How to Express Feelings... and How Not to

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

Posted May 23, 2013

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 to sustain your  relationships.

Sharing positive feelings solidifies relationships.  Love, appreciation, gratitude, delight—sharing these feelings builds affectionate bonds.

At the same time, stresses occur in everyone's life, leaving them with sad, scared or mad feelings.  In addition, differences and hurt feelings will occur from time to time between just about any two people who often interact.  Sharing feelings enables you to talk through the situation that had caused the difficulty.  That way you can figure out how the problem occurred and what to do to fix it. Problem-solving together makes negative feelings lift.  Otherwise the problem may linger or get worse, negative feelings may fester, and both you and your relationship suffer.

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 feeling-word, that is, a 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.

The mistake that people often make when they are trying to share a feeling is to say "I feel that ... "  The word that indicates that what will follow is going to be a thought, not a feeling. 

Thoughts are fine to share. At the same time, thoughts convey dry information, not the juice of what you are experiencing within.  Feelings have a stronger bonding impact. So while sharing thoughts does build a sense of connection, the connection is less intense than when you also look inside yourself and then share the feelings that you discover there: hopeful, discouraged, pleased, wary, frustrated, delighted, etc. 

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  because most people are unaware that You make me feel…” 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 "You make me feel ... " is worth replacing with "I feel ..." 

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 dis-empowering. 

You make me feel ... ” gives away your power to fix your negative feelings. The phrase makes you into a helpless victim.  While the phrase induces guilt or shame in your partner, it simultaneously renders you powerless.

By contrast, “I feel ... ” describes you, not the other person, giving you the power to figure out what to do to feel better. Maybe your feeling is the result of being tired, hungry or overloaded.  Maybe the feeling comes from a challenging situation that needs considerable thought 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 focuses you and the person you are sharing with on your dilemma. Now, together, you can open the door to finding solutions. 

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

Because the phrase "You make me feel ... " sounds like an attack, and attacks beget counter-attacks, 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 probably could tell you more often how much I appreciate your clothes and hair and especially your smile.  And as I think about it, I can see that lately I’ve been so preoccupied with work that 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.  I'm wondering also  how come I’ve suddenly had this upsurge of wanting compliments.  I think that I have been feeling somewhat abandoned with your spending so much time working at your computer when you are at home.

By launching with the words "I feel ..."  Gina invites empathy and shared problem-solving 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) and the other person's 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 what others have said or done.

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.   "I feel ..." launches exploration of what you yourself are feeling and why. That's a path of self-discovery.

For example, "I feel abandoned when you bring home work in the evenings, leaving me off to myself. ... Maybe I need to expand my ways to enjoy evenings on my own instead of pining for your attention.  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 look inside yourself and label your internal feeling.  
  2. Anger invites defensiveness.  If your feeling is “mad” or “angry”, calm down before you start talking. An angry voice invites an angry voice in return.
  3. Then, to optimize the likelihood you will be heard without defensiveness, choose a word other than a word from the anger family for the feeling that remains, a word like “sad” or “scared..” .
  4. Launch what you say with “I feel….” “I felt…” or “I have been feeling….” e.g., "I feel discouraged about ..."
  5. Explain more about the source of the feeling.  A good sentence-starter for this explanation is “My concern is ….” e.g., "My concern is that I don't see an end in sight for your having to bring work home to do at night."
  6. 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 work 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 heard. 

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. Others may take personally, as a criticism of them, the negative feelings that you are describing. 

Fortunately though these reactions will be the exception. 

Mostly, following the guidelines above on how to express feelings and especially avoiding "You make me feel..,”  is likely to lead to empathic responses.  Equally important, sharing your inner feelings is likely to enhance the feeling of closeness between the two of you. 

"Intimacy" comes from the word "intima," which is the Latin word for the delicate and vulnerable linings of innermost body tissues.  Share intimate feelings successfully and the dialogue that emerges is likely to bring you soothing responses.

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD


(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

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. 

Dr. Heitler's latest book, Prescriptions Without Pills,  offers further strategies for effectively releasing negative feelings like depression, anger and anxiety.