A new apprentice called to tell me that she and her new husband had a big fight because he wouldn’t listen to her share her feelings. He said he was tired of being made wrong; and all she wanted to do was tell him how she felt. She asked me, in a very discouraged tone; “How can I get him to just listen when I try to tell him how he is making me feel, instead of arguing with me?”
The minute I heard “when I try to tell him how he is making me feel” I guessed at the trouble. I asked her to tell me about the conversation and what had happened. She said they were talking about some money issues they were having, and she said, “I feel like you are careless with our money and should talk to me about it more.” He protested that he was not careless and told her “I feel like you are always making me wrong,” which, of course she denied: “I am only expressing my feelings.”
From reading books, our therapy experiences, even magazine articles, many of us learned to speak “I” language and “feeling” language. The point of this language was to keep discussions on our side of the fence, and be responsible for our part. It was a good idea, and is still an important skill in intimate relationships.
Unfortunately, many people miss the subtleties of “I feel” and continued to use the language to judge and blame. These statements do not share feelings:
- “I feel like you are insensitive when you talk like that.”
- “I feel I don't matter to you when you don’t pay attention to me.”
- “I feel like you are a jerk the way you talked to that waitress.”
- “I feel like I shouldn’t be so angry.”
Very few of us learned to speak clearly about our emotions and feelings. When we were little people, our inner feelings were hard-wired to our outer expression. They came up from our bellies and hearts, and came out in the form of tears, angry words, hitting, laughing while jumping on the couch, pouting, singing out our joy, being afraid of fireworks, and our impatient excitements. We were our feelings.
To the degree that the big people around us learned to repress their emotions, they repressed ours. We were domesticated to deny or manipulate our feelings to please the big people, and to win whatever reward they promised us for our achievement. We had to abandon the clear expression of our emotional experiences.
So how can we learn to speak an emotional language again?
Learning to use the words in a more precise way is a good start. Only use “I feel” when you are going to describe an emotional experience in your body. All of our emotions arise and can be felt in our bodies. I asked my apprentice what she was feeling when she was thinking her husband was careless with their money.
It took a bit of coaching to move her from her mind’s thinking to her body’s feeling, but in time she realized she felt angry! Now that is an emotional experience. “I felt angry!” describes the sensations in her body in that moment.
If you want to be better at expressing or sharing your feelings, learn to be very aware of your language. Use “I feel” only to describe your experience of an emotion in your physical body. Everything else is thinking. My apprentice realized she was thinking her husband was careless, and she felt angry.
As my apprentice started appreciating the possibilities, she blurted out: “I get it! I could have said to him; ‘I feel afraid when I think you are careless with our money!’ Then maybe he wouldn’t have felt I was making him wrong! Oh, wait, he didn’t feel wrong, he… thought… no, he felt afraid… afraid I didn’t love him, I bet. Oh, we were both afraid and didn’t know it, and so we fought.”
And new possibilities of feeling, sharing, and loving opened in their relationship.
I wish the same for you, dear reader.