Time and time again, the most powerful shift in couples I coach happens when they start expressing their feelings to one another. Our emotions are truly the language of connection. And so it is tragic that we in the West have mostly been cut off from our feelings.
Emotions are not simply whatever we put after the phrase “I feel…” Unfortunately, we’ve learned to replace feelings with lots of thoughts. “I feel like you don’t care about me.” “I feel left out.” “I feel judged.” These are all thoughts presented as feelings. A great litmus test to determine if you’re talking about a feeling or thought is the phrase “you ___ me.” If you fill in that phrase and it makes grammatical sense then it is likely you are expressing a thought rather than a feeling. “You don’t care about me”, “you left me out”, and “you judged me” are all thoughts and not feelings.
Alternatively “you happy me”, “you sad me”, and “you angry me” don’t make grammatical sense, and so are actually feelings and not thoughts. Many of us use the words “I feel” as if they are magic words that make everything that comes after them a subjective emotional experience. But humans see through that. Saying “I feel judged” and “I feel hurt” have two very different impacts upon listeners.
So why does sharing our thoughts lead to so much antagonism and conflict, while expressing our feelings raises the probability of experiencing connection? There are two reasons for this. One is that thoughts inherently have a true or false value. A thought is either “right” or it is “wrong”. And none of us really want to be “wrong”, especially when we are in conflict. This is because our culture shames us for being “wrong”. When we are “wrong” we get bad grades in school, we sometimes subject to ridicule, and often we are treated with more mistrust. And so it is only natural that we will do almost anything to prove ourselves “right”.
But unfortunately this “right” vs. “wrong” game is at the center of unhealthy conflict. As long as you see conflict as essentially being about who is “right” and who is “wrong”, you will be stuck in a loop of conflict. You may be able to win a particular “battle” but the war will never end.
The second reason why sharing our emotions helps create connection is because feelings are universal and illicit an empathetic reaction in others. We all experience the same emotions. We all know what it is like to feel sad, lonely, shame, hurt, and joy. And so emotions are the easiest way for me to empathize with your experience. And emotions naturally illicit that empathetic reaction because to express our feelings is a vulnerable act. When we speak with vulnerability, others are naturally drawn to empathetic reactions. While this isn’t a guarantee, it is much more likely for a listener to react with empathy to “I feel hurt” than “I feel judged”.
So consider building your feelings vocabulary. Practice identifying and expressing your emotions, even if you start by just doing this with yourself. You can even do the deeper practice of finding what emotions lie behind your thoughts. Translating your thoughts into feelings is at the heart of the work of making your communication more compassionate and a bridge to connection.