Have you ever been in a conversation that escalated into a heated argument when you were only trying to express how you feel?
It may go something like this:
We’re simply trying to express our point of view to let the other person know how we feel.
All of a sudden, they get defensive.
Then we get upset they’re being defensive and aren’t listening to us!
Sound familiar? This situation can be frustrating, confusing and painful.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), this common issue is often caused by the language we use. We end up tossing out judgments instead of feelings, and blaming the other person instead of expressing how we feel.
The good news is that once we become aware of the ways we screw up important conversations through our language, we can make simple changes to begin resolving the issue!
The Difference Between Feelings & Thoughts
Have you ever used one of these phrases?
“I feel attacked…”
“I feel abandoned…”
“I feel manipulated….”
“I feel excluded”
“I feel cheated”
“I feel abused”
“I feel misunderstood”
These are standard expressions in our culture, with a very big inherent flaw. None of the words above are “pure” feelings. They are thoughts, interpretations, and judgments about the other person or their actions.
“Pure” feelings and emotions correlate to physical sensations within the body.
We can viscerally feel emotions such as fear, sadness, and anger. These feelings are very different than our interpretations or judgments about a situation.
How We Confuse Thoughts & Feelings
Thoughts are what we think. The meaning we attach to these thoughts determines how we feel.
When we say, “I feel attacked,” we’re trying to express both our thoughts and feelings at the same time, but we miss the important distinction.
Let’s break this statement down: I feel attacked.
In this case, we are having thoughts that we are being attacked. We may be assuming something on the part of the other person (which is usually the case), or we may have strong evidence they are, in fact, attacking us (they tried to hit us).
As a result of thinking or believing we are being attacked, we might FEEL hurt, afraid, sad, angry, or irritated.
By using the words, “I feel attacked”, we’re not actually communicating how we feel. If the other person was not intending to attack us, then they might feel hurt or irritated by what we’re implying about their behavior.
How to Separate Feelings From Thoughts
It is very common to start sharing our thoughts by stating, “I feel like…” (I still catch myself doing this on a regular basis). If we catch ourselves, we can make sure that what we say we feel is an actual emotion. We can also take responsibility for our feelings by acknowledging they are a result of what we’re thinking. The important part is to keep the focus on our own experience, without blaming the other person for our feelings.
“When you tell me to ‘get over it’, I feel hurt because I think I’m being attacked for feeling upset about the situation.”
“When you shake your head and roll your eyes, I feel irritated because I think you’re not listening to me.”
Identifying & Expressing Feelings
When we feel triggered and wanting to express your “side of things,” here are a couple of things we can do to check in with your thoughts and feelings:
1) Observe: What did the other person actually do or say that caused me to think they were (attacking, blaming, abandoning, etc.) me? What are the facts, without interpretations or assumptions?
2) Ask the question: “Is what I say I’m feeling describing a physical sensation in my body?” It takes practice to identify our “pure” feelings. I often find myself referring to an emotion wheel to find the words for what I’m experiencing.
With practice, it will become easier to separate thoughts and feelings. Keep in mind, distinguishing between our thoughts and feelings is one part of the equation. We must also tune into what we need, and decide whether we wish to make a request of someone else. I plan to cover these in future blog posts, but I would love to hear from you if you have any questions on this topic.
If you found this interesting and want to get more clarity on how it applies to your particular situation, you can always schedule a complimentary coaching consultation here.