Emotional maturity, Part 7: Avoiding the obstacles and just talking about feelings

This is the final post in this series — I’ll explore some possible explanations for why we don’t just talk about our feelings. To reiterate, talking about your feelings is really important. They originate in your subconscious, making them hard to interpret, but they have important information. Talking to other people is the best way to tease out what you’re really feeling and figuring out what to do about it.

I think what makes this so difficult for many of us, is that you have to just say how you feel, and nothing else along with it. No blame, personal attacks, or other forms of aggression, no expectation about the right way to respond to your feelings. Just. Say. How. You. Feel. Just get a conversation going.

It seems that as a culture, we are not used to plain, honest discussion of feelings. Instead, we’ve built up these elaborate ways of hinting sideways at what we feel, and assigning blame and responsibility and rules and so on… when really the best solution would be honest, open-ended discussion.

Let’s talk about the kind of baggage that short-circuits what would otherwise be a straightforward discussion of feelings.

The first important point is that feelings are not actions. Feeling angry at someone is not the same thing as actually attacking them. Your anger is a sign that something is wrong, it’s information. If you’re in a relationship with someone and you’re angry at them, it’s actually really important that they know! But attacking is an action. It’s a choice you make about what to do with that information. If you blame, demean, or even physically assault your partner, that’s an action that damages the relationship. (When you’re very close to someone else, the distinction between these two can feel like a razor edge. Talk about your anger, but don’t present it as a personal attack. I can personally attest to the fact that this is very difficult. Though like everything else, it gets easier with practice.)

The reason why feelings are not actions is hopefully obvious. Feelings like anger are the result of calculations in your subconscious, that you don’t have any control over. (And trying to assert control over them just ends up burying them back in your subconscious.)

On the flip side, feeling happy that someone is around is not the same thing as actually supporting them or doing good things for them. Feelings are not actions. You build and maintain a relationship through your actions, especially the actions of talking and listening. Your feelings are just a guide to what’s going on, a sign that things are either going well or there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

The next kind of baggage is saying that your feelings are wrong, or that what the other person feels in response is the wrong way to feel. In other words, judging that some feelings are valid and others aren’t, and criticizing other people for not having the right feelings. In general, the purpose of critcism is to help a person improve by pointing out ways they might act differently, with a better outcome. It’s not productive to criticize someone for having a feeling, because we can’t really do anything about them. (It is useful to think about feelings critically, trying to understand what they really mean. That’s different from criticizing a person for having that feeling to begin with.) Criticizing people for having the wrong feelings is harmful because it closes down communication. It prevents us from talking about our feelings, and if we can’t talk about them, we don’t have much of a chance of understanding and using them.

You can and should criticize people for their actions, if they do real damage to other people. It’s just not appropriate to condemn someone on the basis of what they feel. Because feelings aren’t facts, they aren’t actions, they aren’t even under a person’s direct control.

The final kind of baggage I want to bring up is rules and punishment. Feelings are messy things with vaguely-defined boundaries. They don’t seem to mix well with rules. And when you punish someone for breaking a rule, they feel a certain way in response, but it’s complicated and it might not make them feel any differently about following the rules in the future.

This kind of baggage comes up when we discuss trigger warnings and safe spaces. As a culture, we have become more sensitive to the effect our words have on others, and this is a good thing. But I don’t think we’re discussing it the right way. We’re framing it too much in terms of rules, and punishing people for breaking rules that they do not comprehend. This creates defensiveness, bitterness, and cultural divides. It distracts from the actual issue, namely the way that microaggressions or triggers make other people feel. We need to actually stay focused on that, and let their feelings enter our emotional consciousness and influence our behavior. We should be de-emphasizing rules, distance, and punishment, and emphasizing empathy and closeness.

In summary, talking about feelings is actually very simple: just share your feelings and listen to the feelings of others. The hard part is to unlearn all of the extra baggage that our culture has laid on top of this. But the good news is that with practice, this gets easier and more instinctual. We’re social creatures, we were meant to be close to each other like this.

To summarize the previous seven posts, here is a three-part recipe for emotional maturity.

  1. Look for your feelings. Often they’re invisible.
  2. Try to figure out what your feelings mean. Bear in mind that the obvious cause is not always the real cause.
  3. Talk about your feelings. Share and listen, and resist the urge to go further than that.

Hopefully other people will find this framework useful, or have interesting criticisms. Thanks for reading.

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