When was the last time you were angry at somebody? Can you remember?. Think about what you said, and what they said, and what you should have said when they said that. Now try to remember what you were thinking. Not feeling. Thinking. I’m betting that it was more or less a blank.
This isn’t a coincidence. The emotional mind and rational mind can be thought of as two separate channels. We’re usually operating on a mixture of the two, but when we get really emotional, the rational part gets shoved to one side. We remember how we felt, often we’ll even relive the physical sensation of our emotion, but we won’t be able to think about it clearly because, well…we weren’t really thinking.
So how do we stop that from happening? How do we keep our brains in gear when we get emotional so that we can get our point across? In the long term, many techniques from meditation, to therapy can be very effective at improving our emotional control, but in the moment, one of the most powerful techniques you can employ is to simply try to express yourself clearly.
The power of using your words.
These explosive displays of emotion are caused by two things. An inability to express oneself in words, or a fear that any words you might use won’t be heard.
The inability to express oneself can occur in both positive or negative situations. For instance, you might feel such an overwhelming rush of love for someone that all you can do is let out a gurgle of adoration and squish them with all your might. There are no words you can find to express your feelings at that moment so your over-affectionate Wookiee impression will have to do.
This doesn’t cause any frustration because you’re not seeking any change in the behaviour that has triggered your feelings. In fact, you want more of it. Pleasant feelings don’t need to be expressed in words (although its good to remember to do so occasionally) they just need to be expressed in a way the other person can understand.
Negative feelings work differently. Maybe somebody has made you so mad that your fists ball up and your teeth clench and you can feel your skin starting to turn green (it’s no coincidence that the Incredible Hulk wasn’t exactly eloquent). You’d much rather “Smash!” than talk about your feelings. But here’s why you should try to anyway.
Expressing yourself serves two purposes in this scenario. Firstly, it allows you to investigate your feelings to see if they’re valid. Maybe you’re being unreasonable. Maybe you’re wasting emotion on something that neither of you has the power to change.
As you explain why you’re unhappy, you gain a degree of separation from your feelings. It’s a watered-down version of this psychological technique to create distance from your emotions by talking about yourself in the third-person. As you hear the words coming out of your mouth, you get to consider whether your reaction is really justified, or whether you’re overreacting.
Secondly, and this should be obvious, expressing yourself helps the other person to understand why you’re upset. It’s easy to believe that your reasons are obvious, but this is often not true. And with the best will in the world, nobody can address your concerns if they’re expressed as wailing and gnashing of teeth. Assuming that the person is interested in your feelings, you’ll both benefit from talking things through (if they’re not interested in your feelings why are you wasting time and energy on this miscreant?).
Take a breath.
Of course, it’s not always as easy as just calmly and clearly which is actually the real point I want to make. You’re mad after all! If you can’t explain why something is upsetting you in a way that another person can understand, this is your fault.
No matter how intense and justified your feelings are, the responsibility for expressing them in a way that can be sectioned is yours. It’s unreasonable to expect someone else to do that work for you. If you don’t fully understand why you’re upset, nobody else has a chance of doing so. So take a deep breath, think it through, come back when you’re ready.
This isn’t glamorous, “three simple steps” advice, but it’s true. And as well as (hopefully) helping the people who care about you to better understand you, it helps you to better understand yourself. Which is helpful for the second scenario which makes you freak out; when you feel like you won’t be heard.
How to be heard.
It sucks to feel like you’re not being heard, but let’s start by acknowledging that sometimes when you feel like you won’t be listened to, you’re projecting. Maybe you’d find the person more receptive than you fear if you try talking to them calmly and clearly. Or perhaps the reason that you aren’t being listened to is that you don’t express yourself clearly. Nobody wants to listen to a typhoon of blame and victim mentality. Don’t be that person.
Other times you’re not being heard because the person you’re talking to is too busy vomiting their own feelings all over the place to hear yours. Chances are, if you haven’t been great at expressing your own feelings, you haven’t been great at listening to other people’s. So try listening. Ask questions to clarify your own understanding and to show that you’re listening. Consider how what they’re saying maps onto your experience of things. Then, when they’re done…calmly crush them with your retorts because your feelings are obviously more valid.
Seriously though. You can’t expect to be listened to if you’re not also ready to do some listening.
Finally, maybe you’re not being heard because the other person doesn’t care about your feelings. This might be valid. Maybe it’s a work situation where a decision has to be made and the person responsible for making it does so and wants to move on. Maybe you’re right and they’re wrong. If there’s still a way to change it and it’s important to you, explore it, if there’s not, move on. Your job is to express your opinion, not necessarily to have your way.
In situations where the two of you are supposed to be equal things are different. A relationship with an equal who doesn’t care about your feelings is neither equal nor a relationship. Expressing yourself clearly will help you to figure out whether they don’t understand, or simply don’t care. Don’t waste your time on the latter.
Practice makes…less imperfect.
Nothing I’m suggesting here is easy in the heat of the moment. But trying to apply it will make your disagreements easier, and at least give them a chance of being more productive. Like any other skill, becoming better at mentally organising and expressing your feelings takes practice. But doing so is worth the effort. You’ll save yourself countless repetitive rows by simply saying what you wanted to say the first time. You’ll be more able to recognise those people who aren’t actually interested in your feelings. And, most importantly, you’ll be clear-headed enough to drop the perfect zinger when you need it.