How To Be More Expressive (If You Struggle to Show Emotion)

“I can’t express myself very well. Showing emotion is really awkward for me, even when I’m with close friends or my family. How do I become more emotionally open?”

Some people find it very easy to express their emotions, whereas others are reluctant or unable to let anyone know how they feel.

You might be reserved or slow to open up if:

  • You have an introverted personality. Research shows that extroverts are generally more expressive than introverts.[1]
  • You worry that other people will judge you. This is a common problem for people with social anxiety.
  • You haven’t had many opportunities to practice talking about your emotions.
  • You have been bullied and decided a long time ago that opening up about your feelings makes you a vulnerable target.
  • You were raised in a family that believed showing emotion was inappropriate or a sign of weakness.

If you find it difficult to show your emotions or talk about your feelings, this guide is for you. You’ll learn how and when to express yourself, even in situations where you feel vulnerable or need to have a tricky conversation.

1. Work on your fear of being judged

If you are afraid that other people will mock or judge you, you probably won’t want to express yourself around them. You may be especially reluctant to open up if you were punished for expressing your thoughts and feelings as a child.

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Here are a few tips that can help:

  • Embrace the things you don’t like about yourself. When you develop a sense of self-acceptance, you may stop worrying so much about everyone else’s opinions. See our article on how to overcome your fear of being judged for in-depth advice.
  • Instead of going along with what everyone tells you to do, live by your personal values. Living with integrity helps you develop core confidence.
  • If you are afraid of being judged because you feel “less than” other people, you will benefit from reading this guide to working on overcoming feelings of inferiority.

2. Experiment with your facial expressions

Practice making different facial expressions in front of a mirror. Pay attention to how your face feels when you look happy, thoughtful, disgusted, sad, worried, suspicious, or surprised. With practice, you’ll be able to choose what kind of emotion you want to display. Be careful not to overdo it. You want to make your expressions clear but not excessive or phony.

You may find resources for actors, like this video on facial expressions, helpful if you’d like more tips and exercises.

3. Make eye contact

Eye contact is an important part of nonverbal communication. It gives other people clues about how you feel, and it can build a sense of mutual trust.[2] If you look away from someone, they might assume you aren’t very interested in talking to them. Read this article on how to be comfortable making eye contact during a conversation.

However, in some situations, making eye contact can be too painful. For example, if you are opening up about a traumatic incident, meeting the other person’s eyes can feel too intense. It can be easier to share your feelings if you and the other person are both looking at something else during the conversation. For example, you may feel more comfortable opening up about your emotions or intimate thoughts when you’re walking side by side.

4. Avoid speaking in a monotone

When talking about your feelings, it’s not just what you say that matters. Your delivery counts too. Varying the pitch, inflection, volume, and speed of your voice will help you convey emotion. For example, if you want to show that you’re excited, you want to speak more quickly than usual. If your voice is flat, uninteresting, or monotonous, read our guide on how to fix a monotone voice.

5. Practice using gestures

Animated, expressive people often make use of their hands when they speak. With practice, you can learn to use gestures to help other people understand how you feel.

Here are a few tips:

  • Practice hand gestures in a mirror until they feel natural to you. Author Vanessa Van Edwards has put together a useful list of gestures to try.
  • Watch socially skilled people in action. Note how they use their hands. You don’t want to copy everything they do, but you might be able to pick up some gestures to try for yourself.
  • Try to keep your movements smooth. Jerky or awkward gestures can be distracting.
  • Don’t overdo it. An occasional gesture adds emphasis, but constant gesturing can make you come across as overexcited or frantic.

6. Grow your feelings vocabulary

It’s hard to share your feelings if you can’t describe them. The feelings wheel can help you find the right words. Practice labeling your feelings when you’re alone. When you’re confident in identifying your emotions, you might find it easier to explain to other people how you feel.

7. Record a video call

Set up a video call with a friend and (with their permission) record it. For the first few minutes, you might feel self-conscious, but if you’re having an interesting discussion, you’ll probably forget to worry about it. Talk for at least 20 minutes so that you get enough useful data to work with.

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Watch the recording back to identify what changes you need to make. For example, you might realize that you smile less often than you think or that your voice doesn’t sound very enthusiastic even when you’re talking about a topic you love.

8. Use “I” statements during tough conversations

“I” statements can help you express your feelings clearly and in a way that doesn’t make the other person feel defensive. An “I” statement is often a good opener when you need to have a difficult conversation or negotiation.

Use this formula: “I feel X when you do Y because Z.”

For example:

  • “I feel very stressed when you send me work emails marked ‘Urgent’ last thing on a Friday afternoon because I don’t have much time left to sort my work out before the weekend.”
  • “I feel upset when you watch TV after dinner instead of doing the dishes because then I have to do more than my fair share of the chores.”

