We’ve all heard the adage that it’s polite to bite your tongue, or maybe your mother told you that if you have nothing nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. That advice might work well, when standing with a stranger in an elevator, but our intimate relationships are different… very different. In fact, feelings spoken out loud are the workhorse of bonding. As two people get to know each others tender spots, and cradle them safely with loving words, that’s called emotional intimacy.
But if you are new to the world of expressing full-frontal feelings, there are a few do’s and don’t’s that will help you navigate the prickly path of emotional communication:
1. Don’t confuse intimate relationships with workplace relationships or shared-interest friendships. These are all very different. An intimate relationship is supposed to get sticky sometimes. But life with your gym friend or co-worker should be mostly smooth sailing. These public relationships have unwritten social rules and criticism and too much emotional openness usually isn’t welcome.
2. Do express your feelings with close friends, family, and lovers. This is the place to be real, honest, and to learn to tolerate shame. Intimacy is about seeing the imperfections in someone else, and also about being able to tolerate that someone else can see the imperfections in us.
3. Use a tender voice. Some of us are so nervous about expressing feelings that words come out sounding defensive or even angry. Imagine that you are talking to a tender baby and use a tone that is gentle and respectful.
3. Use an emotional vocabulary. Begin prickly conversations with the words “I feel” and then follow up with a big emotion word like “joy, surprised, scared, embarrassed, happy, worried, uncomfortable, sad, angry, etc.” Stay on your feelings and your experience. It doesn’t help to issue a criticism with the words “I feel that you’re a jerk.”
4. No finger pointing and name calling. When learning to speak up, keep the conversation about how someone else’s words or behavior made you feel instead of what they did or said. And look to problem solve instead of unload. For instance, instead of saying, “I think you’re being cheap because you always disappear when the dinner check arrives,” try this, “I feel like I end up paying more than my share of restaurant bills and wonder sometimes if I’m being taken advantage of. I don’t like to feel this way. But I do like your company. How should we solve this?”
5. Start small and move up. In the beginning, find trusting people to share your feelings with. If you share with confident, open people, you will be rewarded with positive feedback. That should bolster you enough to move on to the people who are a bit more challenging.
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