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Fingers and Feelings


In my private practice I’ve found most people use only general terms for the feelings they experience, but when they identify more precisely what they’re really feeling they benefit greatly.  For example, if you asked a friend who looked unhappy what s/he was feeling, they might say “bummed out” or “shitty or “pissed.” Okay, so what did you learn?  What did this person learn about herself or himself?  Not much.


If your friend responded: “I’m annoyed” or “worried” or “just kind of lonely,” then you’d have some insight and you might have a meaningful conversation about their problem, potentially even giving some relief.  “Want to tell me what you’re annoyed about . . . worried about . . .” etc.  Best of all, you can do this for yourself, and when you identify what you’re really feeling you can dig yourself out of that funk.

The common terms we use to describe our feelings are generic terms like angry, depressed, or sad.  We can do better.  There are some basic, fundamental feelings that lead to anger, depression, stress, and the other generics, and those are the ones we need to identify.  I’ll illustrate each of them here.  Note that I’m using five fingers to help you “unfold” the fist of anger or tension so we can home in on the underlying feeling.  The specific finger will help you remember which is which.


Okay, let’s start with the thumb.  That’s fear, our oldest emotion, the one most responsible for the survival of our species.  Imagine your ancestors in that cave, chillin’ over a hot fire and changing the baby’s diaper when a panther appears at the entrance.  That’s fight or flight time, all activated by fear.  We have little use for fear today, with our predictable society and few panther encounters, but it’s still inside us.  (What we do have is anxiety, fear’s nasty cousin.)

Here’s a scenario:  You’re walking in the park (okay, the sidewalk for you Big City folks) and your two pint-sized kids are frolicking ahead, giggling and running and—"Wait, kids! Don’t step off the curb, that car’s coming too fast, kids, KIDS!”  Whew.  I felt a little of it just then, did you?  So what do you do when you reach them?  You scold them.  “Don’t you dare get so far ahead, you hear me?!  You have to watch the street, are you listening to me?” 


Yeah, anger.  That’s what comes up, that’s what we show, but deep inside it was fear, pure fear. Imagine if we’d run up to them and said: “Oh kids, I was so scared!  You didn’t see the cars and you could have been hurt.  We’ll stay closer together from now on.”  We’re in touch with our real feeling here: fear, and once identified we don’t need the Anger Cover. 

Move to the index finger.  We’ll assign embarrassment to this one.  Sounds like a silly little emotion, embarrassment, but it can be very powerful, depending on your sensitivity.  You’re at a party and Betsy tells that idiotic story about how you couldn’t find your way out of the Mall of America two year ago and the mall police had to find you and everybody was waiting and you just hate that story.  It makes you feel so lame, so dumb, so embarrassed.  Or you’re talking with the

guys about last Sunday’s NFL game and you describe a particularly savage tackle when Harold says “Hey, you’re the only one here that didn’t play football back at Thompson High, isn’t that right?  You were in Band.  Clarinet, right?”  In both cases, the ride home is likely to be an angry one, and Betsy/Harold get excoriated, at least in your mind.

Reimagine the response if you’d said (not so much to Betsy or Harry, but to your friend or partner on the way home, or best of all, just to yourself): “That embarrassed me.  I felt like a little kid.”  Bravo!  You’re in touch with the real feeling.  And by identifying it you are free.  No. Anger. Needed.

Ah, the nasty middle finger.  What is more associated with anger than this digit?  But here, we’ll name it the frustration finger, because frustration is one of the most common feelings of our day.  We’re almost always on a mission to get something done, to accomplish, to get there, to focus, to do our thing.  Of all these basic emotions, this is the one that most often expresses itself as irritation and anger.  Better to call it what it is.


Frustration is simply having an objective and being thwarted from achieveing it.  Catch the 8:10 bus?  No, just missed it.  Get the promotion?  Naw, boss chose the new guy.  Into that TV show?  The kids need help with their homework/ phone call/power out/ whatever.  Ninety percent of the time we can tolerate these and a thousand other things, but the other ten percent is a real problem.  Next time you get irritated, stop and check whether it was really frustration at being diverted from a task, unsuccessful at something, stuck in traffic, unable to control something, unable to find something, unable to reach someone, etc.  Frustration.


Next, the ring finger, which represents hurt.  Picture this: you’re walking along with a couple of friends in some distant city, and you spot your workmate Gerald walking toward you.  Your eyes connected briefly so you know he saw you, and as you get close you raise a hand in greeting but Gerald walks right by you without so much as a word.  Yes, most of us would be mumbling an angry thing or two about Gerald, or thinking them, like “thinks he’s a big shot who can’t say hello?!”

While it’s likely that Gerald was preoccupied, or didn’t really recognize you, or something else entirely, it still hurt your feelings.  Say so to yourself.  Honor it.  You can still be a little angry, but knowing what lies beneath opens the path to healthy communication, if only with yourself  This is especially important with those we live with who can hurt your feelings (and vice-versa) regularly.  Consider the ring finger when you’re pissed at your partner.

And finally, jealousy, sitting so innocently on the pinky.  We’re not supposed to feel jealous, so it seems, but it’s real whether we admit it to ourselves or not.  The guy you kinda like asked your roommate out instead of you.  Most of your friends got to work from home during the coronavirus quarantine, but you lost your job.  That really cool apartment you applied for went to someone else.

You’re jealous, dude, of course you are.  I’d be too. It’s a real emotion, and we need to name it and feel it and not cover it over with anger.  Just saying “Whoa, I am so jealous that X got Y instead of me” can clarify a lot, and put you well on your way to accepting the situation.  Don’t let that pinky hide under the fist.


  • Richard Boersma

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