This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall B. Rosenberg. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Do you struggle with expressing feelings beyond the simple, everyday emotions? How can you get better at expressing more complex and nuanced feelings?
Our culture doesn’t value expressing our feelings, so we’re never taught healthy ways to express strong emotions. As a result, most of us have limited emotional vocabulary, preventing us from expressing feelings with their afforded nuance and subtlety.
Here are some tips to help you get better at expressing your feelings.
The Dos and Don’ts of Expressing Feelings
The cultural taboo around showing emotion means that most of us have a limited emotional vocabulary. When we don’t have the words to talk about our emotions, we struggle to even identify them beyond broad categories of happy or sad. Building up your emotional vocabulary will help you identify and express your feelings more clearly.
The first major hurdle in expressing your feelings is understanding exactly what a feeling is (or, more importantly, what it isn’t). Feelings refer to internal physical and emotional states, not judgments of external events. That may sound obvious, but we often conflate thoughts and feelings because we use “I feel” to express opinions, not true feelings, in three distinct ways:
- First, if the words “I think” can replace the words “I feel” in a particular sentence, then whatever you’re expressing isn’t really a feeling. For example, the statement “I feel that you should know better” isn’t referring to any kind of internal state. It’s a judgment of another person’s choices, not a feeling.
- Second, if the words “I feel” are immediately followed by “that,” “like,” or “as if,” you’re probably describing a situation rather than your feelings. For example:
- “I feel like my children don’t listen to me.”
- “I feel that I’m a good candidate for the position.”
- “I feel as if I’m responsible for everything.”
- Third, if “I feel” is followed by a pronoun (I, you, he, she, they, it) or a person’s name or title, you’re not describing a feeling. For example:
- “I feel Carlos is being unreasonable.”
- “I feel my boss really appreciates me.”
These red-flag expressions can help you spot thoughts masquerading as feelings, but sometimes individual words are the problem. For example, the phrases “I feel inadequate” and “I feel ignored” express judgment rather than true feelings. The word “inadequate” is a judgment of your own worth; “ignored” is a judgment of someone else’s actions.
The phrase “I feel ignored” is especially helpful for illustrating the difference between feelings and judgments. If you’re chatting with a group of friends, feeling “ignored” might mean you’re actually feeling hurt. But if you’re a shy person surrounded by a group of strangers, feeling “ignored” might translate to relief, not hurt.
To spot judgments posing as feelings, try not using the word “feel” at all. Expressing feelings in English can be done without using that word at all (for example, you can say “I’m sad” instead of “I feel sad”). On the other hand, judgments naturally sound strange if you swap in the verb “to be” for the verb “to feel” (for example, “I’m ignored” and “I’m unheard”). These sound unnatural because we know that “I am” only describes states of being, not judgments.
Another important factor in how we talk about feelings is specificity. When you say you feel “good,” you could mean ecstatic, mellow, fascinated, or many other specific feelings. If you feel “bad,” you might feel scared, bored, or furious. Each of these specific emotions merits a different response. By just using the words “good” and “bad,” you give the person you’re speaking to very little information about how to connect with you in that moment, so you’re more likely to be disappointed when they aren’t able to meet your needs or expectations.
Building up a vocabulary of specific feeling words can help with expressing feelings more clearly. Here are some examples of specific ways you might feel when your needs are being met.
Here are some ways you might feel when your needs aren’t being met.
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