Thursday, March 15, 2012

Talk It Out, Don't Act It Out

Emotions, both positive and negative, are an inevitable part of life. We all have them, for a very good reason: emotions give us information about things that are important to us. For example, fear is supposed to warn us of danger; anger tells us our needs, rights or preferences have been violated; and sadness indicates loss. Unfortunately, many people have learned to tune out, turn off, or otherwise ignore their feelings. As a result, their feelings may end up coming out in less helpful ways, either internal (anxiety, depression), or external (maladaptive behavior). 

There are several reasons clients may "act out" their feelings instead of acknowledging, expressing, and processing them. Most either haven't learned how to recognize and identify emotions (this is called alexithymia), or have been learned/been taught that emotions (especially negative emotions) are bad or dangerous. However, acting feelings out tends to be dissatisfying for the client and whomever they're communicating with through their behavior: behavior is an imprecise way of communicating feelings that causes misunderstandings and doesn't move toward any form of resolution.

The solution, of course, is to learn how to identify and express one's emotions more directly. (Easier said than done, of course). Here are some steps for dealing with emotions when they happen in a relational context (i.e., when you might otherwise act out your feelings, leaving the other person to translate your meaning).

Step 1 is to identify what you're feeling - everything you're feeling, because most of the time, emotions come layered or mixed together. I will write other posts on identifying emotions. Suffice it to say that it involves scanning physical sensations, thoughts, and impulses, and connecting them with feeling words based on category and intensity (e.g., anger vs. sadness, rage vs. irritation). 
Step 2 is to balance or regulate any emotions that are out of proportion to the situation at hand (e.g., to reevaluate our assumptions about someone else's motives to avoid overreacting). It's important to remember that feelings are not facts - for example, just because we feel anxious doesn't mean there is danger. It's important to sort the two out before we try to communicate our feelings.

Step 3 is to describe the full spectrum of emotions accurately, and without adding judgments, blaming, or assuming anything about the other person's feelings or intentions, or presenting our feelings as facts. If you need to reference someone else's behavior, stick to the facts. For example: "I felt frustrated and confused when you didn't call, and those feelings made me anxious about our relationship." (This is what is often called an "I statement" because you're focusing on your own experience, and beginning with "I feel..."). 

Step 4 is to make room for the other person's feelings - yes, they are entitled to whatever emotions they have as well. This can be especially challenging if the other person takes on a defensive or blaming posture, or isn't as skilled in emotional expression. 

Step 5 is to request the response you would like from the other person. If you just want to be heard, tell them you want them to understand (rather than change) how you feel. If you want them to change their behavior in some way, be specific, direct, and concrete (again, leaving out judgments and assumptions about intent). If there is something you want them to do to "fix" your feelings, be clear about that, too. 

Step 6 is to thank them for listening, or responding as you've requested, and (if/when you're ready) see if there is something they need you to do, hear, or say.

Are there other strategies you use to identify and express emotions? What makes this process difficult?

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