Terry Sloan

Licensed Professional Counselor at Your Service

Part Three

In this section we are going to learn how to identify an emotion and separate an emotion from an opinion. We will examine how using specific words to express ourselves can steer our conversations in a healthy, solution-focused way.

Begin by opening printing the Vocabulary of Emotions, based on the work of Tom Drummond. This is a sorted list of words that can be used to express our feelings.  Notice that almost all of the terms are one-word descriptors (there are a few except i.e. ‘washed up’, but not many).  As a general rule, feelings are expressed by a single emotion word. This list can be used as an expression vocabulary for you and your partner.

When I am working with a couple, it’s common for someone to say “I am trying to tell him/her how I feel”, when what they are actually doing is telling their partner how they think. The easiest way to tell whether you are expressing an emotion or an opinion is by how many words it’s taking you to express it.

Joe says to his partner:
“I feel like you never listen when I am talking”.  Joe believes he is expressing how he feels.  He actually expressed a thought or a belief.
How can that be? He clearly said “I feel” – surely this is how you express your feelings!!??
Unfortunately this is a trap many couples fall into, causing arguments to escalate beyond the initial disagreement without either person truly understanding why.
How can you tell whether you are expressing a thought or a feeling?  With practice it will come easily.
Let’s start with Joe’s sentence.  He started off well.
He started his sentence with “I”.  This is important.  We cannot truly know what emotions our partner is feeling, so to enter an emotion into the conversation means that we are ready to talk about our OWN feelings.
He said “feel”.  Again, good start and very important.  Joe is in touch with his emotional side; he is, indeed, experiencing an emotion.

And then the switch came.  Joe added “like” after the word feel.  Then he stated an opinion:  you never listen when I am talking.
The switch can be made with “like, as if, that, etc.”, there are all sorts of fillers we might use.  It generally comes directly after the word “feel”.  It signals to the listener that a switch is being made from emotion to cognition.
What happened to Joe’s emotion?  It is still there, but sadly unexpressed.

To express an emotion, start with “I feel” and then go to your Vocabulary of Emotions and find the word that best describes how you are feeling at that moment, then end the sentence.  “I feel ______.” You can also say “I am _______.”  Still use a single emotion word.

There it is. It is that simple.
So how does Joe “feel” about the fact that his partner doesn’t listen?

Joe might say
I feel sad. / I am sad.
I feel angry. / I am angry.
I feel frustrated. / I am frustrated.
I feel upset. / I am upset.
Any number of words can adequately describe Joe’s emotional experience of not being listened to.

So now Joe has announced to his partner:  “I feel frustrated”.  He has expressed his emotion.  However, unless his partner is a mind reader, there is still confusion.  Joe needs to add more information.  He needs to tell his partner WHY he feels frustrated.  It might go something like this:

“I feel frustrated because you are not listening to me.”  Ah, much clearer.  Joe has expressed an emotion and tied it to a belief. He does have one slight problem, still.  He has made a judgment call about his partner;  Joe cannot really know whether his partner is listening or not. He believes his partner is not listening. What happens if Joe ties his emotion to a very specific, identifiable behavior?

“I feel frustrated when you play with your smart phone while we are discussing our budget”.
Joe is commenting on outward, measurable behavior.  His partner now knows the behavior is frustrating Joe and can make a response (put the phone down and give Joe undivided attention would be one option).

Take turns referencing the Vocabulary List and expressing how you feel about something.  Start with positive things.

“I feel happy on Christmas morning.  I felt relieved at the dentist – no cavities!  I am feeling silly right now talking about feelings over and over.”

After you have practiced using the emotion words for positive experiences, you and your partner can decide on a GOOD time to express and explore some less-than-positive emotions each of you may have been experiencing. Explore sharing these less-positive emotions thoughtfully, addressing them one at a time to avoid a confusing or painful conversation.

“I feel nervous about your mother’s visit this weekend.”

This type of sentence can open up a conversation that would help one partner alleviate the others discomfort.  Continuing that example:
“I feel nervous about your mother’s visit this weekend.”
“Really, why?”
“She follows me around, giving me suggestions of ways to improve our house or make more money.”
“You are right, she does have a bad habit of that.  How can I help?”
“Well…you could keep her busy, distract her maybe?”.
“I can do that but then I feel sad that you and she aren’t getting to know each other better.”

See what happened there?

Partner A expressed an emotion and a reason.
Partner B was then able to respond to that bid for attention by turning towards the bid; then Partner B expressed an emotion with a reason.
This conversation is off to a good start – perhaps this mother visit will be the best one yet!

As you go through the rest of the workshop, look for ways to express emotion to your partner more clearly.