How to Say What You Need to Say

If you learned right now you only had a few hours left to live, with no ability to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having expressed to the people in your life?

Assuming you do have the ability to communicate, what stops you from saying what you need to say?

Some of us have been socialized to not share how we feel. Many families avoid uncomfortable conversations and discourage open expression of feelings and concerns. Sometimes we get silenced or ridiculed when trying to say what’s on our mind. And some of us walk around with the idea that in order to be strong, we need to never be vulnerable.IMG_1122

But the things left unsaid can get heavy. The longer we carry them, the heavier they get. Personal truths, unspoken apologies, feelings towards those who mean more to us than they know…

The simplest way to let go of the weight is to say what we need to say – to a trusted friend, to a therapist, or directly to the person we need to address.

I personally have found this remarkably difficult, but the more I do it anyway the easier it gets. Now, this does not mean that I like being vulnerable. The last time I was about to tell someone exactly what was weighing on me, my heart was beating out of my chest and my hands were shaking. Not pleasant. But afterwards I felt like I had put down an immense backpack and the relief made it all worth it.

So how do we do this? As far as I know, there is no fixed recipe for authentic expression, but there are some things we can keep in mind that could make the process just a little smoother:

  1. Find the core

Ask yourself what is the most important part of all the things you would like to get out. What weighs on you the most? Finding the core of what you need to say helps focus your attention. You don’t need to say everything at once.

  1. Set your objective

Be honest with yourself about what you want to accomplish. Perhaps you would like other people to change, but this may not happen. Similarly, we cannot control the outcome of the conversation. What we can do, however, is to focus on the process. The act of expressing yourself needs to be practiced over and over again, regardless of the outcome. By making the objective be expression for the sake of personal growth and emotional relief, there is no way to fail.

  1. State your intention

Before you start, let the person know what your intention is. Oftentimes, people react to personal sharing by giving unsolicited advice and telling us how to stop feeling the way we do. This can be pretty unhelpful. To make this less likely, express that you simply want to share how you feel, talk about something that has been on your mind, clarify something that may have been obscure, or whatever else you are wanting to do. If needed, let the person know that you are not looking for an opinion or a solution, and that you would simply want them to hear you out.

  1. Focus on your own feelings

Here is something important: No one can tell you how to feel. Your feelings are all yours and you are the one who gets to define them. Therefore, when you focus on your own emotional experiences, disagreement becomes irrelevant. Your feelings are valid, even when others feel differently. Try not to minimize your feelings (e.g. “I am hurt, but it’s not a big deal”) or use hesitation words (e.g. “I guess I sort of feel a little frustrated”). Whatever you feel is okay.

  1. Show interest in mutual understanding

Once you have shared what you wanted to share, the listener might be feeling some kind of way. If you care about the relationship, it might be a good idea to express interest in hearing them out as well. If they do share, try to listen as non-defensively as you can and ask them questions to get a better idea of where they are coming from.

  1. Ask for what you want

Most people I know are poor mind readers. They do not automatically know what I want from them unless I tell them straight up. I can wait and hope and leave hints, but this can get very confusing. Asking for what you want is not a sign of weakness. It is the simplest way to let others know how they can be helpful.

  1. Observe

The process of being authentic is scary and liberating. As you step outside your silent comfort zone and start expressing yourself more openly, you may notice reactions within yourself you did not anticipate. Maybe you’ll find yourself avoiding eye contact. Maybe you’ll feel a knot in your stomach. Perhaps you will feel tempted to shift the focus away from yourself. It’s all part of the experience and nothing is wrong with that.

  1. Repeat

This may feel like the strangest thing to do, but the more you practice openness, the more it becomes a part of your way of being. Being authentic and open does not guarantee that others will respond with acceptance and understanding, but it can free up a lot of space in your mind and heart. And putting the weight down can feel pretty amazing.

The Happy Trap

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

There you have it. The United States’ Declaration of Independence clearly encourages the pursuit of happiness. So how do you pursue happiness?

