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.
(c) Shaiith www.fotosearch.com Stock Photography
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 be able to sustain your intimate relationships.

Sharing feelings enables you to talk through the situation causing the feelings.  That way you and others involved in the situation can figure out what to do about it. Otherwise negative feelings fester, the problem lingers or gets worse, and your relationship suffers.

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.

What's a reliably constructive sentence-starter for expressing your feelings?

Sharing feelings effectively often 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.  And I hear it far too often, not because I'm working with bad people, but just because most people are unaware of the reality that You make me feel…” almost always invites hurt feelings and arguments.

Why does the phrase "You make me feel ..." consistently get discussion of feelings off to a bad start?

Here's 5 reasons why this phrase is worth deleting from your vocabulary. 

After you understand the many ways in which this sentence-starter is counter-productive, you will hopefully feel all the more open to learning new and more effective ways to express feelings.

Problem #1: “You make me feel…” comes across as 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."   

Could you feel the difference?  If not, read them again, slowly and aloud.                     

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

You make me feel frustrated” puts the responsibility for your feelings on your listener, giving away the power to fix your negative feelings to the person you have blamed, and leaving you feeling powerless with regard to anything you yourself might do to feel better. The phrase makes you into a helpless victim.  That may induce guilt in your partner but at a cost of your having made yourself powerless.

By contrast, “I feel frustrated” desribes your own subjective experience, launching the possibility your awareness and insight will empower you to clarify 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 focusing on your dilemma and finding solutions. 

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

The phrase is provocative because it sounds like a direct attack, a claim that "You" are doing something bad to me. Attacks beget counter-attacks, so before long your conversation is likely to escalate into an angry 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 another couple, 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 you feel that way.  Actually it's all the more sad because I just about always like how you look.  I think though that I probablly take your good looks too much for granted instead of paying attention and telling you how much I appreciate your clothes and hair and especially your smile.  Maybe too I’ve been so preoccupied with work lately I haven’t noticed much else.

Gina: I’m so glad we are talking about this.  I feel better already, just understanding more what’s going on with you, and also thinking about how come I’ve suddenly had this upsurge of wanting compliments.

By launching with the words "I feel ..."  Gina invites empathy instead of counter-accusations.

Problem #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 the other person's subjective interpretation of the words or actions. 

For instance, if you try to make me laugh, I may respond with mild amusement, but I may also respond with scorn, with annoyance, with frustration, or with great affection.  It's the combo of what you say/do and what I bring to the situation in terms of my way of viewing it. That is, a listener’s response comes as much from factors within the listener as from the person that said or did something. 

In sum, one person alone can influence but doesn’t make another feel bad, or good. 

Problem #5: “You make me feel…” focuses you on your partner, taking your focus off the person you are responsible for understanding, which is yourself.

"You make me feel ..." followed by a negative emotion sets you into a stance of criticism toward your partner.  A far better stance is of sympathetic self-discovery.  "I feel ..." launches exploration of what you yourself are feeling and why. For example, "If feel abandoned when you bring home work in the evenings, leaving me off to myself. ... Maybe I need to expand my ways of entertaining myself so I would enjoy evenings on my own instead of pining for your atention.  I used to love reading novels...."

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. Narcissistic people for instance may ignite in irritation when they hear expressions of a partner's vulnerable feelings no matter how that feeling has been presented.  Fortunately though these people are the exception. 

Mostly, if you follow the guidelines above on how to express feelings so that you successfully avoid “You make me feel..,” sharing how you feel is likely to lead to improvements in situations that are giving you problems.  Equally important, sharing your inner feelings is likely to enhance the feeling of closeness between you. 

"Intimacy" comes from the word "intima" Latin for the delicate and vulnerable linings of innermost body tissues.  Share intimate feelings successfully and loving feelings are likely to flow.

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Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.  

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship test. 

Click the Power of Two logo to learn the skills for a strong, emotionally healthy and loving marriage.

 

                  

Mastering Self-Control