Movies make emotional expression look easy.  If a character feels something, they always clearly show it, whether by crying, balling their hands into fists, frowning, laughing, or smiling.

Now imagine taking all that away. You’re left with a character who displays a neutral facial expression, an even tone of voice, and zero body language. How do they communicate what they’re feeling? They may say, “I’m having a bad day,” but without any other cues, we’re left with a lot of questions. Exactly how bad was their day? Was it slightly irritating or absolutely devasting?

For many who have experienced relational trauma, this kind of thing happens all the time. They may say the words, “I’m sad” or “I’m not okay,” but their tone of voice and body language give no indication of how serious the situation is. In relationships, this can cause a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. They may feel like they’re communicating clearly, but the other person doesn’t know how to read the cues – because there aren’t any.

There’s a good reason for this. Relational trauma teaches people that emotional expression isn’t safe. They quickly learn how to fly under the radar to keep out of danger. Shutting down facial expressions, tone, and body language becomes a survival skill that, when practiced repeatedly over time, can become automatic. In a toxic relationship, hiding emotions is a great survival skill to have! The problem is, when the person tries to engage in healthy relationships later on, their body is still shut down. It’s hard to get emotions to show again.

Counseling can help bring emotional expression back online. But what do you do in the meantime when you’re trying to communicate how you feel to loved ones?

If you struggle with emotional expression, here are some tips you can try out:

  • Use an emotion chart to find words that express how you feel more precisely
  • Come up with a code (ex: green, yellow, red; or a number from 1-10) to tell the person how intensely you’re experiencing that emotion.
  • Give the person some ideas on how to best help you at each level of intensity (ex: green means you need a hug, red means you need time and space to recover).
  • Ask the other person for feedback on how they’re interpreting what you’re communicating and why.
  • Be kind to yourself. It’s frustrating when you want to express but struggle to do so. Remind yourself that your body has been trying to keep you safe and it just takes time for it to learn new patterns of relating.

Try using this emotion wheel: