Earlier this year a friend of mine had a conflict with her partner in which she felt that she couldn’t fully share with him how she was feeling on all issues. After all, when she did freely share how she was feeling, her partner would then ask her to explain why, and she wasn’t always able to communicate everything she felt. He was often unsatisfied with her explanation, and would then argue that she shouldn’t be feeling what she’s feeling for the reasons that she gave. She felt stifled by this, and started to close off from him.
Unfortunately, my friend also didn’t know how to communicate that this overarching process was blocking their communication— which frustrated her, and doubly frustrated him. What I was able to help her communicate to her partner was that feelings don’t need to be explained, and how being asked for these explanations often feels like being pierced.
Imagine if you communicate to someone that you’re sad, and their first reaction is, “I don’t think that you should feel sad in this situation.” That would hurt me, and I would have the urge to isolate and curl up. And I would feel the same way if someone instead first reacted with “Why?”.
I used to think that asking “Why do you feel like that?” was the natural question to ask when I wanted to understand how somebody was feeling, but now I feel that this just hurts to receive.
First of all, there’s a degree to which “Why?” is also communicating “I don’t already understand why you would feel like that in this situation (and therefore I deny that you should feel this way)”. Secondly, it’s just really taxing to explain emotions. When I’m sad I just want to be hugged. I don’t care about fixing the “problem” immediately, I just want to feel supported.— After all, I chose to communicate “I feel sad”, and in doing so I deliberately chose not to use the frame “I have this problem and I’d like your help to think about solving it”.
We’re all kids on the inside, after all. Here’s an excerpt from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk:
What’s wrong with asking a child directly, “Why do you feel that way?”
Some children can tell you why they’re frightened, angry, or unhappy. For many, however, the question “Why?” only adds to their problem. In addition to their original distress, they must analyze the cause and come up with a reasonable explanation. Very often children don’t know why they feel as they do. At other times, they’re reluctant to tell because they fear that in the adult’s eyes their reason won’t seem good enough. (“For that you’re crying?”)
It’s much more helpful for an unhappy youngster to hear “I see something is making you sad,” rather than to be interrogated with “What happened?” or “Why do you feel that way?” It’s easier to talk to a grown-up who accepts what you’re feeling rather than one who presses you for explanations.
Now, just because one should have the right to leave emotions unexplained isn’t to say that emotions are causeless and stochastic. Definitely, definitely not. Every feeling has reasons for its existence even if it can’t be articulated in the present. (But I am just saying this here.)
So this applies to communicating with others, but I also apply this to how I interface with myself: I don’t need to know why I am having an emotion to be able to have it, and feel it fully without dissociating from it. When I don’t give myself this right, I find that I automatically dissociate from my emotions that I might not be able to explain, and my senses get tangled. But allowing myself this right has helped a lot this year. Accepting feelings doesn’t require fully understanding them.
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