Stop Saying “I feel that…”

Feelings are important. Ideas are important. Stop confusing them!

When a person begins a sentence with the words, “I feel that…” They are NOT communicating how they feel, they are communicating what they think! Sure, they may have some strong feelings attached to what they think, but they are not naming or talking about what those particular feelings are.

Here, let me give you an example.

Jane says, “I feel that Martians are aggressive space aliens and are an existential threat to human life.”

Though Jane is saying she feels something, what she is communicating is actually a thought. Her actual feeling may be anxiety, dread, hopelessness or something else. However, what is being expressed is her cognitive assessment of the situation. Do you see how thoughts/ideas can be confused with feelings?

A more effective version of the communication would be for Jane to say, “I’ve looked at the evidence and have concluded that Martians pose an existential threat to human life; this frightens me to death.” Do you notice how the idea and the feeling are distinguished, even though they are not separated?

Emotions can’t be argued with, they just exist. They are neither right, nor wrong because they are each individual’s emotional response to an idea. Ideas that lead to the emotional response, could be argued with, though the feelings themselves are subjective. For example, at the funeral of a grandmother one person may be sad, another quietly joyful, another bored; it all depends upon each individual’s relationship with the grandmother and the ideas that attend to that relationship.

When a person leads with the word “feel” and then states an idea, they are actually hiding the emotion they are feeling. Handling communication in this manner can be risky because both the individual’s idea and feeling may be misunderstood and unappreciated.

I see this happen with couples all the time. One person is clearly distressed, while the other person asks, “What’s going on?” The reply is often, “I feel that you should have let me know you could not make our date night several days ago, and not wait until the last minute.” This phrasing of the statement nearly always leads to a response similar to, “I feel you are overreacting and need to lighten up.” Neither person has shared their emotion/feeling. Rather, they have shared an idea and called it a feeling.

A more effective version of the communication would be as follows:

Complaint: (Note the accurate statement of feeling/emotion and the thinking behind it.) “I’m feeling disappointed and unimportant as you tell me so late that you can’t keep our date night, and I wish that you would have told me sooner in the week.”

Response: (Note the use of empathy that acknowledges the emotion.): “I can certainly understand your disappointment and feeling of unimportance; I only found out about this mandatory meeting for work today. I should have said that.”

Reply to Response: “Oh, that explanation makes sense. I feel better knowing that. Thank you!”

The absence of effective dialog often causes one person to feel forsaken, while the other person feels judged. Unfortunately, the reasoning of both parties remains concealed.

It is incredibly important to distinguish thoughts/ideas from feelings/emotions. When they are confused it tends to complicate communication with subtle, unintended misinformation. When thoughts/ideas are distinguished from feelings/emotions it honors the emotions that come to the surface as well as the ideas, often from previous relations, that frequently underlie them.

Practicing this distinction can help each of us to understand ourselves better as we ask the questions: 1) What am I thinking; how am I coming to this conclusion? And, 2) What the is the name of the feeling that comes up as a result of what I’m thinking?

Right now, I’m feeling excited as I imagine others gaining new insight that will improve their communication!