The first week at work at my office job as a new graduate assistant in the U.S., I realized that answering phone calls appropriately required more than English language skills and politeness. After picking up a few calls that I thought went just fine, my office supervisor wasn’t pleased. According to her, my voice was “flat”. To me that made no sense, but once I had practiced the right way of answering the phone I finally got it. Apparently, being excessively excited and sweet on the phone (in my Icelandic opinion) was the way to go. It almost made me cringe. Saying “Have a great day!!” with a big smile on my face felt unnatural and too much somehow.

Now, seven years later, I am used to more than one way of speaking. Peppy small talk and greetings do not feel foreign anymore and I have stopped cringing. However, I am no less curious than before about the fact that what is considered appropriate in one culture may be strange and off-putting in another. In Jonathan Rottenberg’s intriguing book, The Depths, about the evolutionary origins of depression, he talks about the strong emphasis that U.S. mainstream culture places on happiness. He even cites research suggesting that U.S. children are more drawn to pictures of excited smiling facial expressions, while Taiwanese children prefer pictures of calm smiles. These and other research findings indicate that the type of happiness generally encouraged in the U.S. is characterised by excitement and high energy.

Reading this made me think of the numerous times I have been asked by American friends and acquaintances, in a high-pitched voice, “Aren’t you excited?!!”  Most often, my honest answer has been “Well, not really, but I am sure [upcoming event] will be interesting/fun/nice and I am feeling good about it”. Not very energetic, really. Simultaneously, the message impinging on U.S. society is that we should all be happy, that we should all try to stay happy, and that not feeling happy is a sign of abnormality.

The downside of this grand pursuit of happiness may be quite serious. As Rottenberg describes in his book, happiness is not a goal we can realistically pursue in the same way we pursue other goals and tasks in life. While we are taught from an early age that goals can be reached by working hard and doing our best, happiness tends to act differently. In fact, humans are not wired to stay happy. On the contrary, feelings of intense happiness are a natural, temporary consequence of reaching important life goals, such as finding a mate, getting a promotion, being acknowledged, witnessing the success of a loved one, and so on, and once we have experienced the bliss of the passing moment, the intensity of our happy-state tends to return back to a neutral level. Evolutionary speaking, this has the adaptive function of keeping us active and motivated to stay on our toes.

So what happens when the expectation of intense, sustained happiness meets the reality of our garden variety moods that include both ups and downs? Unfortunately, the unrealistic, culturally-shaped expectations of how we “should” feel can result in disappointment, to say the least. On top of that, humans have the impressive ability to not only feel bad, but feel bad about feeling bad! This can easily spiral downward and fuel a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with life and prolong low moods that would otherwise have passed by in their own time.

Kind of like a trap, with flashing lights and Pharrell singing in the background.

Fear of Feelings

IMG_2799One of the themes that keep coming up in my clinical work is the fear of feelings. Fear of letting one’s guard down, being vulnerable, facing what’s inside. Many people have talked about how certain feelings were not considered acceptable in their family of origin, culture, or community. How they have had to keep sadness, anger, or fear to themselves, as if those feelings are somehow wrong and unacceptable. And adults who have gone through life pushing away emotional pain may have an additional fear – the fear that allowing the full range of feelings will not only be socially unacceptable, but overwhelming and even dangerous.

It is true that feelings can be painful and hard to tolerate. And depending on what has been avoided, it can certainly be challenging to process and experience emotional pain without enough support and effective coping skills.

But the feelings themselves are not dangerous. Feeling like one is about to drown in sadness, and actually drowning in sadness, are two very different things. In fact, the things we do to keep away from difficult feelings can be even more harmful than sitting with and acknowledging emotional pain. Working too much, avoiding difficult topics in intimate relationships, eating when not hungry, not eating when hungry, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, and staying distracted at all times are just some of the things we may do in attempts to escape. The downside includes health problems, relationship strain, addictions, isolation, and high stress levels, while the unattended emotions remain unchanged and no less threatening at the end of the day.

The fear can keep us from exploring and facing unresolved issues in our lives that impact our wellbeing and reactions to new experiences. And on the upside, when this fear is finally confronted, inspiring change can happen. This is one of the things I really enjoy about counseling. Getting the chance to sit with a person as they learn to accept and observe their previously avoided feelings, and witnessing the sense of peace and mastery that can be gained as a result. It is possible. And no one has drowned in my office yet.