How to Express Feelings... and How Not To

Saying what you feel can intensify your connections—or wreck your relationships.

Posted May 23, 2013

We are wired to have feelings. If we express these feelings in off-putting ways, this wiring can invite a disconnect in our relationships. By contrast, expressing feelings in a safe way can lead to our feeling more connected, especially to loved ones. Knowing how to express feelings tactfully is therefore vital if you want to feel close to people and to sustain your relationships.

Sharing positive feelings solidifies relationships. Love, appreciation, gratitude, delight—sharing these feelings builds affectionate bonds.

At the same time, stresses occur in everyone's life, leaving them with sad, scared, or angry feelings. In addition, differences and hurt feelings will occur from time to time between just about any two people who interact regularly. Sharing feelings enables you to talk through the situation that had caused the difficulty. That way, you can figure out how the problem occurred and what to do to fix it. Problem-solving together makes negative feelings lift. Otherwise, the problem may linger or get worse, negative feelings may fester, and both you and your relationship suffer.

What's a Reliably Constructive Way to Express Your Feelings?

Sharing feelings effectively often begins with two simple words: “I feel…” Then, fill in the blank with a "feeling word"—that is, a word such as confused, delighted, or exhausted. If you’re having trouble identifying the feeling, you can do multiple choice. Try picking from these four basics: mad, sad, glad, or scared.

The mistake that people often make when they are trying to share a feeling is to say, "I feel that... "  The word that indicates that what will follow is going to be a thought, not a feeling. 

Thoughts are fine to share. At the same time, thoughts convey dry information, not the juice of what you are experiencing within. Feelings have a stronger impact on bonding. So while sharing thoughts does build a sense of connection, the connection is less intense than when you also look inside yourself and share the feelings that you discover there: hopeful, discouraged, pleased, wary, frustrated, delighted, etc. 

What Is the Most Common Mistake?

Too often, instead of saying “I feel…” people start out with the mistaken phrase, “You make me feel…” 

“You make me feel…” is one of the phrases that, as a marriage therapist, I cringe when I hear. And I hear it far too often—not because I'm working with bad people, but because most people are unaware that, You make me feel…” invites hurt feelings and arguments.

Why does the phrase "You make me feel ..." consistently get discussion of feelings off to a bad start? Here are 5 reasons why—and why replacing it with "I feel..." is worth the effort. 

1. “You make me feel…” comes across as an accusation or a statement of blame—not a statement of your feelings. 

Statements of feelings, and especially of vulnerable feelings like sad, confused, or anxious, invite empathy from most listeners. Accusations, by contrast, are off-putting, inviting defensiveness and antagonism.  

Compare the following groups of phrases. Which would you prefer to hear?

Group A: “I feel uncomfortable.” “I feel sad.” “I feel stupid.”               

Group B: “You make me feel uncomfortable.” “You make me sad.” “You make me feel stupid."   

Could you feel the difference? If not, read them again, slowly and aloud.                     

2. “You make me feel…” is disempowering. 

"You make me feel...” gives away your power to fix your negative feelings. The phrase makes you into a helpless victim. While the phrase induces guilt or shame in your partner, it simultaneously renders you powerless.

By contrast, “I feel...” gives you—not the other person—the power to figure out what to do to feel better. Maybe your feeling is the result of being tired, hungry, or overloaded. Maybe the feeling comes from a challenging situation that needs considerable thought to figure out how to remedy it.

Stating your feelings by starting with the pronoun "I" and the phrase "I feel…" is empowering because it focuses both you and the other person on your dilemma. Now, together, you can open the door to finding solutions. 

3.“You make me feel…” invites counter-accusations.

Because the phrase "You make me feel..." sounds like an attack—and attacks beget counter-attacks—before long, your conversation is likely to escalate into an angry argument.  

Here’s an example:

Linda: You make me feel unattractive. You hardly ever compliment me.