9. Use comparisons to express how you feel

If you’re struggling to put a feeling into words or someone doesn’t seem to understand what you mean, try using a relatable simile or metaphor to get your message across.

For example:

You: “You know how it feels when you have a nightmare that you’re running late for work, and you feel really awful and panicky?”

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Them: “Sure, I’ve had dreams like that.”

You: “That’s how I feel right now!”

Them: “Oh OK! So you’re really overwhelmed.”

You: “You’ve got it, I’m completely stressed out.”

10. Practice low-stakes sharing

When you’re first learning how to open up, practice sharing your thoughts and feelings by commenting on safe topics.

For example:

  • In a conversation about soup: “I love tomato soup too. It always reminds me of my childhood and makes me feel nostalgic.”
  • In a conversation about a particular film: “Yeah, I saw that movie a while ago. The ending made me feel quite emotional, it was so sad.”
  • In a conversation about camping: “It’s a great way to spend a weekend, isn’t it? A few days in nature always makes me feel so much calmer.”

When you’re comfortable with this kind of low-key sharing, you can gradually start to open up in conversations about deeper, more sensitive issues.

11. Be honest when you can’t find the right words

Even people who are normally very expressive can’t always articulate exactly how they feel. It’s OK to ask for a few moments to decide what you need to say or to admit that you aren’t exactly sure what you’re feeling.

For example:

  • “This is hard to explain, so I’m just going to try my best.”
  • “I know I’m uneasy right now, but I’m not actually sure why.”
  • “To be honest, I feel a bit numb. I’m going to need a few minutes to process this.”
  • “I need a few minutes outside to clear my head. I’ll be back soon.”

13. Try not to hide behind self-defeating humor

Self-defeating humor can make other people uncomfortable, so it isn’t usually the best way to express your feelings.

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For example, let’s suppose that you’ve been feeling lonely recently because your friends are either too busy to hang out or they live several hours away. It’s Monday evening, and you’re catching up with a long-distance friend on the phone.

Friend: So, did you do anything fun over the weekend?

You: No, but it’s OK, I’m well-practiced in the art of being alone, haha!

Your friend’s response would depend on their personality, but they’d probably think, “Oh, that sounds bad. Should I ask if they’re OK? Or are they just joking? What should I say?!”

Try to be direct instead of dropping hints, making jokes, or relying on subtle comments. For example, in this case, you could say something like, “I had a quiet weekend. To be honest, I feel lonely these days. It feels like no one is ever around.”

14. Take public speaking or improv classes

Public speaking or improv classes will teach you how to use your voice, posture, and gestures to express yourself. They also offer you a great opportunity to practice other social skills, such as reading other peoples’ body language and active listening.

15. Don’t rely on alcohol or drugs to loosen up

Alcohol and drugs can lower your inhibitions, which can make it easier for you to talk about your feelings. However, this isn’t a practical or healthy long-term solution. To develop healthy relationships, you want to learn how to express yourself when you’re sober. If you need help to manage a substance use disorder, see HelpGuide’s pages on alcoholism and substance use disorders.

16. Get enough sleep

Research shows that it’s harder to express emotions when we’re sleep-deprived.[3] Aim for 7-9 hours per night. Check out this checklist from WebMD if you are having trouble getting enough sleep.

17. Choose the right time and place

For low-stakes sharing, such as your feelings about movies or food, the setting doesn’t matter very much. But if you want to open up about personal matters that have been troubling you, it’s best to put some thought into choosing the right time and place.

  • Pick somewhere private where you won’t be overheard. Even if you don’t mind who hears you, the other person might feel awkward if they know that others could be listening in.
  • Unless the situation is urgent, try to wait until the other person is calm and seems willing to talk.
  • Consider preparing the other person in advance instead of suddenly opening up about a sensitive issue. For example, if you want to talk to your partner about a problem in your relationship, you could say, “I’ve been feeling worried about our relationship recently. It might not be an easy conversation to have, but I think it’s important. Could we talk about it?”

18. Open up to the right people

If you need to talk to someone about a serious issue, it’s important to pick a safe person who won’t make you feel bad for sharing your feelings.

Ask yourself:

  • “Is this person generally kind and reliable?”
  • “Have I ever seen this person mock or judge someone else for sharing their feelings?”
  • “Is this person patient enough to listen and give me space to talk, or are they the sort of person who will interrupt me or dismiss how I feel?”
  • “Can I be direct and honest with this person?”

Sometimes, we feel uneasy talking to a person because we sense on some level that their response won’t be helpful or kind. It’s usually best to listen to your instincts in this situation.

If you don’t have a trustworthy friend or relative you can talk to, try an online listening service such as 7 Cups. It’s a free, confidential service that will match you with a nonjudgmental volunteer listener.

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Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages Socialpro’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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