Charles Wright really said it best when he said, “Express Yourself! Express yourself!…you don’t need any help from anybody else….all you gotta do now is express yourself!”
Well, maybe you do want a little help from someone to figure out how best to express yourself and I am here to help. I wish expressing emotions was naturally easy; emotions just have a way of taking hold of you and making communication a little messy at times in relationships. Think about how you tend to communicate when you’re upset with your partner. Maybe you feel like every time you try to share how you’re feeling it ends with conflict. And maybe because of this you have stopped expressing all together. Or perhaps your relationship has been stuck in a constant conflict because all you feel like you’re doing is sharing how you feel but nothing is changing as a result.
Whatever your experience has been I think it is safe for me to assume that we all hope we are able to express ourselves in a way that is met with a more compassionate response versus defensiveness or immediate conflict.
Why is emotional expression difficult?
During conflict, it can be easy to immediately place blame on your partner and what he or she is doing to upset you. You may have found yourself saying, “You’re being so insensitive…[or] you’re really starting to annoy me [or] you <insert any other statement>.”
It can be easier, and maybe more natural, to place blame rather than to consider how you are feeling and why. Here is the three-step approach I share with couples to help them adapt a new way of communicating how they are feeling.
Consider these three steps any time you feel yourself becoming triggered and you fear an argument or fight is brewing.
1. Pause when you're angry.
It can be super relieving to say, “Stop being so rude!” That statement doesn’t require much thought and is a way of reacting to what you feel. This first step is all about pausing to halt the knee-jerk reaction you may have become used to using whenever upset. Simply pausing during moments of frustration can do numbers for your relationship! Pausing is also a great time to take an emotional step back and take a deep breath (or a few) to help regulate your emotional state.
2. Consider what else you're feeling.
If you feel like your partner is being insensitive, what is this insensitivity causing you to feel? I think this can be tough for many to uncover. If my husband said something that felt insensitive it likely hurt my feelings. Maybe I felt unimportant, stupid, ashamed, inferior, or <insert negative emotion here>.
Emotion is data. And just like information, some data are easier to find than other data.
Uncovering how you feel is extremely important in being able to express your emotions with your partner. Once you uncover how you feel the focus is now on you and your emotion versus placing blame on your partner. Sometimes it can feel like all you feel is anger, but there’s usually something else going on. Maybe sadness or hurt? Those emotions invite conversation. Anger just attacks or defends.
3. Use "I" statements to express how you feel.
Bottom line. Don’t talk about how you feel by describing what your partner is doing. Instead of saying, “I feel like you’re being a jerk,” describe how you feel when your partner is acting how she/he acts.
Avoiding using “you” can help decrease defensive reactions from your partner because he or she does not feel blamed or attacked. It is hard to argue with how another person feels, but it can be easy to argue with what feels like a blame or an unjust attack.
If I continue with the insensitive example with my husband I may say, “Hey, I’m feeling a little unimportant and hurt by the response I just heard…” Notice how the focus is all on me and how I feel versus pointing fingers at him. Even saying, “I need to take a minute after what was just said, I am upset and feeling sad right now” can be huge.
Not only are you pausing to allow yourself to cool down, but you are also expressing your feelings. Challenge yourself to keep “you” out of any expression, and see how that may positively impact the dynamic when conflict is creeping up.
When you’re reading these steps you may be thinking, “easy enough!” Or maybe you’re thinking these steps seem too simple and too easy to really work. Whichever train of thought you are on I think the goal in a relationship is to continue to look for ways to communicate more effectively with one another. Using these three steps to emotionally express yourself will likely take practice and may be met with resistance in the beginning. Try them out and see what happens- you may surprise yourself with how arguments can change in your relationship with even just accomplishing step one- pausing! Build on as time goes on and see if you and your partner can change up pattern of conflict your relationship is in.
To schedule an appointment with Mandi Roarke, LMFT-Associate, call 512-537-0995.