The purpose of talking about a feeling is not to “let it out” or let someone “have it,” but to give added weight to the message in order to have the receiver make choices necessary for a healthy relationship.
Communicating feelings requires a kind of emotional literacy. The source of any emotion or feeling is in the body. The first step in any successful communication of feelings is the mindful awareness of the processes that are going on physically within the body. Identifying feelings requires mindfully thinking about and monitoring what is going on physically and psychologically in the body and in the environment.
Once you have a feeling for what is going on inside your body, the next step is to label that awareness as a feeling. It is important to learn to label your feelings using specific emotional language. Instead of saying you’re “feeling bad or mad,” being more specific, such as “I feel lonely,” or “I feel unappreciated,” may make us feel more vulnerable, but it also allows us to process and grow from the feelings more effectively.
Most of us have a small amount of emotional vocabulary to accurately describe our emotional state because feelings can often hurt or confuse us, making us feel vulnerable. Because of this, anger is usually used to defend and reinforce our internal boundaries. It is the emotion that is most available to people.
We usually try to control our feelings, often unsuccessfully due their biological and psychological complexity. The best way to control and manage our feelings is to learn to express them in a healthy manner in a way that is of benefit to yourself and others. In fact, the healthy expression strengthens us and is a source of self-esteem, while the opposite leads to anxiety and depression.
Communicating Your Feelings Successfully
• Describe the degree of your feelings. Are you furious or mildly irritated?
• Use “I” messages. “I feel _________ when __________.”
• Take full responsibility for your feelings, rather than blame others. Even if their behavior bothers you, your feelings are uniquely yours to express and to manage.
• If possible, choose a “safe” audience. Choose someone who is willing to listen and to do so without interrupting or judging you.
• Talk to a clergyman, counselor or mental health professional if your feelings overwhelm you and disrupt your life.
How to Express Difficult Feelings
Feelings vs. Thoughts and Beliefs
Feelings and thoughts are different, but they are also related to each other. They are like the head and tail of a coin. Though we may not be fully aware of them, we react to events first with our primary feelings, through which we make general decisions. Feelings are emotions, and sensations, and they are different from thoughts, beliefs, interpretations, and convictions. When difficult feelings are expressed, the sharp edges are dulled, and it is easier to release or let go of the bad feelings. If we only express our beliefs about the event and not about the feelings, the bad feelings linger and are often harder to release. Whenever someone says, “I feel that…,” the person is about to express a belief, not a feeling.
Guidelines for Expressing Feelings
Try to be specific, rather than general, about how you feel. Consistently using only one or two words to say how you are feeling, such as bad or upset, is too vague and general. What kind of bad or upset (irritated, sad, anxious, afraid, sad, hurt, lonely, etc.)?
Also, specifying the degree of the feelings will reduce the chances of being misunderstood. For example, some people may think when you say, “I am angry,” it means you are extremely angry when you actually mean you are “a little irritated.”
When expressing anger or irritation, first describe the specific behavior you don’t like, then your feelings. This helps to prevent the other person from becoming immediately defensive or intimidated when they first hear “I am angry with you,” which could cause them to miss the message.
If you have mixed feelings, say so, and explain your ambivalence. For example, “I have mixed feelings about what you just did. I am glad and thankful that you helped me, but I didn’t like the comment about being stupid; it was disrespectful and unnecessary and I found it irritating.”
Dr. Standal helps you learn techniques for healthy expression of feelings. Using a person centered approach, he helps you learn the following:
1. Using “I feel” statements and “I” messages will help you express your feelings productively.
2. Respectfully confront someone when you are bothered by his or her behavior.
3. Express difficult feelings without attacking the self-esteem of the person.
4. Clarify for yourself and the other person precisely what you feel.
5. Prevent feelings from building up and festering into resentment and contempt.
6. Communicate difficult feelings in a manner that minimizes the other person’s need to become defensive, and increases the likelihood that the person will listen.
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