An ability to be empatheticCommunication meaningfully with othersIs comfortable dealing with unexpressed concerns feelings and emotionsOpenness to the expression of feelings and emotions

What can prevent people from expressing their feelings?

Expressing feelings is not always an easy task, even for those that are knowledgeable and experienced on the topic. It requires feeling safe, being ok with being vulnerable, and a high level of self-awareness to understand what is going on in the first place. Expressing feelings can be even more intimidating for people that don’t have much practice in doing so, and who haven’t yet been able to develop their self-awareness and self-expression skills. What could be hindering them, and what steps can we as trainers do to support this process rather than hinder it, is what this article will be addressing.

Why did I choose this tool? I chose this tool because it gives some clear insight on what may be preventing participants (or even us) from fully expressing feelings and emotions, and some suggestions as to what can be done about it. Over the course of my work I have found that when we jump too quickly to the solution (or perceived solution) without understanding what the issue is and what causes it, the results can either be superficial or will not work at all. Once we understand the problem, the chances of finding a sustainable solution can be much higher.

How does this apply to being a trainer? As trainers we are constantly dealing with emotions, whether we realize it or not. It may be our own emotions, the emotions of the other members of our team, the emotions of the participants in general or perhaps of one participant that seems extra difficult to deal with. A lot of our behavior is actually driven by emotions, so if we can understand and properly manage the emotional element (in ourselves and in the training setting) our chance of having a successful training increases exponentially.

Main content:

Before finding solutions for how to deal with unexpressed feelings, emotions and concerns in a training setting, it is useful to know what could be some common reasons why someone would have a hard time expressing themselves in the first place. This list is by no means comprehensive, but can give us some ideas to work with:

  1. Conflict Phobia

Not wanting to be the cause of a conflict can cause someone to withhold their negative feelings, even if the risk of conflict is not real in that setting. If particularly in childhood and early adolescence, expressing their feelings caused conflict, it is likely that they learned to avoid it. Unless addressed, this would continue to be the case even if the risk of conflict is not real, or if there would be no damage done even if a conflict occurred.

2. Emotional Perfectionism

They may hold the belief that having negative feelings such as anger, anxiety, fear, etc., is a bad thing (even though they are not). And if this is the case, they may be accustomed to pretending that these feelings don’t exist even when it is clear that they do. Emotional perfectionists believe that the only emotions that should be displayed are joy, love, peace, etc. They feel as if they are actually doing harm if they express anything other then positive emotions.

3. Fear of Disapproval and Rejection

If they were previously disapproved of and/or rejected when they expressed their feelings, particularly in their formative years, they may have formed the belief that this will always be the case and that they should protect themselves by not showing their real emotions, at all costs. They may also feel the need to always please other people and make them happy, and expressing their emotions could have the opposite effect and as such should be avoided.

4. Passive-Aggressive Behavior

If in the past being passive-aggressive has gotten them the results that they wanted, it is likely that they will continue to use this strategy. This would mean that although the feelings aren’t directly and clearly expressed, they are indicated through body language, facial expressions, giving the silent treatment, perhaps whispering with perceived allies or making sarcastic comments.

5. Hopelessness

They feel that no matter what they express or don’t express, it won’t make any difference in their reality. Because of this, they don’t see the need to put forth the time, energy and potential vulnerability necessary to show how they actually feel. It can happen when attempts to express themselves proved futile in the past, and/or if they hold the belief that it will always be futile.

6. Low Self-Esteem

They feel that their feelings are not important, and that they are not entitled to ask for what they need and express how they feel. It is likely that someone who doesn’t express their feelings due to low self-esteem also has low self-esteem and consequent difficulties in other areas (hard time setting boundaries, going for what they want, feels the need to please others more then themselves, etc.)

7. Mind Reading

They think that others should be able to understand how they feel and what they need, even though they have never expressed it. It generally comes from not wanting to appear vulnerable, weak and needy by actually expressing what they need, and generally results in the needs not being met and feeling resentful towards those who have not met them.

8. Martyrdom

Being taught or adopting the belief that you should “suck it up”, “get over it”, “not make a scene”, etc. Thinking that the noble choice is to hold your emotions in and not let on how you’re really feeling, that it is the safer and more prudent option for yourself and/or others. That it is unbecoming, sloppy, or weak to expose how you really feel.

9. Problem solver

They have self-perception that says they should be the ones to solve problems, not create them. Since expressing negative feelings has the potential to cause a “problem”, they can avoid that at all costs because it doesn’t fit with their self-image and perceived duty.

That’s a lot of potential reasons why people might hold back from expressing their feelings, and surely there are more. Since most of these issues with self-expression will have originated long before your participants ever entered your training room, the likelihood that you can radically change them is low. However, there are things you can do to make sure that the training environment is conducive to expressing feelings and emotions, and to supporting the participants that may have difficulties in this regard.

10. Make sure that you have created a safe space

For more details on this item check out the article in this competence area “is it safe?”

11. Don’t shut them down

Be sure not to consciously or unconsciously make a participant shut down and feel that what they wanted to express is not appreciated. For more details check the article in the intercultural competence “are you getting in the way?”

