In order to begin to unravel and identify the distinctions between what we feel, how we think, and how we express ourselves to others we really have to learn a new emotional vocabulary. So many of the phrases that we readily use are extremely unhelpful in communicating to others what we are feeling. Take the examples below; the language is very familiar – we have all used such phrases at one time or another – but let’s look at why they are misleading and unhelpful.
• “I feel misunderstood.”
“Misunderstood” is not a feeling, it is a judgement. It indicates our assessment of another person’s level of understanding of us. If, for instance, we are unsure of their attitude towards us (and so are not certain whether our need for self-worth will be met through this relationship) then we may feel anxious or perhaps annoyed, but we cannot feel misunderstood.
• “I feel ignored.”
Again, “ignored” is not a feeling, it is a judgement or a perception we have about how others are treating us. What we are actually doing is interpreting the actions of others and guessing at what those actions might mean, instead of clearly expressing our own emotions and finding out the truth. In actual fact our self-esteem need is not being met and we are feeling hurt because we want to be included.
• “I’m not happy at work, they make me feel unimportant.”
The word “unimportant” describes how we think other people are evaluating us, it is not an actual feeling. There are feelings associated with being treated as though you are not important, of course. But in such a situation one might feel sad or discouraged.
In this and many other situations what we really need to express is much more complex than the words we actually say are describing. In the above situation what we should express is that others are “behaving in such a way as to regard me as unimportant,” but who ever talks like that? Because it is too much of a mouthful we shortcut it and say, “I feel unimportant,” but in so doing we confuse our true emotions and make a mistake. We have used a shortcut in our speech, but we have effectively also made a shortcut in our evaluation of our emotions.
The moment we make a judgement, criticism, diagnosis or interpretation we are not expressing our emotions correctly. And if we express ourselves in a misleading way it will almost certainly result in producing friction with the person we are trying to communicate with, as our “expressions” are heard as accusations. We will appear to be judging the behaviour of others as if we know their inner thoughts and intentions – and, of course, we know nothing of the sort.
Next time you are tempted to say that you “feel misunderstood”, stop for a moment and think. You are about to make an unqualified evaluation based on your perception of others. Really what you are saying is, “I don’t think those people understand me” and therefore your need for understanding and affirmation is not being met. Some emotions will be stirred as a result of that unmet need. You could be annoyed, anxious, disappointed etc, but your feelings are purely the result of your perception.
We can see from this that we need to significantly upgrade our emotional vocabulary if we are to express ourselves clearly. We must avoid using words that direct blame towards others and makes the assumption that they are guilty of mistreating us.
All of us have been in situations where we have wanted to express our feelings to someone else and they have “heard” something very different than that which we were trying to express. You tell them how you are feeling and their first reaction is, “Well, it’s not my fault!” Typically, we then respond, “But, I never said it was your fault!”
How is it that when we share our feelings with others they so often interpret our words as being judgmental or accusatory? Why do they think we are blaming them? It is because we tend to use “shortcut” language to describe our feelings (similar to the statements above) and it is this that gives the wrong impression. How can one respond to the statement, “I feel ignored,” except to say, “Well, I’m not ignoring you!”
What happens in such situations is that the person you are speaking to begins to feel annoyed because they perceive that you are misunderstanding them! They think you are trying to project blame onto them for something that they haven’t done. Naturally, they want to defend themselves, because when you are under attack it is the most natural reaction – either that or you launch a counter attack. The person might counter by saying, “You say you feel ignored, but don’t you realise how stand-offish you can be. You’re not that great at communication!”
At this point, as the discussion becomes more heated and can degenerate into an argument. We often begin to use exaggerated language like, “You always do this … you never explain yourself properly …” etc. The reality is, statements like “always” and “never” are hardly ever true!
Marshall Rosenberg, a professor of clinical psychology, pioneered a means of communication he called “Nonviolent Communication”. Rosenberg was renowned for his mediation skills and worked with a number of organisations from all spheres of life to help people understand one another and communicate better. As part of his efforts to educate people and develop their emotional vocabulary he complied various lists of words. The list I include below is a compilation of phrases that people typically use that are actually “interpretations” or “judgements” of other people based on perceptions – they are not and never can be feelings. It will help to read through the list and think about how often we use words like this to describe how we are feeling, when they are not feelings at all. I hope it will help you to redefine your emotional vocabulary and guide you towards expressing your emotions more accurately. Whenever you are tempted to use language like this to describe your feelings, stop and think again, because you are mis-communicating your needs.
• Let down
• Put down
• ‘Taken for granted’
I want to stress that I am not suggesting we should ever be in denial about things that have actually happened to us. Other people may have abused us; they may have abandoned us. We cannot disregard these actions. But when we make statements such as, “I feel abused,” what we are really expressing is that through being abused, certain basic needs are going unmet and feelings associated with that have risen to the surface. What we must do is to separate our emotions from the situations we find ourselves in, firstly by owning our emotions, and secondly by carefully checking out the facts.