Some time ago, my oldest daughter shared a challenging experience. She was attending a program to learn a particular form of body therapy. 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 whether to confront these students. On the one hand, she didn’t want to argue with them. But on the other hand, she was very annoyed and irritated by their behavior. On the last day of the workshop, she finally did convey her feelings.
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. We often have a long internal debate 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’s simple. Most of us don’t like conflict.
We worry that the other person will react defensively. Or worse, maybe they’ll go on the offensive. We worry about hurting their feelings. Perhaps someone hurt our feelings in the past when they expressed a negative emotion toward us. Now we’ll be causing the same hurt to another. We worry that maybe we are making a mountain out of a molehill. 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 take offense. What if we express our thoughts awkwardly? Maybe the other person won’t understand our concerns. The list of why not to share our feelings is very long.
Let’s face it. It’s uncomfortable 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 gullets like a heavy meal that we can’t quite digest, it isn’t healthy to keep negative feelings inside — they don’t go anywhere, and they can grow into resentment, bitterness and hostility.
So why is it important to find a way of communicating these uneasy feelings? Because it’s an important part of taking care of yourself. When feelings stuffed in the closet come into the light of day, they start to look different to us. Once you share these emotions, you’ll feel better. Yes, it is difficult and uncomfortable to have that conversation. But then it will be over. Once it’s out, the other person has the opportunity to respond. Sometimes, their response will surprise you. Sharing your concerns allows 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 these difficult conversations:
Write down your feelings. Writing out your feelings helps you clarify your thoughts. It also can act as a rehearsal for the actual dialogue you’ll 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’ve held these feelings inside, the more likely they’ll 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.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.