Do I express my feelings, or keep them to myself?
Recently, my oldest daughter shared a challenging experience. She is attending a program to learn a particular form of body therapy—called structural integration. During the classes, a couple of the students were rude. At times, their behavior was distracting and even disruptive. During the two month seminar, she debated within herself whether to confront these students. On the one hand, she didn’t want to have an argument with them. But on the other hand, she was annoyed and irritated by their behavior. On the last day of the workshop, she finally did convey her feelings.
Some years ago I had negative feelings about a staff person in my department. It was very hard for me to talk to the person about my concerns. I kept them to myself for a long time, until I finally articulated them to the staff member.
How frequently do adults struggle with this problem? Do I express my feelings, or do I keep them to myself? These concerns can arise with friends, spouses, co-workers or relatives. Often, we have a long internal debate with ourselves about what to do. We may “vent” our feelings to others and feel temporarily relieved. But the problem remains. What are we to do?
Why is it so difficult to express negative feelings? (It can also be hard for some adults to express positive feelings too).
There is a simple reason. Most of us don’t like conflict.
We worry that the other person will react defensively. Or worse, maybe they will go on the offensive and attack us! We are concerned about hurting the other person’s feelings. Perhaps in the past, someone else hurt our feelings when they expressed a negative emotion towards us. Now we will be causing the same hurt to another. We worry that maybe we are making a mountain out of a mole hill. We fret that maybe our feelings are “wrong”. Or maybe we fear that our expression will create “tension” in our relationship. Perhaps the other person will be mad at us! What if we express our thoughts awkwardly? Maybe our words won’t come out “right”. Perhaps the other person won’t understand our concerns. The list of why not to share our feelings is long.
Let’s face it. It’s not “comfortable” for most of us to directly express negative feelings or critical observations. It can be awkward, unpleasant, and unnerving. So why do it? Why not just stuff our feelings?
Because these negative feelings will sit in our gullet, like a heavy meal that we can’t quite digest. They can give us a stomach ache, a back ache, or a headache! Or all three!
It isn’t healthy to keep negative feelings inside—they don’t go anywhere and they can grow into resentment, bitterness and hostility. These feelings will hurt you. Frequently, we will vent our negative feelings to our friends or family. While this can make you feel better in the moment, these unhappy feelings quickly return.
So why is it important to find a way of communicating these uneasy feelings? Because, it is an important part of taking care of yourself. When feelings that are stuffed in the closet come into the light of day, they start to look different to us. Once you share these emotions, you will feel better. Yes, it is difficult and uncomfortable to have that conversation. But then it will be over. Once it is out, the other person has the opportunity to respond. Sometimes, their response will surprise you! Sharing your concerns provides an opportunity for the other person to take the high road. If not, then it is their problem, not yours. You can only be responsible for your part of the interpersonal equation.
So here are some pointers on how to have difficult conversations:
- Write down your feelings. Writing out your feelings helps you clarify your thoughts. It also can act as rehearsal for the actual dialogue you will have. Sometimes role playing with a friend can be helpful. It gives you a chance to practice what you want to say.
- Find a kind way to express your concerns. There is always a kind way to express negative feelings and observations. The more you have held these feelings inside, the more likely it is that they will come out in a waterfall of tears or in an unkind way. It’s always better to take the high road when you can.
- Respond, don’t react to the other person. Easier said than done. Pause before you speak—this will give you time to gather your thoughts and to speak clearly.
- It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just do the best you can. Your message doesn’t have to be perfect. It won’t be.
What do you think? Share your experiences!