Mastering Self-Control

Take the reins! Here's what behavioral science tells us about breaking bad habits, kickstarting new ones, and recharging your willpower.

How to Express Feelings... and How Not to

Saying what you feel can intensify your connections...or can wreck relationships

How to express feelings without being rude.

Say what you feel in a way that you'll be heard.

We are wired to have feelings. If we express these feelings in off-putting ways, this wiring can invite a disconnect in our relationships.  By contrast, expressing feelings in a safe way can lead to our feeling more connected, especially to loved ones.  Knowing how to express feelings tactfully therefore is vital if you want to feel close to people and experience intimacy in your relationships. Sharing feelings enables you to talk through the situation causing the feelings so you and others involved in the situation can figure out what to do about it. Learning how to express feelings without being rude or hurtful therefore is an especially essential skill to develop if you would like to be able to fix marriage problems.

Sharing feelings usually begins with two simple words: “I feel….”. Fill in the blank then with a single feeling word such as confused, delighted, or exhausted. 

If you’re having trouble identifying the feeling, you can do multiple choice. Try picking one from these four basics: mad, sad, glad, or scared.

What is the most common mistake people make when they try to share their feelings?

Too often, instead of  saying “I feel…, ” people start out with the mistaken phrase “You make me feel…” 

“You make me feel …!” is one of the phrases that, as a marriage therapist, I cringe when I hear.  Alas, I hear it often.  Distressed couples ususally lack the skills for sustaining a smoothly positive relationship.

“You make me feel…” almost always invites hurt feelings and arguments.

Here’s five reasons why the phrase consistently gets a discussion of feelings off to a bad start.  I hope that understanding it with more clarity will encourage you to delete the phrase from your vocabulary. 

Reason #1: “You make me feel…” is an accusation, a statement of blame, not a statement of your feelings. 

Statements of feelings, and especially of vulnerable feelings like sad, confused, or anxious, invite empathy from most listeners.   Accusations, by contrast, are off-putting, inviting defensiveness and antagonism.  

Compare the following pairs of phrases.  Which would you prefer to hear?

Cluster A:“ “I feel uncomfortable.”  “I feel sad.”  “I feel stupid.”               

Cluster B:  “You make me feel uncomfortable.” “You make me sad.”  “You make me feel stupid."                                 

Reason #2: “You make me feel…” is disempowering. 

You make me feel frustrated” puts the responsibility for your feelings on your listener.  The outcome is that power to fix your negative feelings goes to the person you have blamed. If the person you have accused nevertheless wants to respond with helpfulness, hooray.  That could be great.  But if not, which is the more likely outcome, you are probably going to be left feeling powerless with regard to how to feel better.

By contrast, “I feel frustrated” conveys that you are describing your own experience, which launches the possibility of gaining empowerment through insight and thereby a vision of what to do to feel better. Maybe your frustration is the result of being tired, hungry or overloaded.  Maybe the frustration comes from a challenging situation that needs careful thinking to figure out how to remedy it.   

Stating your feelings by starting with the pronoun I and the phrase I feel …  is empowering because it opens the door to exploring the dilemma and finding solutions. 

Reason #3: “You make me feel…” invites counter-accusations.

The phrase is provocative.  It not only closes the door to empathic listening.  It simultaneously opens a passageway to hostile responses and escalating argument.  Here’s an example:

LindaYou make me feel unattractive.  You hardly ever compliment me.

Len:     Well that’s because you make me feel like a terrible husband…. [and they’re off down the road of fighting.]

When Len hears Linda’s “You make me feel” he tunes in to the accusation and tunes out from listening to her concerns. 

By contrast, when Gina and Gerald face the same situation with a different sentence starter, I feel…, the dialogue turns out to be quite productive.

Gina:  I feel unattractive.  When you hardly ever compliment me, I think I must not look good to you.

Gerald:  I’m so sorry.  I always like how you look.  I think I take your good looks for granted. I think too that I just don’t pay much attention to clothes and hair and that kind of thing.  Also, I’ve been so preoccupied with work I haven’t noticed much else.

Gina: Yes, and I think when you get preoccupied like that I get feeling insecure and begin to worry that maybe you’re not attracted to me any more.  I’m so glad we are talking about this.  I feel better already, just understanding more what’s going on with me, and also thinking about how come I’ve suddenly had this upsurge of wanting compliments.

Gina meets with success by expressing her feelings directly, starting with the essential pronoun I  and the feelings statement I feel… 

Reason #4: “You make me feel” is based on a misunderstanding about what triggers feelings.

