If you’ve ever been to counseling before, perhaps you’ve encountered your therapist nagging you to speak in terms of “I feel” versus “you make me feel.” Hopefully you were provided an explanation as to the importance of this. But if you weren’t, I am happy to presently rectify this abomination.
American vernacular and culture is littered with “you make me feel” statements. The popular Katy Perry song “Teenage Dream” is a prime example of this as the very first line of the chorus is “you make me feel like I’m living in a teenage dream.”
This is, in fact, an incorrect portrayal of how emotions occur but is widely accepted as being an accurate representation!
How do emotions occur?
To start, emotions that we feel belong entirely to us. They are like a spring of water from which the water originates versus a pitcher of water where water is poured into the pitcher.
Another analogy is that emotions are like sweat. Sweat comes from our pores of our body’s own production. Nobody pours sweat on you to make it appear (at least, dear God, I hope they don’t). Sweat appears because your body has decided it is too hot and needs to cool down and thus produces sweat.
Emotions are the exact same thing. It’s the sweat of your soul, so to speak, and emanates thusly. For example, if we are in a situation that is painful, we produce sadness. If we are in a situation that is elating, we produce happiness. But nobody foists these emotions upon us. They are an emanation all our own!
Our emotions also serve to tell us important information about our situations.
As a counselor once told me during a time of great pain, emotions are the dashboards of our hearts. They tell us how fast we’re going, if we’re damaged, if we need more gas in the tank, etc. We need to listen to our emotions and take responsibility for them, otherwise we stand the chance of finding ourselves in an “emotional car wreck.” When we make them someone else’s responsibility or shame our emotions, we ultimately ignore very helpful information!
I don’t like my emotions. Why do I need to connect with them?
Many of us struggle with emotional connection and attribute certain emotions as being bad or good when emotions are, in fact, neutral (yes, even the unpleasant ones). Let’s use anxiety as an example. Imagine one of your dearest friends was extremely anxious. What would you do? What would you say to them?
What prevents you from saying these things to yourself? What prevents you from comforting yourself the way you would a friend? Try removing these roadblocks and communicating from this space when trying to use “I feel” statements.
Another way to think of emotional connection with ourselves is to imagine our emotions as personified friends (similar to the concept in the movie Inside Out). When we personify our emotions, and give them a voice, they can better tell us about our situation and why they’ve come for a visit. Sticking with anxiety as an example, we wouldn’t shun a hurting person like that away. We’d comfort them, give them some tea, and maybe give them a hug if appropriate. Try imagining this with your own personal emotions, especially the ones that are more unpleasant. Those emotions are there for a good reason and when we take the time to connect with them and comfort them, it can be a much more productive personal experience.
Aren’t “I feel” statements just nitpicking? How are they important?
To start, whenever we are hurt, taking responsibility for our emotions as belonging to us can help us move away from victim mentalities. While horrible things happen to undeserving people all the time, the emotions that spring forth from such situations still belong entirely to us. The perpetrator does not, in fact, inflict us with sadness or pain. We produce sadness and pain in response to our situation as our mind’s way of telling us that we are in a painful situation and must do something to remedy this. While it is the perpetrator’s responsibility to provide an apology for the wrong doing, it is our responsibility to listen to our emotions and soothe them ourselves.
Changing our speech patterns from “you make me feel” to “I feel” might seem like nitpicking, but it can alter the way we problem solve, especially in relational conflict. When we take responsibility for our emotions, we oftentimes experience a sense of empowerment.
Imagine an argument where someone may say, “you make me feel so unappreciated!” While we may legitimately be feeling unappreciated by the other person’s actions, it is more empowering and appropriate to say, “I feel unappreciated when you do x,y,z,” because we are now advocating for our need to be appreciated.
Ultimately, it is not anyone else’s responsibility to read our minds and know exactly what we need, how we feel, and how they can help. We need to be in touch with our emotions so that we can self-soothe or ask for helping in soothing them.
Now imagine a non-argument situation where we might say to someone, “you make me feel so happy!” While this would be wonderful to have a friend or partner in our lives that elicits this emotion, by giving them the ownership of our happiness, they control it. It is much more profound to say, “I feel so happy when we spend time together!” This makes that happiness our responsibility and, therefore, we can access it at any time versus our happiness being contingent on someone else.
How do we fix this?
Try making it a point to catch yourself whenever you hear yourself saying, “you make me feel.” Take a pause, and then re-say what you’re trying to communicate with,
It may feel robotic at first, but our words oftentimes provide us with direction similar to how where we look with our eyes will direct where we walk. It takes 2 or more months for a behavior to become automatic. Keep at it and eventually you won’t even have to think about using “I feel” statements.
Saying “I feel…” may feel more vulnerable but it can empower us to take responsibility of our emotions and improve the quality of our interpersonal relationships.