Clarity Around Feelings

I am excited as I start this note, because I’d like to offer an idea I hope you’ll find helpful. I’m also nervous, because I want to find a way to express myself clearly.

Expressing our emotions can make our communications more engaging and help others connect to our humanity. However, not all emotional expressions are created equal. If we express ourselves in a way that implies the listener is to blame for our emotions (“You make me so angry”), we’re not likely to enjoy the results.

Many of us imagine that what others do, external events, cause our emotions. But, a little reflection shows it’s not that simple. Suppose a friend is not there to meet you at a coffee shop at the agreed time. You might be annoyed, because you think this means they don’t value your time. Or you might be worried, because you wonder if they’ve gotten into an accident. Or you might be relieved, because you wanted more time to yourself. It’s not the external event that causes our emotions, it’s the thoughts we use to interpret those events that determine what we feel. We have choice about what we think—usually more choice than we realize. When we blame others for our emotions, we are typically failing to acknowledge the choices that we have made that have contributed to those emotions. Others have an easier time hearing us when we take responsibility for our own thoughts and emotions, and avoid blaming.

Sometimes blame slips in sideways, when we think we are expressing an emotion. We might say we feel “ignored” or “insulted” or “unappreciated.” Although we label these as feelings, these words imply particular stories about what another person is doing to us. They are mixtures of judgment and emotion. If we feel “ignored,” it may really mean we have a judgment that someone isn’t paying attention to us in the way we think they should, and we feel angry, confused and hurt. Telling someone we’re in conflict with that we “feel ignored” is likely to provoke defensiveness because of the implicit negative judgment and lack of self-responsibility. However, telling the same person we are angry, confused, or hurt may contribute to mutual understanding, as long as these words aren’t delivered with a blaming tone.

Distinguishing between blaming pseudo-feelings and pure feelings is useful in clarifying our own thinking, as well as in our conversations with others. They next time you are expressing your feelings, ask yourself: Are there stories implicit in the words I am using, or am I naming pure emotions? Am I taking responsibility for the interpretations that lead to my feelings, or am I blaming someone else for my feelings?

Getting clear about the answers to these questions can produce more peace of mind, and more peace in our interactions.