Emotions and Perceptions
I walk in from work and see that the house that was tidy when I left is now covered in baby toys and princess costumes. The breakfast dishes are still in the sink, and I have 45 minutes to make dinner, then head out to a meeting. My husband comes around the corner and the first thing I say is, "Babe, I just feel so unloved, and disrespected, and forgotten when I work hard all day and come home to so much more work to do!"
I used decent communication tactics, right? I owned my emotions, expressed them kindly, and am now awaiting a response from my man that will put me at ease.
Not so much. Unfortunately, while I did technically use the word "feel," I failed to actually name any real emotions. Take a look at that statement again, and see if you can pick out which response I'm more likely to get:
"I'm so sorry, I'm such a putz! Let me clean this up while you take a hot shower. I'll even order in dinner for you."
"What do you mean I don't love you? I've spent all day taking care of our girls making sure they were fed healthy foods, and had time for imaginary play, and good one-on-one attention so you could go to the office and sit in your dress clothes with adults for 8 hours. And I don't LOVE you?? I've FORGOTTEN about you?? Don't you think I feel forgotten?"
If you picked answer B, you'd be absolutely correct. Even if my champ of a hubby swallowed his frustration and spoke kindly, the response I got from him is going to be one of confusion and disregard, not the empathy I'm looking for. And the thing most of us don't realize is that I actually set myself up for that kind of response.
A while back we discussed the different kind of emotions here, but I think it's worth addressing one type of them again: Pseudoemotions. Pseudoemotions sound like other emotions because we often say, "I feel" before them. But they aren't emotions. They're actually veiled accusations. "Unloved" isn't an emotion. What I'm really saying is that I perceive you're not loving me. I don't actually feel "forgotten," I think you're forgetting me. And, unfortunately, the English language is littered with these words, and we use them so often for expressing displeasure. And when we do, we instantly, and usually accidentally, trigger a defensiveness in the one we're communicating with. We think we've expressed our feelings, but they hear our accusations. And then we wonder why they aren't more cooperative and empathetic, not realizing that it was our own language that created the situation. So what do we say instead?
Let's back track a bit. What if, when I came inside and saw the mess, I actually thought about how I really felt? The words that define those feelings are probably going to be sort of short and basic; they might even seem a bit elementary. But they will be the most accurate representation of what's going on inside my heart. And what if I expressed my true feelings first AND THEN my perceptions of the situation? It might look something like this:
"Babe, I feel really sad and overwhelmed when it looks to me like you don't think about how this mess effects my evening after I've been working all day. I want to come home and enjoy you and the kids, but it seems like I just have more work to do before I rush out again. I feel lonely."
In this statement, I've owned my experience, and given voice to it, in a way that doesn't actually accuse him of anything. Those words "it looks to me" and "seems like" allow me to say how I perceive the situation without tying him down to any specific behaviors or intentions. Now, I'm much more likely to get the empathetic response I was hoping for. He can attend to my emotions without having to agree with my perceptions. And while it's true that I would feel even more validated and righteous in my hurt feelings and frustration if my husband just agreed that he was in the wrong, life doesn't often work like that. If everyone always agreed with our perceptions of the world, we wouldn't have conflict. And my husband won't always agree with my view of events - but if he can agree that my feelings make sense from my point of view, then we have a starting ground. A common ground. And nobody has to feel defensive.