Larry Alan Nadig, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologsit, Marriage & Family Therapist

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by Larry Nadig,
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Last updated:
December 23, 2010

 

How to Express Difficult Feelings 

 

Feelings Versus Thoughts and Beliefs 

Feelings and thoughts are different, but also are one and the same. They are like the head and tail of a coin. We react to events with both thoughts and feelings. 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 feeling. If we only express our beliefs about the event and not 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, mad, anxious, afraid, sad, hurt, lonely, etc.).
Specify the degree of the feelings, and you will reduce the chances of being misunderstood. For example, some people may think when you say, "I am angry" means you are extremely angry when you actually mean a "little irritated".
When expressing anger or irritation, first describe the specific behavior you donít like, then your feelings. This helps to prevent the other person from becoming immediately defensive or intimidated when he first hears "I am angry with you", and he could miss the message.
If you have mixed feelings, say so, and express each feeling and explain what each feeling is about. For example: "I have mixed feelings about what you just did. I am glad and thankful that you helped me, but I didnít like the comment about being stupid. It was disrespectful and unnecessary and I found it irritating".

Techniques for Expressing Feelings

The two following - I feel statements and I messages will help you:

Express feelings productively.
Respectfully confront someone when you are bothered by his or her behavior.
Express difficult feelings without attacking the self-esteem of the person.
Clarify for you and the other person precisely what you feel.
Prevent feelings from building up and festering into a bigger problem.
Communicate difficult feelings in a manner that minimizes the other personís need to become defensive, and increases the likelihood that the person will listen.

When you first start using these techniques they will be cumbersome and awkward to apply, and not very useful if you only know them as techniques. However, if you practice these techniques and turn them into skills, it will be easy for you to express difficult feelings in a manner that is productive and respectful.

Which of the two methods you use for expressing your feelings should depend on your goal, the importance or difficulty of your feelings and the situation.

  1. I feel statements are used in situations that are clear and fairly simple, when you what to express yourself and avoid a buildup of feelings without attacking or hurting the self-esteem of the other.
  2. I messages are used in more complex situations to clarify for yourself and the other person just what you are feeling when a) you have difficult negative feelings, b) you confront someone and want them to change their behavior, and c) it is very sensitive and important that the other person accurately understand.

I Feel Statements

These statements take the form of "When you did that thing I felt this way. That thing is a behavior of the other person, and this way is your specific feelings. Here are some examples:

"I felt embarrassed when you told our friends how we are pinching pennies."
"I liked it when you helped with the dishes without being asked."
"I feel hurt and am disappointed that you forgot our anniversary".

I Messages

It is called an I message because the focus is on you, and the message is about yourself. This is in contrast to a You message which focuses on and gives a message about the other person. When using I messages you take responsibility for your own feelings, rather than accusing the other person of making you feel a certain way. A You message does not communicate a feeling, but a belief about the other person. The essence of an I message is "I have a problem", while the essence of a You message is "You have a problem".

There are four parts to an I message:

  1. When ... Describe the personís behavior you are reacting to in an objective, non-blameful, and non-judgmental manner.
  2. The effects are ... Describe the concrete or tangible effects of that behavior. (This is the most important part for the other person to understand - your reaction.)
  3. I feel ... Say how you feel. (This is the most important part to prevent a buildup of feelings.)
  4. Iíd prefer ... Tell the person what you want or what you prefer they do. You can omit this part if it is obvious.

The order in which you express these parts is usually not important. Here are some examples:

" When you take company time for your personal affairs and then donít have time to finish the urgent work I give you, I get furious. I want you to finish the companyís work before you work on your personal affairs."
"I lose my concentration when you come in to ask a question, and I donít like it. Please donít interrupt me when I am working unless it is urgent."
"It is very hard for me to keep our place neat and clean when you leave your clothes and other stuff laying around. It creates a lot more work for me and it takes a lot longer, and I get resentful about it. Iíd prefer that you put your clothes away and put your trash in the basket."
"I resent it when your flirting with the women keeps you from having time for your work, because it means more work for me."

Common Mistakes  

Not expressing a feeling at all, expressing a belief or judgment.
Sending a disguised You message.
Only expressing negative feelings.
The nonverbal body language contradicting the words. For example, smiling when irritated.

Practice these techniques and turn them into useful skills.  Make it easy for yourself to spontaneously express difficult feelings in a manner that is productive and respectful.  

If you are having trouble coming up with more than 3 or 4 words for feelings, here is a Feelings Word List.

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Contents: .
Home 

How to Express

Difficult Feelings 

Tips on Listening 

Conflict: Healthy

or Unhealthy

Stress: Health &
Relationship Killer

Selecting a Mate

Weight Control

Holiday Blues

How to Get the Most From Therapy 

Psychological Tests

About Dr. Nadig

Treatment Philosophy

Professional Services and Fees



 .