Communication is hard.
Let me rephrase that: Effective communication is hard.
Especially when we’re dealing with a topic as sensitive as our feelings, which we’re often taught simply don’t matter enough to be worthy of attention.
Last spring, when I was teaching a sexuality education class to middle school students, I remember clearly a student trying to explain to my co-teacher and me that “no one ever actually talks like this” when we were doing a lesson on healthy communication, especially as it pertains to relationships.
And you know what?
She wasn’t really wrong.
But what I tried to explain to her is that while maybe people don’t communicate effectively, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t learn how – that maybe the real problem is how we’re taught (or not taught) to communicate in the first place.
It’s not something that we’re taught how to do effectively, and so that can leave us really at a loss for how to go about it.
So here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Believe That Your Feelings Are Worthy
Oftentimes, when people ask me for advice about having trouble communicating their feelings, I notice a very clear trend: They’re apologetic for the feelings themselves.
They don’t actually believe that it’s okay to have those feelings in the first place.
And if you don’t think that your emotions have worth, then that’s going to be a huge barrier in feeling comfortable expressing them.
It’s important to remember that your feelings are valid – always – because you can’t help them.
You can’t help the way that you feel, and so your feelings are never inherently wrong or bad.
We can commit acts that are wrong or bad based on our feelings, but those aren’t the same two things.
For example, if someone stalks an ex-partner because of overwhelming feelings of jealousy and possession, the part that’s wrong is the action of stalking – not the fact that they had feelings, however unhealthy.
You are allowed to have the feelings that you have.
2. Name Your Feelings
Once we get past the idea that our feelings don’t matter, once we recognize that we are allowed – and should even be encouraged! – to feel, we run into another problem: How do we name our feelings?
And the truth is: We’re usually pretty good at being able to recognize when we feel “good” or when we feel “bad.” If you ask someone how they’re feeling today, they can usually at least use one of those words.
But what do those words really mean?
When you’re feeling positively, try to avoid using the word “good” to describe it. Are you feeling content? joyful? satisfied? loved? appreciative?
Likewise, when you’re feeling negatively, try to use a more descriptive word than “bad.” Is it afraid? incompetent? confused? inadequate?
Allowing yourself time to build up an emotional vocabulary is a good step in being able to understand your feelings better.
Here is a list of emotion words to get you started.
3. Work Through Your Feelings Independently
Once you have a name for how you feel, once you’ve really pinpointed what the feeling is, it’s time to really think through it: Why do you feel that way?
And now, that doesn’t mean that you’re looking for something (internally or externally) to blame for those feelings. In fact, I would highly recommend not doing that.
Rather, what you’re trying to do here is find a root cause.
If you can pinpoint that a certain situation or string of events or attitude is making you feel the way that you feel, it’s easier to communicate with someone about it – whether the feeling is a good one or a bad one.
The important part in this step, though, is to deal with it on your own before you bring it up to someone else.
Have you ever decided that you needed to have a serious talk with someone, and when you sat down to talk, you didn’t even know where to begin?
Now, I’m not saying that you need to come to conversations with a detailed outline (although I’d be lying if I said I haven’t done that). I’m just saying that it’s a good idea to have a confident hold of how you feel before you bring another person into the equation.
Sometimes it can help to talk to friends about your feelings, but choose which friends you go to wisely.
You want to go to people who are going to ask you clarifying questions to work you toward the answer, not people who are going to insert their own ideas.
I luck out because I have a lot of friends who are trained therapists. Those are the people (or types of people) that you want to seek out – not the ones who feed off of drama and want to offer you advice.
Better, though, might be just to sit down with yourself to think. Maybe meditating or journaling is your thing; in which case, now would be a good time to use it.
4. Believe That Your Feelings Matter to Other People
Recently I was in a situation with a person in my life where I was being hurt by some of his words and actions, but I wasn’t sure how to bring it up to him.
And it wasn’t because I didn’t think that my feelings were worthy and valid, and it wasn’t because I didn’t know how to name my feelings, and it definitely wasn’t because I hadn’t worked through the feelings on my own – it was because I just didn’t think that my feelings mattered to him.
But lo and behold, when I finally suggested that we have a talk because I knew that I had things to say, he actually cared about my feelings.
Because when people care about you, they care about your well-being, and they care about how they contribute to (or detract from) that well-being.
Are there some people in your life who might not actually care about how you feel and how they affect that?
And those are what I would call “toxic people” – people who really don’t deserve a place in your life because all they do is bring you down and never lift you up.
If you’re putting forth far more effort in a relationship than you’re getting in return, it’s probably about time to reevaluate that relationship.
But if you want to have a chat with someone who loves and supports you, I promise that they’ll be willing to listen.
5. Use Your Own Point-of-View to Discuss Feelings
Most therapists would suggest that you use what are called “I” statements when you want to talk through issues with someone – and although I, myself, am not a therapist, I’m going to suggest the same thing.
Here’s why: “I” statements are direct, honest, and promote accountability.
Another way to think of it is like this: An “I” statement makes you the star of the show.
Instead of saying “You’re doing ____, and it’s making me feel ____,” you can say “I feel ____ when you ____.”
That way, you’re owning your experience instead of someone else’s actions.
Not only does this help you get more in touch with your own feelings and how certain people or situations can affect them, but it also helps ease people into the conversation without being approached by an accusatory tone.
It helps people hear you because they can focus on your feelings, rather than feeling defensive.
And this works when dealing with yourself, too!
“I’m a horrible person/idiot/bad girlfriend because I feel ____,” for example, really isn’t helpful. All you’re doing is shifting the blame for your emotions onto yourself and your (supposed) inadequacy.
But addressing the issue with “I feel ____ when I ____” is more likely to help keep yourself off of the proverbial hook and more able to actively deal with the emotions in a productive manner.
6. Bonus: If You Can, Be Solutions-Oriented
Sometimes it’s enough just to express your feelings.
Because the truth is that sometimes that’s hard enough without adding another step.
But if you can, taking a solutions-based approach to problem-solving can help.
This article is designed to help you sort out how to recognize and express your feelings, but the next step after that would be to come at conversations wanting to move forward.
Sometimes we get so stuck in the place where we’re talking about our feelings that we forget that we need to come up with a game plan for how to avoid having those feelings in the future.
So approaching conversations with a “How can we change this?” attitude can help move the conversation along and end on a positive note.
“I feel ____ when you ____. What are your thoughts on that? How can we change this in the future?”
Focusing more of your conversation time on the “What Now?” might help keep you out of the cycle of “I feel this! / Well, I feel this!” that can hinder progress.
State how you both feel, name the situation that is causing those feelings, and then move onward to finding a way to fix it.
You’ll find that your conversations will be much more productive this way.
I know that it can be hard to talk about your feelings. We’re not taught to do it, and we’re certainly not taught that it’s an important thing to learn.
But it’s definitely a skill worth practicing.
Because you’re worth being heard. I promise.
Melissa A. Fabello, Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a domestic violence prevention and sexuality educator, eating disorder and body image activist, and media literacy vlogger based out of Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, Jurassic Park, and the occasional Taylor Swift song and can be found on YouTube and Tumblr. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.