Learning to Express Your Feelings Effectively

This post is the follow up to my past post on accepting and learning to identify our feelings and it is extracted from Jonice Webb’s book Running on Empty : Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

When we have been emotionally neglected or disconnected from our feelings we often are very confused about how to express, or even if it is safe to express. If we never were taught these skills all our relationships suffer.

“A very effective way to harness the power of our emotions is to express them appropriately.  This means not passively, not aggressively, but assertively with compassion.  The word “assertive” is thrown around a lot in business trainings and seminars.  But the word does have a specific meaning.  When you express something assertively, you are expressing it in such a way that the other person can take it in.  In order to be truly assertive, you must have compassion and empathy, meaning an awareness of how what are about to say may affect the other person.

Let’ say that you’re working hard on all of the steps in the Identifying and Naming Exercise, and you’re becoming more aware of when you are angry.  One day you are waiting in line at the movies and a sleazy guy cuts the line right in front of you  To handle this situation assertively, you would not keep your anger to yourself, you wouldn’t just whisper it to your friend,  you wouldn’t yell at the guy or call him a jerk.  You would tap him on the shoulder, mindful (with compassion) of the possibility of embarrassing him, and say quietly but firmly, “Excuse me sir, but the end of the line is back there.”  Hopefully he would look sheepish and go to his proper place.  But of course it is possible that he will not. the point here is that you express yourself instead of bottling up your feelings so that they may eat away at you from the inside.  Although you cannot control another person’s response, if you are assertive, you will likely, no matter what he does or doesn’t do, feel better for having taken appropriate action.  And your anger will not be bottled up only to cause a headache or a backache later.

Let’s look at another example.  Let’s say it’s Friday night and you’re looking forward to going out with your friend Betsy tonight. Right before you leave work your boss calls you into her office and tells you that she’s disappointed with your work on the Chris P. Bacon account. She tells you that you must step it up or she will have to remove you from the account.  After laying all this negative feedback on you, she sends you off to ‘enjoy’ your weekend.  Your mood has plummeted due to the unexpected verbal thrashing you’ve just received.  You head off to meet Betsy in a black mood.

In this situation, you have a choice to make. Choice # 1 : You can choose not to tell Betsy about the incident due to embarrassment, or because you just want to put it behind you and enjoy the evening.  Choice # 2 : You can tell Betsy what just happened.

If you make Choice # 1 chances are it will backfire.  You will not be able to hide your upset feelings from Betsy, and she probably will spend much of the evening wondering why you’re not your usual fun self tonight.  You may end up drinking too much, appearing sullen, or taking  it out on her somehow.

If you make Choice # 2 here’s a description of how it might go.

Betsy, I’m so glad we’re going out tonight because I really need a distraction.  I am so upset.  You won’t believe what happened at work today.  I feel misunderstood, underappreciated and angry.”  Tell Betsy the story and how you feel about it.   Let her offer some possible interpretations, give you some solace, or just listen.  After you’ve had this conversation, Betsy will feel closer to you, and you will feel closer to Betsy.  You will have gotten it off your chest, and you will have a far better chance of putting it aside and having a better evening.

Please note a very important factor here.  Betsy did not help you solve the problem.  She simply listened.  The magic of feeling better and coping better lies in putting your feelings into words and sharing them.  If you have never experienced this magic, it is extremely important that you try to.  If it’s too hard to do it with a friend or family, contact a professional therapist or counsellor.  They are virtually all trained to help you learn this process.

All of the principles described above apply to all emotions, like discontentment, diffidence, contentment, or betrayal.  Once you have identified, accepted and attributed, then you can act.  You can apply words to the feeling and express it appropriately.  Sometimes, in certain situations, it is enough, or best, to express it just within yourself; sometimes it will be best to talk to a third party who’s not directly involved. and sometimes, you’ll need to express your feelings directly to the person involved.  This is where assertiveness comes in.”

When we have been emotionally neglected it can be hard for us to feel we have a right to share or feel we can or should share feelings with others.  We may have learned patterns of holding emotions inside due to a parent’s criticism of our feeling or due to their ongoing emotional unavailability, but what we hold inside affects us in difficult ways, I know this so well.  It is far better for us to find someone we can be safe with to share who we really are and how we really feel with.   Emotionally invalidating relationships must be limited on the path of learning new skills to recover from a life time of emotional neglect and disconnection from our feelings.

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