Len: Well, that’s because you make me feel like a terrible husband!

And, just like that, they’re off down the road of fighting. When Len hears Linda’s “You make me feel,” he tunes in to the accusation and tunes out from listening to her concerns. 

By contrast, when another couple, Gina and Gerald, face the same situation with a different sentence starter—"I feel…"—the dialogue turns out to be quite productive.

Gina: I feel unattractive. When you hardly ever compliment me, I think I must not look good to you.

Gerald: I’m so sorry you feel that way. Actually, it's all the more sad because I just about always like how you look. I probably could tell you more often how much I appreciate your clothes or your hair—and especially your smile. And now that I think about it, I can see that lately, I’ve been so preoccupied with work that I haven’t noticed much else.

Gina: I’m so glad we are talking about this. I feel better already, just understanding more what’s going on with you. I've also been wondering why I’ve suddenly had this upsurge of wanting compliments. I think that I have been feeling a little bit abandoned with your spending so much time working when you are at home.

By launching with the words "I feel..." Gina invites empathy and shared problem-solving instead of counter-accusations.

4. “You make me feel...” is based on a misunderstanding about what triggers feelings.

One person generally does not—by themselves—make another feel anything. What matters is the combination of what one person says (or does) and the other person's interpretation of the words or actions. 

For instance, if you try to make me laugh, I may respond with mild amusement—but I may also respond with scorn, with annoyance, with frustration, or with great affection. It's the combo of what you say and do and what I bring that defines the situation. That is, a listener’s response comes as much from factors within the listener as from what others have said or done.

5. “You make me feel…” focuses you on your partner, taking your focus off the person you are responsible for understanding—yourself.

"You make me feel..."—followed by a negative emotion—sets you into a stance of criticism toward your partner. "I feel..." launches exploration of what you yourself are feeling—and why. That's a path of self-discovery.

For example, "I feel abandoned when you bring home work in the evenings, leaving me off to myself. Maybe I need to expand my ways to enjoy evenings on my own instead of pining for your attention. I used to love reading novels—maybe I'll start again."

What's the Most Productive Way to Express Feelings?

Here are 5 guidelines that are likely to bring success:

  1. Pause to look inside yourself and label your internal feeling.  
  2. Anger invites defensiveness. If your feeling is “mad” or “angry,” calm down before you start talking. An angry voice invites an angry voice in return.
  3. Then, to optimize the likelihood you will be heard without defensiveness, choose a word other than a word from the anger family for the feeling that remains—try a word like “sad” or “scared.”
  4. Begin with “I feel…” “I felt…” or “I have been feeling…” For example, "I feel discouraged about..."
  5. Explain more about the source of the feeling. A good sentence-starter for this explanation is “My concern is…” For instance, "My concern is that I don't see an end in sight for you bringing work home every night."
  6. If you need to specify your partner’s role in the feeling, start that sentence with, “When you...” For instance, “When you came in so late last night from work, I felt very scared.” Continue then with, “My concern was…” At this point, you are on the road to mutual understanding.

The Bottom Line

How you express feelings makes a huge difference in how receptively your feelings will be heard. 

At the same time, the person with whom you are sharing your feelings has a major role in whether the discussion will be positive or not. Narcissistic people, for instance, may ignite in irritation when they hear expressions of a partner's vulnerable feelings, no matter how that feeling has been presented. Others may take personally, as a criticism of them, the negative feelings that you are describing. 

Fortunately, though, these reactions will be the exception. 

Mostly, following the guidelines above on how to express feelings—and especially avoiding "You make me feel..."—is likely to lead to empathic responses. What's more, sharing your inner feelings is likely to enhance the feeling of closeness between the two of you. 

"Intimacy" comes from the word "intima," which is the Latin word for the delicate and vulnerable linings of innermost body tissues. Share intimate feelings successfully and the dialogue that emerges is likely to bring you soothing responses.

(c) Susan Heitler, Ph.D.