Tips on healthy emotional expression to help you experience feeling seen and heard.
I have not always been good at talking about my feelings. At one point in my life, trying to express my feeling gave me severe panic attacks. The first time I told a boyfriend I loved them, I hyperventilated for a half hour.
“It's not what you say; Its how you say it.”
When I started this journey, the only emotional expression I knew was deeply toxic. I would bottle up my unpleasant feelings and let them seep out in the worst ways. I was constantly depressed as a youth. As a pre-teen, these bottled up emotions seeped out in the form of self-harm. Eventually, my body couldn't hold the emotional backup anymore, and I began to say how I felt, but since I had no tools & a ton of unprocessed trauma, it escaped in huge fits of rage. As I embarked on my journey to learn healthy emotional expression, it was rough initially, to say the least.
I know I am not alone in the struggle to learn to talk about feelings. Many of us were not raised in homes where open, honest, and venerable conversations took place. Where I am today is the direct result of deliberate and consistent efforts to become a better communicator. So you can learn from my mistakes; I have compiled a list of some do's and don'ts to help you along your way.
The Do's and Don'ts of Healthy Communication
Do express emotions in a timely manner. Don't wait days or weeks to say how you feel.
Waiting a few hours to cool down and collect your thoughts is one thing, but sitting on emotions for days or weeks expecting the other person to mind read your attitude is unhealthy. If we want our feelings validated, it is often best to speak them when they occur. Addressing something directly at the moment, whether good or bad, allows you to practice free-flowing expression and doesn't allow negative emotions to fester. For example, if someone close to you has a tendency to interrupt you in conversation and it bothers you, it is best the next time it happens to politely say, "you interrupted me. I would appreciate it if I could get out my full thought please." 9/10, the other person will respond well, whereas 9/10, if you bring something up after the fact, you will appear to be someone who just loves starting drama. Addressing feelings promptly helps you to set boundaries, practice emotional expression, and feel heard more while exploding less.
Do be direct. Don't be accusatory.
If you find that when you try to express your feelings, it often ends in an argument, part of the problem is likely how you are saying things. Whether you agree or not, how you say things matters. For example, let's say I want my man to massage my feet more often. If I say, "how come you never rub my feet?" He is likely to respond with, "what are you talking about? I do rub your feet." Now, if I say, "babe, I really love when you massage my feet. It makes me feel so loved and cared for. Would you mind doing that more often?" he is likely to respond warmly. While both statements share the same goal, to get your man to massage your feet more, they don't share the same tone. The first is accusatory sounding in nature due to it being structured as a question, and the use of the word "never." The second statement uses positive reinforcement to get what you want and approaches it in a conciliatory manner. Both are direct; one just makes you sound like an asshole while the other makes you sound appreciative and sweet. When attempting healthy emotional expression, avoid starting statements with you and using words that overgeneralize like always and never. The rule of thumb, it's not what you say; its how you say it.
Do use vivid language. Don't curse.
I am telling you this as an admitted potty mouth. I curse a lot. It's my easy go-to form of expression, but I had to expand my vocabulary when I learned how to talk about my feelings. Heres the issue with cussing when trying to effectively express your emotions; It turns off the other person's active listening and turns on their defense mode. Secondly, it muddles your message. We need to learn the proper vocabulary to express ourselves. It is empowering when you can put it into the proper word. "Im feeling inadequate" is much more descriptive and direct than "I feel like shit."
Do take accountability. Don't play the blame game.
The biggest reason why emotional expression turns into an argument is because of accusatory language. It's because we often don't take a moment to breathe before we let it all out and allow our egos to do the talking. Ego loves to play the blame game. The blame game is ultimately against your healing and emotional release. Blaming others puts the burden of victimhood on you by stripping you of your power. When we use language like "you did XYZ and that is why I feel ABC", we strip ourselves of any accountability and spark defense in the other person. This accusatory expression also teeters the line of an emotionally abusive trait as it seeks to make the other person feel what you feel and uses them as a scapegoat for your unresolved emotions. 9/10 in life no one is trying to do anything to you. Most people aren't that worried about you to go out of their way to try and hurt you. Most people are just living their lives trying to do what's best for themselves while pouring what they can into those around them. No one is responsible for you or your feelings ultimately. While your feelings are valid and real, you are not entitled to taking them out on anyone else. We all want to be seen and feel heard, but no one owes you that space. You must create space for yourself by using language that doesn't escalate the situation. I like to use "I feel" statements over "you did" statements to achieve this. This is a game-changer because it allows space for both parties in the room. If we say "I feel violated due to your actions the other day" instead of "you violated me!" we achieve our goal. While both share the same sentiment, one opens the door to a productive and healthy conversation on boundaries, and the other opens the door to a fight.
Do watch your tone. Don't sugar coat.
It is important to be cognizant of your tone when speaking to others. If you come in amplified and yelling, then expect to get yelled back at. It's as simple as that. Even if you are valid and making points, no one in their right mind responds well to being verbally attacked. I don't care who you are or how strongly you feel; if you want people to hear you, do not verbally attack them. It is a verbal abusive trait to think it is acceptable to yell at a person and then demand a cool, calm, and collected reaction back from them. Seriously, who do you think you are? Take a deep breath before expressing yourself or even write it out beforehand. Make an outline of key points if it will help you stay grounded. Do not be dishonest with your feelings to appease anyone, but be mindful of how you're coming off. Remember, the goal is to be heard and healed, not project your negative feelings on to the other person.
Do tell the relevant parties. Don't vent endlessly to everyone.
Give it to God and talk it out with a therapist. While there is benefit in venting to a close friend, telling everyone but the perpetrator is pointless. It stokes the negative feelings and addresses nothing. Talk to the person(s) involved. While confrontation can be scary, it can be used to address issues and promote growth. In a healthy relationship, confrontation brings you together, creating a deeper understanding and fostering closeness. Don't run from confrontation or be the person who runs around it.
Do see a therapist. Don't put the burden on your family, friends, or significant others.
Do not get stuck in main character syndrome where you get so caught up in processing yourself that you forget the people around you have their own needs. Everyone is trying to figure out their own life, so recognize everyone doesn't have the expertise, emotional availability, or unattachment to intake your emotions. No one can be there for you in every way, all the time, and it is toxic to expect such of the people in your life. When we feel disappointed in life, it is due to mismanaged expectations. This is the same when it comes to family and friends. When you embark on your journey of healing, get a therapist! Who you are practicing emotional expression with matters. Therapists are trained professionals in creating safe, nonbias spaces. We must discern who we are dealing with because it protects us during the healing process. Opening up about your mental health for the first time and choosing your m who believes mental health doesn't exist probably isn't a good idea. Unloading on your feelings of despair to your depressed friend probably won't be that helpful. Expecting your significant other to be a mute sounding board about your struggles at work without any input at all probably won't happen because they will naturally want to try and fix it. Get a therapist because the people in your life our not professionals and have their own problems too. Asking people if they have emotional availability before venting, respecting when they say they do not, and not taking it personally (ie holding it against the person) is imperative.
I suggest journaling and praying as two great ways to start practicing daily emotional expression. Both are cheap (or free), provide you with a safe space, and don't take any outside involvement to begin. There are no excuses. Today is the perfect day to start feeling better.