|Photo by Le Xav'|
Expressing Difficult Emotions
"Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding." – Kahlil Gibran
George blamed his wife for not sufficiently demonstrating her love for him and felt sad but hesitated to express his feelings to her. Mary was routinely stifled by her boss' aggression but was at a loss on what to do about it. Geetika was deeply troubled by her uneasy relationship with her seventeen-year-old son but struggled to get him to listen to her.
Till they found a new approach. If you too sometimes feel frustrated about not being able to share your real feelings with someone close to you, read on to find out how you can improve that relationship by expressing yourself differently.
Limitations of our approach
We routinely encounter situations where we either hold back our inner feelings or end up expressing them in an inappropriate manner – we generally fall into the classical trap of 'flight' or 'fight'. Either way, we are ineffective.
In the first case, preferring to avoid any risk of confrontation, we tend to hold back our feelings. However, just because we avoid dealing with it, the problem does not go away. We still feel let down, sad and frustrated.
With recurring incidents with the same individual (partner, colleague, child), these feelings keep getting accumulated within us. Lacking the emotional bandwidth to deal with our disturbance, we sulk, internalize a sense of helplessness and feel like a victim. George and Mary suffered from this trait.
In the second, the psychological response to ‘fight’ the situtation, we accost the person apparently causing this emotional disturbance. We see the other person as the source of violation of our rights and blame them for it. Our comments tend to have an aggressive tone and are emotionally charged. This rarely shifts the other person’s behavior either. Geetika's situation with her son was a testimony to this.
What are you after?
In any of these situations, you would ideally like to see the other person change their behavior, at least towards you. Here’s the important bit. What we ought to recognize is that underlying the desire to have the other person alter their ways is actually the intense motivation to get some of our key personal needs met – whether it is the need for love, respect, recognition or something else.
As Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss psychologist, once remarked, "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves."
George desired a different behavior from his wife but what he longed for was greater love; Mary wanted her boss to be less intimidating but needed more space and autonomy; Geetika wanted her son to listen to her but essentially craved for higher respect.
A more effective approach
We can deal with such situations more effectively by learning to express ourselves in a different way. Marshall Rosenberg, a well-known author and psychologist, beautifully describes this in his book, Non-violent Communication. It stems from taking greater responsibility of our own emotions and recognizing that the feelings we experience are a direct result of how well our needs are being met or not.
Usually, instead of paying attention to our needs that are not being met and how that may be causing us to feel in a certain way, we are quick to point fingers at the other person – arising from the belief that their behavior is the singular source of our unhappy feelings.
The alternate approach then is to acknowledge, without any sense of blame or complain, which of our needs are not being met by the other person’s behavior and how we are feeling as a result. And, without any insistence on the other person to change their behavior, sensitively share it with them.
George, Mary and Geetika applied this approach to great effect.
George took it upon himself to create an open, warmhearted and sharing space with his wife and talked about his strong need for constantly being loved and cared for. He also shared with her that how when this need was not met (including in their precious relationship), he felt lonely and rejected.
Mary gathered the courage to speak with her boss. After seeking permission to discuss something personal, she shared with him about her need for autonomy and how when he spoke in an aggressive tone, she felt offended. Geetika found a tender moment with her son to mention that when he does not follow her simple instructions, she felt hurt and sad because her need for love and respect were not met.
Why this works?
It works for a couple of reasons. First, unlike our instinctive response, there is no judgment being passed on the other person or their behavior. They don’t feel blamed either. Second, we take ownership of our feelings, by relating them to our own needs. Finally, most people, when sensitized to the needs of others close to them, do make an effort to meet them.
Ordinarily, we operate from the belief that it should be normal for the other person to understand our needs and emotions. However, unless we articulate those needs, others may not always realize. This candid expression bridges that gap. As we practice this approach, we can not only have our needs better met, but also enjoy and nurture deep and loving relationships.
Three things to practice
1. Self-realization: This entails becoming more self-aware of our needs and emotions and how they interact with each other. It also requires taking responsibility of our feelings and not merely holding others responsible for them.
2. Being present: The only way we can follow the new approach is if we are present in the moment and are in touch with our emotions and needs; only when are mindful of the emotions of sadness, rejection, frustration or not being loved rising within us, can we choose to follow a new approach to respond to them.
3. Willingness to be vulnerable: Being able to state our inner needs requires becoming open to being vulnerable and that takes courage. However, when we do take the step, it not only raises the chance of our needs being met, but also deepens the relationship.
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