Owning up to our feelings

8 minute read

Do you remember the last time that you were really upset? Somebody said something, did something or maybe didn’t do something. But whatever it was, that was totally unfair! What an inconsiderate jerk, right? How dare he make you feel like that. Doesn’t he know how angry/sad/frustrated/ect. that makes you feel?

We often think in this way. “I feel <choose feeling> because <name> did/said <input>”. Feeling upset is something we all try to avoid. And so we quickly end up surrounding ourselves with people that won’t make us feel bad. Or so we hope. And this is only natural. Of course, we want to avoid bad feelings. And since these bad feelings are normally triggered in situations where other people are involved, it’s a very small step to hold them accountable for those feelings. But let’s slow down here for a bit. Is this really true? Can other people really “make us” feel some way or the other?

Yesterday, I was listening to a podcast with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Nepalese meditation teacher. He told an anecdote that I find very clarifying on this topic, and it went more or less as follows. Most of us have had a fitness contract at some moment in our lives. We pay money so that we can go (or not go) to the gym, if only we can drag our lazy asses over there. So, imagine driving to the fitness in a car. When you arrive at the fitness, you see another car cutting you off on your journey to the last free parking spot. “What an asshole”, you think. Now you have to park one street over and walk all the way back. And while walking you are complaining in your head about this other guy, that made you walk. “Hmpf. Does he think he owns the place, or what?”. Once you arrive at the fitness, however, things start feeling better again. You can now start doing what you came here to do: running on the treadmill. And as you do this, this annoying incident quickly dissolves into the background.

I guess that most of you can relate in some way or another with this anecdote. Isn’t it funny, though, how we relate to the simple act of walking in this little story? The walking from the car to the fitness feels like a hassle, “so annoying!”. But once inside the fitness, we simply continue walking. And now the walking is suddenly a pleasant experience! So, what we see happening here, is that it is not the situation that makes us feel some way or the other, but rather how we choose to relate to the situation.

“We are never angry because of what others say or do. It is our thinking that makes us angry.”
– Marshall B. Rosenberg

It is really our minds that create our reality. And we can use this to our advantage. Once we realize that we can take full responsibility for the way we feel, we don’t need to blame the people around us for them. And with this comes great freedom. We don’t have to avoid people that we labeled as “mean” or “stupid”. We don’t have to be afraid of some kind of situation that will “make us feel bad”. Instead, we can realize that we have the power to own up to our emotions. To befriend them. To see that the way a person makes us feel, is really a reflection of our own insecurity or frustrations.

Empathy by Simon Prades

“What are you talking about dude? My partner just told me that he/she hates me. How am I supposed to not feel bad about that?”. Well, here I would like to introduce a little practice known as nonviolent-communication. (Although I prefer to call it empathic communication, which sounds a bit less dramatic). It is a way to understand and open up the needs that are behind a comment like that of the partner in the example. And it leans on the assumption that behind every strong emotion, there is an unmet need.

Practically, it is a way of communication consisting of 4 components, that has done wonders in my personal life. The components are 1) observations without evaluation, 2) inquiring after feelings, 3) inquiring after needs and 4) a request for a specific action. In this situation you might use this technique as follows, to see what is behind the stated feeling of hate of the partner (numbers for the components):

You: “I hear you say that you hate me, and I see you are stepping away from me [1]. Are you saying that you feel angry [2] and have a need for more attention [3]?”  

Partner: “Of course, I am angry. And no, I don’t want more attention. Can’t you see? You never give me any space. Just leave me alone.”

You: So I hear that you would like me to be less on top of you [3]. I would like to give that to you. Could you tell me what you need from me to feel this space? [4]”

Partner: “Yes that is exactly it. Actually, I would just like to have an evening alone at home. Could you just meet up with some friends or something and leave the house to me? [4]”

You: “I can do that. I wanted to meet up with the boys/the girls anyway, to be honest. I just thought that you needed me here, since you seemed so upset.”

Partner: “Haha, that’s quite a misunderstanding. Yes, that would be great. But could you be home again tomorrow? I don’t want to be without you for too long…”

The above story might seem a bit optimistic, with the speed that the situation is diffused, and it probably is. Though, it’s surprising how quickly people let their guard down, when someone else makes an honest attempt to guess after their emotions and needs in this way. Whenever I use this technique, I often notice that I start off with guessing needs that are completely off. This also happens in the above example. Luckily, the other will more often than not correct you straight away if you inquire after their needs in this way. If you make clear to the other that you are genuinely interested in their emotions and needs, people will be able to open up to you sooner or later.

“Instead of playing the game ‘Making Life Wonderful’, we often play the game called ‘Who’s Right’. Do you know that game? It’s a game where everybody loses.”
– Marshall B. Rosenberg

The above example describes one mode of nonviolent-communication. In total, the technique consists of three modes. 1) Receiving empathically, or connection with what is alive in the other person, as in the above example. 2) Expressing honestly, or sharing what is alive in yourself, without holding the other person accountable for it. And 3) Self-empathy, which is basically using the previous two modes in a conversation to and with yourself. (Yes, I’m serious, try it!)

In short, the modes look like this:

  1. Receiving empathically: “I see/hear <observation>. Are you feeling <feeling>, because you have a need for <need>? Would you <request>?”
  2. Expressing honestly: “When I see/hear <observation>, then I feel <feeling>, because I have a need for <need>. Would you <request>?”

It’s basically just these two sentences. And these two sentences have changed the way in which I approach conflicts in my day-to-day life. The concept is ridiculously simple, but it works in almost any situation. And the reason it that we don’t hold each other accountable for our emotions in these sentences. “I feel … because I need …”, and “you feel … because you need …”. I am I and you are you. It is this process in which we stop mixing up our own feelings with that of the other, that creates enough space for us to handle the situation. We need to distance ourselves from the other person in order to have space to breath. In order to not be reactive.

Art by Claudia Tremblay

In a previous blog, the one step to uncomplicate your life, I noted that the verb ‘to be complicated’ means that something is folded together, entangled, intertwined. And it is the same in conflicts with other people. If we want to de-escalate a situation, if we want to make it less complicated, we need to disentangle ourselves from the other. We need to create a little bit of space between this “you” and this “I”. And nonviolent-communication does just that.

If in the example, we would have been reactive, we could just have shouted back: “Well I hate you too!”. But then we would only be further away from where we want to be. The conflict would escalate further, because we said what was easiest to say in that situation. The other was mean to us, so we are mean back. But that mindset doesn’t serve us. We need to let go of this reactive mindset and own up to our own emotions. You are the only person who can make you feel any way at all. So be patient with yourself and listen to your feelings with the honest intent to understand.

When I see that you reached the end of this blog, I feel blissful because my need for sharing ideas is met. Would you come back and read my next blog too?


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