I often hear clients ask whether it’s always wise to express their true feelings — and how to share them in ways that invite contact rather than conflict.
Some people insist that every feeling they notice needs to be expressed to their partner or friends. They fear that by holding back, they’ll diminish themselves or lose self-respect. They maintain that by holding something back, they’re not being fully authentic, which might undermine trust and connection.
Other people habitually keep their feelings and desires inside, fearful that if they’re expressed, this might fuel arguments and create distance. A fear of conflict or rejection prompts them to withhold their true feelings, which keeps them imprisoned in a small, isolated world.
A Middle Way
The potential pitfall of expressing every emotion is that it can begin to wear on the relationship, which becomes more about processing issues than enjoying each other’s company. Also, our manner of expression may injure trust if laced with subtle criticisms and shame.
The potential pitfall of not expressing our feelings is that we accumulate residues that ultimately gum up the connection. Intimacy requires authentic sharing of our hearts, which includes revealing how we’re being affected by each other, whether positively or negatively.
Just as Buddhism talks about the Middle Way — a path between self-denial and self-indulgence — we may need to find a middle path between indulging every feeling by voicing it and the self-suppression of stuffing our feelings.
Suggestion: Before expressing your feelings, needs, or viewpoints to a particular person, take some time to pause, lest you blurt out something that might be destructive and injurious that you might later regret. Go inside yourself and notice what signals your body is giving you about whether it feels “right” or wise to share something. Are you in a reactive mode? Or can you speak from a deep, authentic, and tender place? Do you feel safe enough to share it? Does it feel “right” to take a risk?
By “right,” I don’t mean right versus wrong, but rather does it resonate, fit, or ring true inside to say something? Focusing, an approach developed by Eugene Gendlin, is one helpful way to attune to ourselves and learn how to listen to and trust our inner felt sense of important concerns.
Some Considerations: Is there something you need from your partner before taking the risk to share your feelings or wants? Perhaps you have a need to be heard without judgment or not being interrupted (but don’t go on too long! We all have limited attention spans).
Do you have the intention to connect ... or be hurtful? Do you want to explore what’s true or are you clinging to being right? Are you coming from a place of fear or heartfelt caring? If you notice fear or hurt, take some time to be gentle with it, allowing it to settle before speaking.
Fear, hurt, and shame are often triggers for anger and blame. Consider sharing these more primary feelings, such as prefacing your words with, “This is scary for me to say” or “I feel a little vulnerable to say this.”
By attuning to your deepest feelings and wants, you can be true to yourself by sharing your genuine experience, yet in a way that’s more likely to create connection rather than fuel conflict and escalate tension.
Each couple needs to decide what works for them. But perhaps not every feeling or concern needs to be addressed. Sometimes it’s more prudent to soothe yourself rather than raise a potentially volatile issue. For example, if you notice your partner looking at another man or woman, you might ask yourself, “Is it really a big deal? Is this worth bringing up or might it introduce a sour note to our lovely walk in the park? Can I just let this go or let this be?”
If a feeling or concern keeps recurring, then perhaps it’s wise to share it rather than be consumed by an internal dialogue that keeps you spinning your wheels and feeling distant in the relationship.
It takes mindfulness and wisdom to catch issues early and address them skillfully so that our relationships can move toward their fullest potential. Psychotherapy and couples counseling can be helpful venues for exploring patterns and nuances that might be interfering with a blossoming of love and intimacy.
© John Amodeo
If you like this article, I invite you to check out my book, Dancing with Fire: Mindful Way to Loving Relationships
flickr photo by Alex Proimos