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Expressing Your Feelings in Relationships

Most experts agree that open communication contributes to good relationships. However, one of the most awkward things about sharing strong feelings with another person is getting started.

When you want to express your feelings, you first need to get the attention of the other person involved. You have to pick a time and place when the other person really wants to hear your feelings. Then you need an effective way of getting your message across. These factors are especially important when the other person contributed to the way you feel - as in the case of anger in a relationship.

For openers, you could say something like:

  • I'd like to talk with you about... Is this a good time?
  • I've got a problem - could I share it with you?
  • Something's bothering me. May I talk with you about it?
  • I need your help on...
  • I'm really feeling (hurt, scared, angry, sad, worried, excited...)

Realize that when you share your feelings, many people will want to help you feel better or give you some advice. If this is okay with you, fine. If not - if you just want to ventilate - state what you want: I really would like you to hear my feelings. I'm not looking for advice or comfort, just a chance to ventilate; is that okay with you? If the person slips into the role of advisor or comforter, just gently remind him or her of what you want: I'd really like to tell you more about what I'm feeling.

In other words, you're probably going to have to train others to listen to your feelings. Few of us get that kind of education as we're growing up.

Now that you have the other person's attention, you're ready to get on to the important stuff. The path ahead is fraught with "road hazards" that can interfere with effective communication! Assume that you want to share your feelings about a behavior that you find bothersome; let's start with what not to do. Some ways to express feelings are not helpful because they deliberately threaten people. One of the most common of these ineffective approaches is called the "you-message."

You-messages attack and blame another person for your feelings: "You make me so mad!" "It's your fault I'm depressed." "You hurt my feelings." "You're stressing me out." Such messages set the state for counterattack. A person on the receiving end of a you-message often gets defensive - he or she doesn't really hear your feelings.

When you send a you-message, you place the responsibility for your feelings on someone else. It's as if you were saying, "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't feel this way." While it may be true that the other person is a stimulus for you to feel a certain way, your feelings are still your choice.

Now, on to what to do: I-messages. This is a style that gets your point across without attacking the other person.

I-messages are responsibility-taking messages. They don't attack, blame, ridicule or criticize - they simply share how you feel: "I feel hurt when you talk to me that way. It seems as if you don't care." "When I'm pushed, I feel stressed. I can't meet your time schedule and I think you expect me to."

I-messages have to do with letting another know he's affecting you, whether you feel good or feel as if he's stepping on your toes. The person's behavior may be violating your rights or contributing to your emotional state.

Some people find it easier to form I-messages if they use a formula:

  • When... (state the behavior that you find bothersome) "When we make plans to spend time together and you change your mind at the last minute..."
  • I feel... (state how you feel about the consequences the person's behavior has for you) "I feel disappointed..."
  • Because... (state the consequences of the person's behavior for you) "...because I was looking forward to our time together."

When you send an I-message, you're being respectful to the other person as well as yourself. You communicate an intent to stimulate cooperation, not rebellion or compliance.

Adapted from How You Feel Is Up to You: The Power of Emotional Choice (2nd Ed.), by Gary D. McKay, PhD, and Don Dinkmeyer, Sr., PhD. Available at online and local bookstores or directly from Impact Publishers, Inc., PO Box 6016, Atascadero, CA 93423-6016, or phone 1-800-246-7228.

Reviewed by athealth on February 4, 2014.