By PT Staff, published on December 1, 2003 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
For many people, especially women, much of their mental energy goes
into stuffing their feelings so far down they don’t even know they
have them. They spend their life pleasing others, seeking the approval of
everyone but themselves.
“We are nobodies. We are in hiding. We don’t know who
we are,” says psychologist Emilie Ross Raphael, Ph.D., of Chapel
Hill, North Carolina. She means “we” not in the collective
sense but in the personal sense. She includes herself among those who
have—or in her case, had—to learn how to be honest about her
Typically, says Raphael, the problem involves always saying
“yes” when often you mean “no.” And the
resolution typically comes down to giving yourself permission to feel
angry—and finding the courage to say what’s on your mind
without fear of losing the love of others.
Until this happens, it’s not possible to have a healthy
relationship. Hurt feelings are inevitable in relationships, bound to
arise in a fast-paced world of imperfect communication between
The trick is speaking them. That requires expressing anger
appropriately—one of the great challenges of being a grownup and
managing ourselves. More often people hold their feelings in, then at
some minor infraction explode out of proportion to the cause, often
bewildering everyone around them.
It’s not an overnight process. You have to learn to set
limits with others. And to move the sources of approval inward, from
outward. “This is the story of my life,” says Raphael.
“It comes from having hard-to-please parents who set high
standards. When we grow up we carry the critical parents around in our
head. We become the critical ones. We are, for example, forever
discounting compliments. And we maintain a low self-image by selectively
focusing on negative input from those around us.”
For starters, you have to begin to think of anger as a constructive
emotion. It’s a signal that your feelings are hurt and you must
move into conflict resolution. Raphael sets out the steps in her book
Free Spirit: A Declaration of Independence for
Here is Raphael’s advice for expressing anger
Examine whether your current anger or resentment or
hurt feelings are the tip of a much larger iceberg. How long have you had
such feelings? If you get upset with your husband because he’s
going out with his buddies for an evening, maybe it really isn’t
about that instance but about how much of his himself he generally gives
to you and your feeling that it isn’t enough.
Learn to be brave. If you feel that you are easily
intimidated into backing down, write down your feelings and give your
writing to the other person.
Don’t make blaming statements. Conflict
resolution begins with the understanding that truth is relative. So much
depends on one’s perspective, and none of us has a lock on the
whole picture of anything. Nevertheless, most people start with exactly
the most destructive question: Who is right and who is wrong. Two people
spend time trying to convince the other of the rightness of his or her
own position. But in fact, most disagreements are based on
interpretations that come directly from private experiences in life, not
some verifiable Truth.
The single best way to resolve conflict is to listen to
the other party. Most people just want to be heard; it is a basic form of
validation. And often the solution suggests itself from what is
Allow your partner to express his or her grievances.
This is a good thing, because otherwise these feelings build walls
Take responsibility for your part in creating problems.
Ask yourself: How did my actions and the things I’ve said or failed
to say helped to create this situation or crisis?
It’s the final step that people most commonly
fall short on—accepting responsibility for making things better.
“You need to seek out what will make the situation better in the
future so this situation doesn’t arise again,” observes
Raphael. “Further, you need to tell the other person, ‘this
is what I need from you now to make things better.’ You need to
take responsibility for what will fix it now. Is it merely listening? Is
it an apology? Most people miss this piece.”