Wholeness Healing Today

Expressing Feelings in Relationships

This article is the follow-up to the last newsletter article of the “Art of Listening”. We talked about how to actively listen to another person in that article. In this article we will discuss how to express feelings. Feeling expression is not something we are usually taught growing up and does need some effort to develop. If you want a good relationship with closeness and intimacy, it is imperative that you learn how to express feelings.

Expressing feelings is different than expressing thoughts or beliefs. Feelings are emotions and sensations. For real release to happen within you, it is important to identify and express the feelings. If someone is starting a statement with “I feel that”, the person is about to express a belief. Don’t confuse beliefs with feelings.

Sometimes the most difficult part of expressing feelings is starting. I know from working with people, often their concern is that they don’t want conflict so they forgo the expression of feelings, when in reality, it doesn’t go away if you don’t talk about it. Rather, it probably builds. So if you are hesitant I suggest you start with the small issues. Begin with issues that feel less risky and start being honest with those to whom you are closest. And if you follow these steps, you are apt to get through it fine without a lot of conflict. So give it a try.

First, it is best to pick a time and a place when you have the other person’s attention and you know the other person wants to hear and listen to you. If possible make it a neutral time. This is especially important when the other person contributed to the way you are feeling. You could start by saying it several different ways:

I have a problem and I would like to share with you. Is this a good time?
Something is bothering me; could I talk to you about it?

I am really feeling (hurt, scared, angry, worried, excited). Can we talk about it?

Once you have the person’s attention, be prepared to handle it in the most optimal way. A major roadblock is using “you-messages”. Realize that when you use “you-messages”, you are making a statement that threatens and blames the other person for your feelings. It also means that you are not taking responsibility for your feelings. It automatically puts the person on the defense and your expression of feelings will probably not be heard in the way you want it to be heard. And remember that no one is responsible for how we feel. We each have a choice in how we respond and react to a situation. So ultimately you have to own your feelings as your own even if the person you are talking to about your feelings was part of the stimulus for them.

So you want to use “I-messages”. “I-messages” do not attack, criticize, ridicule or blame. Your goal is to stimulate cooperation, not compliance. You want the other person to be able to hear you and using “I-messages” will set that up in a better way. A good formula for using “I-messages” is the following:

When (state the behavior that you find bothersome) you get upset with me for not doing something the way you think I should do it,

I feel (state how you feel about the consequences of the behavior) inadequate,

Because (state the consequence of the person’s behavior for you) you never seem happy with anything I do.

Along with this formula it is important to use appropriate feeling words and also to describe the intensity of the feeling. For instance, if you say,” I feel angry”, the other person may think you are feeling “really angry” when it might be more frustration or irritation. Try to be specific with your choices and zero in on the intensity. If you feel several feelings, both glad and irritated, explain them both. “I felt glad when you helped me complete the project but irritated that you made the comment that I could not have completed it without you.”

Read through the feeling words below and start to consider them when you are looking to find feeling words that match your feeling and the intensity of your feeling. Sit with them and begin to become aware of your feelings so you can better express yourself when needed. Remember, the goal is to help the other person understand your feelings better and perhaps a more cooperative effort will take place. But the bottom line is that you express your feelings to be honest and real with another person. They do not have to do anything with the feelings you express. In fact, be aware that the first thing that might happen is that they will try to fix it. At that point you might want to assure the other person that you don’t expect them to fix your feelings, but just to hear you so they understand you better. And if that is too much of an issue, I would recommend you refer back to the last newsletter article that talks about how to listen to one another without doing anything else but really hearing.

Now you have the beginning tools to refine your expression of feelings, which is sure to add depth to your important relationships. Stretch your box and go for it. And because I am aware that this raises anxiety in people when they think about doing this kind of expression, in the next newsletter we will talk about relationship conflicts and how this can be healthy.

Tupy, P. R. (2008). http://www.saveyourmarriagecentral.com/index.html. Retrieved May 25, 2008, from Save Your Marriage Central.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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