One person generally does not alone make another feel anything.  What matters is the combination of what one person says or does with what another thinks about the words or actions. 

For instance, if you try to make me laugh, I may respond with amusement, but I may also respond with scorn.

Similarly, if you try to “make me feel guilty,” I may instead respond by regarding you as manipulative.  In that case your attempt to induce guilt to get me to do what you want will backfire.  I will regard you as unattractive and experience a decrease in desire to be responsive to your concerns.  That is, a listener’s response comes as much from factors within the listener as from the person that said or did something. 

Here’s another example.  Gina, feeling agitated, might say to Gerald, “Please, keep your magazines on the shelf.  The living room looks such a mess!  They’re all over the floor.”

How will Gerald respond?.  The happy reality is that even if Gerald may not love it when his wife gets agitated and makes requests for neatness, he can react to her in a number of ways. 

  • He might snap back, “You make me so annoyed.  Stop criticizing me and telling me what to do!”  That response would imply that annoyance is the only response he could feel when hearing Gina’s complaint.
  • He might calmly defend himself, “It isn’t so bad.  We live here.  The living room is for living in, not just a showcase.”
  • He might chuckle comfortably, “You’re right, it is a mess.  I’d rather work here another hour or so though, leaving the clutter, and then pick up just before I go to bed.  Is that OK for you?”
  • Or he might ask with concern, “Gina, is something bothering you?  Last time you got annoyed by my chaos was when you were bummed about your work.  I often make a mess like this and usually you just tease me about it.”

Gerald’s emotional reaction is shaped by Gina’s comment and tone of voice and also by the meanings he attributes to her words and tone.  Those meanings come from Gerald as much as from Gina.  Gerald might respond with an automatic defensive “kid in trouble” reaction.  If he is sufficiently self-confident, he might be able to retain his own reading of himself in the face of Gina’s more critical reading, in which case he might view her irritability with compassion.  Self-confidence can also enable him to chuckle at his foible.  A sense of humor can provide him with resilience that absorbs provocation and turns it into bemusement or empathy. 

In sum, one person doesn’t make another feel bad, or good.  One can intend to make the other feel something, good or bad.  Still, the other’s reaction has as much to do with him or her as with what the first person has done.  What you say and do may trigger an initial gut reaction, especially if you are explicitly hostile, and yet your partner can think about the reaction and can choose from there, and vice versa. 

Reason #5: “You make me feel…” hides the reality that the larger choices you make matter as much or more than what your partner does in determining how you feel.   

Prolonged exposure to joy tends to beget joy, and negativity tends eventually to have a negative emotional impact.  For instance, if you spend extended time with someone who radiates genuine joie de vivre, you would have to be profoundly angry, anxious, or depressed not to find the enthusiasm contagious.  Similarly, if you are exposed at length to someone who relentlessly criticizes you, you are likely to find that you can only keep your morale up for so long.  If you live with a partner who is often negative or hurtful, minimizing the time you spend together and finding upbeat others to be with for rejuvenation is essential.

So back to the question of how to express feelings. Here's 5 guides to success.

  1. Pause to label your internal feeling.  
  2. If the word is “mad” or “angry”, calm down before you start talking.  Then find a calmer more vulnerable word for the feeling that remains, something like “sad” or “scared..” Words that label the vulnerable feeling that lies under anger optimize the likelihood you will be heard without defensiveness. Be sure to keep your tone of voice calm as well.  An angry voice invites an angry voice in return.
  3. Launch what you say with “I feel….” “I felt…” or “I have been feeling….” And fill in the blank.
  4. Explain the source of the feeling.  A good sentence-starter for this explanation is “My concern is ….”
  5. If you need to specify your partner’s role in the feeling, start that sentence with “When you..” for instance, “When you came in so late last night from bowling I felt very scared.”  Continue then with “My concern was…” and you are on the road to mutual understanding.

The bottom line

The bottom line is that how you express feelings makes a huge difference in how receptively your feelings will be listened to.  At the same time, the person with whom you are sharing your feelings has a major role in whether the discussion will be positive or not.  

Some people ignore or ignite in irritation when they hear expressions of feelings.  Fortunately though these people are the exception. 

Mostly, if you follow the guidelines above on how to express feelings and avoid “You make me feel..,” sharing how you feel is likely to release negative energies from within you so you feel better, lead to improvements in situations that are giving you problems, and enhance the closeness with the people with whom you share what you feel.  

--------------

Denver clincial psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D. is author of the Power of Two book, workbook and online program that teach how to sustain positive relationships.  Her free online quiz helps people assess their skills for marriage partnership.

 

 

 

                  

Mastering Self-Control