by Gwen Randall-Young
You should respect each other and refrain from disputes; you should not, like water and oil, repel each other, but should, like milk and water, mingle together.
Here is the scenario. A woman tells me her partner is very critical of her. He says she works too much (she loves her work) and is too giving to her children (it brings her joy). I tell her to set a boundary and tell him she does not want him to criticize her any more. She tells me he will say, “Well you told me you want to know my feelings.”
This sounds like a catch-22 – and one that leaves many partners in a quandary. However, there is a simple solution. It involves being clear about what is a feeling, and what is an opinion. These are often confused.
A feeling is an emotional state like anger, love, sadness, fear, excitement, sorrow, happiness or hurt to name just a few. Saying “I feel like…” is an opinion or judgement masquerading as an emotion. It is a way of deflecting and controlling the conversation. If you use logic to argue against another’s “feeling” that you work too much, dress inappropriately, or don’t spend enough time with them, it appears that you are invalidating their feelings. You are stuck!
In the same way that a sporting contest goes better if we play by established rules, the same is true in communication. A statement of a true feeling starts with “I am” or “I am feeling” such as “I am sad, I am angry, I am feeling worried, I am happy, I am feeling unsafe.”
We need to be very clear about this. When a statement starts with “feel like,” or “I feel that,” what comes next is a thought, opinion or judgement disguised as a feeling to give it more weight. Rather than this sort of conscious or unconscious manipulation, we need to argue rationally, and take responsibility for our actions and our words. Think about how the level of discourse could be elevated if people recognized their opinions as thoughts, rather than thinking that their opinions have more validity because they elevate them, erroneously, to the level of feeling.
Once our thoughts and feelings have been clarified, we can look more closely about what is being communicated. It is my belief that criticism has no place in loving relationships. When we criticize or judge another, we are placing ourselves above them. We are in that moment creating a parent/child dynamic. So we must change our approach. We can say things like, “I am not comfortable with how much you are drinking,” or “If the drinking continues it may just become an irreconcilable difference and I will have to move on.” To a teen we can say, “That behavior is unacceptable in our home. There will be considerable consequences if it continues.”
In these examples, it is clear that we are talking about the behavior, and not the person. In our first scenario, one could say, “I would like to spend more time with you, but your work schedule seems to make that very difficult.” Then the two can work together to solve the problem – as opposed to arguing whether the other works too much. It might even bring into the open that she does not want the same things as he does, and work is a way of avoiding spending that time.
Either way, the couple is now in adult mode focusing on the problem, rather than in the bickering mode of children.
It seems our world needs more adults in the room. We bring this about by being rational and responsible in how we communicate our feelings to others.
Gwen Randall-Young is an author and psychotherapist in private practice. For articles and information about her books, “Deep Powerful Change” hypnosis CDs and “Creating Effective Relationships” series, visit www.gwen.ca ‘Like’ Gwen on Facebook for daily inspiration.