12. Be willing to be open and vulnerable

Where relevant, be open about yourself. Don’t expect participants to express their feelings if you are keeping a safe “trainer distance”. It doesn’t mean that you’re disclosing everything, as that probably wouldn’t even be useful to the participants. But it means that you are willing to share and be open when it helps, and most of all that you are being genuine and don’t give off the feeling that you are “above” the participants.

13. Don’t resort to being authoritarian

This applies even if participants seem to be “misbehaving”. Rather, be continually creative and find ways to turn everything into a learning experience, whether for you or them or both. Being authoritarian never supports the learning process in a non-formal education experience, since it should be voluntary and based on self-discovery. Being authoritarian or abusing power can also trigger negative responses such as the ones mentioned above, creating unnecessary and damaging power struggles between you and the participants.

14. Acknowledge and applaud sincere displays of emotion,

In addition to showing emotion yourself, when relevant, acknowledge and applaud when a participant does. This sends the message that emotions are appreciated in the group, and can give people the courage to unblock themselves and feel/express what they want. For example, it’s very common that when someone starts to cry, they will automatically say “I’m sorry”. It’s so ingrained and automatic. You can say “please don’t apologize, it’s ok to feel what you feel and express it however you want. Emotions are a huge part of what makes us human, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” And this sends the message to the rest of the group that it’s ok to express their feelings as well.

15. Be aware of and ready to deal with emotional subcurrents

What participants feel will have a huge impact on their participation and learning outcomes from the training. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of, and address if necessary, the feelings that come up within the group. Ignoring negative emotions generally doesn’t make them go away, it usually enhances them. Be in tune with the flow of the group, ready to give an extra break when needed, to do an activity outside to clear the air, check in with the group how they are feeling and be aware of the body language signals. Don’t press on when it’s clear that there is a negative emotional subcurrent. Either give them a break to resolve it on their own, or address it directly if it’s training related and affecting the whole group. A small well-timed intervention can shift the emotional state of the group and get them on track and productive again.

16. Try addressing emotions with different methods

Have you ever tried to get people in a circle and express their feelings in a training setting? What were the results? Chances are, unless you were with a very emotionally advanced group, you got some very general responses that didn’t tell you much or you didn’t get any response at all (fine, good, I don’t know, tired). Generally, this isn’t because participants are trying to make things difficult for you. It’s more likely that they simply aren’t used to expressing their feelings and aren’t asked to do this very often. So they might feel nervous to do so or not even be able to put a label on what they’re feeling. But, even when they don’t know how, it’s still important that they have avenues to express themselves, whether the emotions are negative or positive. When you encounter this problem, you can try having them draw a picture about how they feel, or make a sound or gesture that represents it, or even just draw a happy, sad or neutral face as they leave the training room for the day. Some people prefer to express their emotions verbally, while others would rather do it visually or with different sort of action. Take all these factors into consideration when designing the activities, especially the ones that require some sort of self-expression, and you will have a higher chance of reaching all the participants in the group.

17. Be sure to relax and have fun

Emotions are contagious, and since you have a big influence on the group you are working with, they will very quickly pick up on your emotional state. Do whatever you need to do before the training session begins, to be in your peak state. For some it’s doing some exercise, for others meditation, for others power poses, for others listening to your favorite song. It doesn’t matter what method you use, as long as it gets you into a calm, confident and happy state. If you are worried about how you will come across, or you feel unprepared, or you feel intimidated by the participants, this will come through and the participants will pick up on your emotions. Make sure they are getting good vibes from you, and you are well on the way to a successful training experience!

Reflection questions:

Are any of the above-mentioned factors preventing me from fully expressing my feelings and emotions in everyday life?

  1. Conflict Phobia
  2. Emotional Perfectionism
  3. Fear of Disapproval and Rejection
  4. Passive-Aggressive Behavior
  5. Hopelessness
  6. Low Self-Esteem
  7. Mind Reading
  8. Martyrdom
  9. Problem solver

If so, when did it start holding me back?

How am I different now from how I was back then?

What do I want for myself now (in the area of expressing feeling and emotions)?

How will that benefit my personal and professional life?


How to apply it in everyday life:

The best way to become more emotionally intelligent is to become more open to and curious about our own emotions. Before we even attempt to express them to anyone else, we have to get in touch with them ourselves and understand their meaning. Make it a habit not to hold back your emotions, unless there is a very good reason to do so. If a song comes on the radio that makes you tear up a bit, let it happen. And then take a moment to think about why that song has that affect on you. Or, if you are in a situation where it wouldn’t be wise to express your feelings right away, make sure that you make time to express them on your own or with someone you trust. Repressed emotions have negative psychological and physical side effects, so express them within a few hours at most so that you can stay emotionally healthy and light.

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

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Burns, D.D. (1989). The feeling good handbook. New York: William MorrowGrohol, J. M. (2016, May 17). 10 Reasons You Can’t Say How You Feel. Psych Central. Retrieved March 31, 2019Colino, S. (n.d.). When you can’t put feelings into words. Retrieved April 8, 2019Featured image from

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