — Rene Magritte

With babies we understand this—we understand that they’re probably just sleepy or hungry or gassy, or just need love—but for adults we somehow forget. We think emotions are for a reason and that they need a rational solution, but this is a contradiction in terms.

Emotions are unruly perceptions, skipping the bounds of our brain and heart. You can’t find a ‘rational’ solution for something that’s inherently ‘irrational’. Whatever words, whatever reasons we come up with are just an expression of something we by definition cannot express properly. That’s why we’re emotional.

It’s like painting over a Magritte to say “no, this really is an apple.” OK dude, but you’re missing the point. Maybe just look at it, go eat an actual apple, have a nap, and see if you feel different in the morning. This seems to work for children, and God knows, the heart remains a child.

The Lovers — Rene Magritte

My wife and I of course talk about our problems, and this is important, but not in the sense that we reach some detailed agreement. It’s more that we talk to each other, that we listen, and that the emotional relationship is repaired. Not because of the words but through them, just as art is expressed through paint. We go back and have the same fight a few months later because we fundamentally don’t agree about food (and I’m right), but that’s irrelevant.

This fight is not about a guava. This fight is about emotions, crawling out of our bodies and demanding to connect to another human, just as a baby cries out for their mum. There is no answering this call in words anymore than patiently explaining shit to a baby. You can use words on adults, but that’s just the medium, not the message. It’s the paint, not the art.

Reasons are just the lines we draw around reality, so that we can share it with each other. They are no more real or unreal than lines on a canvas. What matters in life as in art is how we feel about it, what it means culturally, and how one person connects to another. This is inherently unreasonable, which makes it very difficult to answer the question, “what’s wrong?” I don’t fucking know. I’m probably the last person to know, I’m emotional. Let me paint you a picture.