Expressing Emotions Nonverbally | Counseling | Therapy

Expressing Emotions Nonverbally

Richard (Rick) Snyderman , LPC, CADC, CSAT, NCC — Therapist, director of group therapy

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What happens when you hear the question “can we talk?” or the statement “I need to talk to you?” For many, a rush of anxiety can shoot through your gut with nervousness about what the other person wants and immediately thinking that you did something wrong. Let’s face it, some people are not talkers, but we all have feelings that are communicated either verbally, nonverbally, or both. If just plain talking is not your thing, there are other nonverbal ways to express your feelings so that your loved ones can better understand what your emotions are over a particular issue that may be hard for you to just talk about. This could be due to factors such as never having emotional expression modeled for you growing up or simply never having been asked about how you feel. This tip can also be useful in helping children get in touch with their feelings.

Expressing emotions nonverbally serves as an alternative to shutting down (i.e. avoiding, ignoring) when a loved one, be it a partner or child, is looking to connect with you on a more intimate level. It is not uncommon for people to be anxious about sharing thoughts and feelings and there could be many reasons for this. For those of us that were raised in households that reinforced unspoken rules such as to keep everything to yourself (don’t talk) or do not share personal information about the family to other people (don’t trust). Furthermore, if you were raised in a home where there was active addiction, or some other dysfunction was present, expressing negativity outright could result in being yelled at or shamed (don’t feel). To communicate our feelings through talking, or some other form of emotional expression, is an important part of building a healthy, intimate relationship with others who we want to be close to. Sharing our emotions with others who we feel safe with builds intimacy, compared to just socially conversing with a casual friend. The good news; there are other ways we can express our emotions nonverbally as well as just talking about them. However, the first step is to actually know what you are actually feeling so you can communicate this effectively via verbally or through other forms of emotional expression.

So you may be asking, how do I figure out how I am feeling to start with? There are several ways to assess our emotional state. First, you can go into a quiet room and concentrate on the physiology of your body. Is there any tension going on in your gut? How quick is your pulse? Do you feel like crying, sleeping, or have any sensations of nervousness or panic. Checking in with yourself in these ways can help guide you toward figuring out your emotional state. Another way to figure out how you are feeling is to think about a specific animal that may be a metaphorical match for how you would describe your emotional state. For example, are you feeling more mad like a lion or lazy like a sloth. This same technique can also be used by matching your mood with a specific color that can also be used when trying to communicate how you feel through art (see below). You can also get an idea of how you feeling using The Feeling Wheel (attached here).

I have listed below alternative methods to expressing emotions nonverbally as an alternative to just talking about them. Sharing these exercises with your loved one can also help build intimacy. These techniques are also useful to help children with expressing emotions nonverbally if they are not good at talking about them.

  • Write it out. Practice writing your feelings in a journal or notebook. For some, this may seem boring and time-consuming, but the reality is that writing can help you feel better. After your initial feelings are out on paper, it will make it easier for you to communicate your feelings because the anxious pangs in the beginning were already expressed (just on paper and not directly to the person…yet!). If you are adventurous, you can write with your non-dominant hand which will further access the emotional part of your brain instead of just your logical side.
  • Draw or Paint. You do not have to be an artist for this exercise! On a white sheet of paper, take the time to draw or paint your image of the person you want to communicate with, the setting where you want your feelings heard, and maybe a few background pictures that further illustrate the context of your point. You can then explain your drawing (a.k.a. explain yourself) to the person to whom you want to share this with or just have them look at it. Another way of using your creative side here is to draw or paint in different colors, designs, or shapes that illustrate your emotions. For example, you may be expressing anger with a red color and lots of abstract lines on the paper to communicate the level of emotion you are feeling that may not come across accurately if these feelings were just verbalized. Again, this technique can also be used with children who have a hard time articulating how they feel. You can have a child draw different people according to how close they feel towards them. For example, you can say to the child draw yourself, then the family member you feel closest to all the way down the line. You can then talk about what the child drew which may be easier than asking the child direct questions about their feelings only verbally.
  • Create a story or poem. You can write a short story or poem sprinkled with many different characters that represent you and the others you are trying to talk to. You can also have different characters that signify different aspects of yourself in the story or poem. For example, there could be the sad character (representing your sadness), the happy character (representing your happiness), or even a character that may be more intimate (such as one that reminds of someone you love) in a dialog that is designed to honor any conflicting emotions that you are experiencing at the same time.
  • Write lyrics or play a song. Again, you do not have to be a talented musician or singer to do this. The point of this activity is to find a creative way to express yourself, not to audition for a concert. Another way this activity can be useful is to download songs from real musicians that communicate how you feel with the lyrics of the song, the beat or melody for how it is played, and/or the instruments used. For example, if you are feeling like you want to communicate romantic love, pick a popular love song that you like and play it for your partner. You can even attach a note or card that explicitly states how you feel. All of this without having to just talk!

There are so many ways that we can communicate our emotions nonverbally, aside from just talking. Utilizing some or all of these different techniques not only helps you to share how you feel, but the work of expressing yourself comes out in these different forms without having to sit in front of someone and just talk, which also allows these techniques to be useful with kids who do not yet have the verbal skills to share what is going on for them internally. These different ways of communicating your emotions also helps build intimate connections with either a loved one or even a close friend. I would highly recommend that whichever of the above exercises you pick to do, that your significant other do it also. It may be a good idea to set aside time each week to either talk or express emotions through some of the above-mentioned ways. Who knows, maybe you will bond in more ways than you thought, or at the very least, discover a talent you did not know you had!

For more information on how to express emotions nonverbally, schedule an appointment with a therapist through our website at

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