Feelings that are difficult to name

The undertones of self

My brain constantly generates sensations I don’t understand. They come out of nowhere, full of grades, such that labels like “sadness” or “joy” aren’t sufficient. I might get upset about something but other things are flashing in the dark: shame, resentment, a hot wire of pleasure. It’s frustrating.

The oddest feelings are the most interesting, I think, even if they’re tricky to articulate. There’s the bittersweet when a party nears its apex, and I want to leave rather than experience the other side. There’s the unloved child of pride and envy that appears when a friend in the industry receives good news. On an airplane, post-takeoff, I often experience an emotional pang and a chill – lonely, happy, pleasantly homesick all at once, often accompanied by a bitter, acidic taste in my throat.

Sometimes, I’ll admire somebody for obeying social rules in moments when they can be ignored – not crossing an empty street without a walk signal – while wanting to yell at them. Maybe I’m just shitty at interoception?

I’ve been reading Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. She points out that we are trained to think in ideas, truth and falsehood, but feelings deal in things like piquancy and fogginess, they’re measured in depth and range. Our brain predicts how we will feel in a situation based on what we’ve felt before, then adapts when circumstances surprise us. Which helps account for why stuff that seems universal – adolescence horrible, mourning unpredictable, first loves (any loves) so severe – can be maddening to explain to somebody else. Some things help to nudge my feelings out of the shadows. Poetry. Psychoanalysis. Music can color an emotion differently, or just deeper, as if it’s through saturation, not clarity, that the undertones become known. This can be anger also, or, this is a different kind of sad. A therapist once told me that anger and sadness are just the expression of the other; I haven’t been able to un-think that since.

Society wants stuff named, markets want stuff sold. I like to believe certain things are beyond identification – spontaneous, vibrating in namelessness, all that intrinsic brain activity turning the walls of the skull into Plato’s Cave. There is the me who is typing this newsletter, hungry for a sandwich, worried about his bills, and there’s another me, whom I don’t know very well, who’s bouncing around feeling things I can’t imagine. Occasionally we meet up. Our feelings cross and spark – it’s like somebody hotwiring a car in a movie, and for an instant we’re mixed. Either that’s the realest “me” I can detect, or it’s the “me” I’m still becoming.


What the what? A weekly newsletter by novelist Rosecrans Baldwin of (very) short essays about things he finds beautiful. Rosecrans’s next book, Everything Now, is now available for preorder. Most books mentioned in the newsletter are on a list on Bookshop.org.