Many people—including some therapists!— don’t know how to express negative feelings and are afraid of doing so. Some prefer to say only things that seem likely to please their listeners.
Everyone feels sadness, disappointment, shame, embarrassment, anger, and anxiety at one time or another. If you keep these feelings to yourself, you burden your body. Voicing them is an important part of taking care of yourself and maintaining your relationships.
The list below gives some of the ways in which people avoid leveling with others or cope with the anxiety that surfaces when feelings threaten to overwhelm them.
In each case, the important point is not what the speaker intended but how the listening person felt afterward. For good communication, we all need to verify that what was heard was what was meant.
- Sam interrupts or talks over Gloria. Gloria concludes that Sam is not listening. Since everyone wants to be heard, she feels hurt, angry, and alienated. Sam may be talking nonstop because Gloria’s words provoke his anxiety. Still, when people don’t feel heard, they look elsewhere for friendship. People who routinely feel unheard may also come to feel powerless and may eventually resort to interpersonal violence.
- Nancy promises to do things and then doesn’t follow through. The guys she dates think she is sending mixed messages. Does she want a relationship with them or not? The mixed messages suggest that Nancy is uncomfortable and unwilling to talk honestly about her feelings, which may include ambivalence. There is always the possibility, too, that she isn’t sure how she feels because she doesn’t like thinking about it.
- Paul makes a date with George and then later makes other plans but doesn’t let George know. Like a broken promise, this situation is a form of betrayal. George will probably feel disrespected and angry. Whether Paul had reasons for changing his mind about the date or just forgot he had made it, he needs to say something. Since Paul may be oblivious to the problem, George needs to speak up so that they can clear the air.
- Sally is angry with Kelly but rather than talking to her directly tells a third party, Joan, in the hope that Joan will relay the message. Sally is afraid that if she voices her feelings to Kelly, Kelly will fly off the handle. When Joan gets in the middle, though, the message changes, there’s a risk of distortion and misinterpretation, a loss of privacy and trust, and the possibility of interference by someone—Joan—who is not really a party to the dispute.
- Kelly rats Sally out. She is angry with Sally. Rather than speak her mind, she wants to punish Sally by telling Sally’s secrets. That will teach her! Kelly thinks. In the process, though, she loses Sally’s trust. People who cannot keep personal confidences make poor friends.
- Gloria criticizes Sam when she is talking to others. Eventually he learns of it and wonders why she is saying such hurtful things. If she has a beef with him, why can’t she tell him directly? Loyalty involves speaking appreciatively about friends, responding to them empathically, and defending them in the face of attacks by other people. Friends speak with each other first when there are issues between them.
- Gloria is jealous and watches over Sam like a police detective. She checks his text messages, his cell contact list, his credit card statements, and his online viewing history. He protests that his communications with female coworkers are innocent. She is never willing to believe him. In time, Sam feels so disrespected that he loses interest in their relationship. If he can’t make Gloria back off, he may eventually looks elsewhere for a female companion. Cheating generally signals a communication breakdown.
- Kelly constantly suspects foul play. Whenever someone behaves in a way she doesn’t like, she feels personally addressed and usually insulted. It doesn’t matter whether the behavior is that of relatives, that of close friends, or that of coworkers she barely knows. She jumps to conclusions without checking them out first, because it feels safer to do this than to ask questions and listen to the answers, which may produce new and different information.
- Keith expects too much from people close to him. He thinks Mary should be willing to tell him her every thought and feeling. He wants to command her attention whenever they are together, which is a lot, since they cohabit. Mary feels suffocated. She has no privacy and feels like Keith’s slave. When she objects to his interrogation, he acts hurt and says he feels betrayed.
- Marjorie speaks her mind bluntly and sometimes acts with reckless disregard for the feelings of others. When someone questions her, though, she denies her words and rationalizes her behavior. Her friends decide that she simply doesn’t care how she treats them. They conclude that, unlike most other people, she isn’t willing to acknowledge making mistakes from time to time.
Do any of these problems sound familiar? In each case the cure is plain. When you have a problem with someone else, to keep the relationship running smoothly the two of you need to discuss the matter.
No one needs to feel embarrassed about sharing feelings, since we all have the same basic kit. The advantage of talking about them is that once we do so we are no longer alone with them. Everyone else has been there, done that. Wounded parties need to get their grievances off their chests so that they can feel better.
In cases of conflict, often a misunderstanding is involved. One person unwittingly made assumptions about the other person’s intentions. Whatever the case may be, friends can apologize, make amends, and agree to do things differently in the future. The process, important to protect the health of the ongoing relationship, pays a dividend. After working things out, the two of you will be closer than you were before.