Handle Feelings with Care
Updated: Jun 22
Feelings can be slippery critters. Sometimes, like unwanted company, they appear at the most unexpected moment. Lying in bed, unable to sleep at midnight, you suddenly realize that you’re angry at your partner who’s lying next to you. You never said a word at the time, but now you’re steaming hot.
Angry feelings not expressed at the time they first occur are called “held resentments.” The problem with them is that, in the long run, they can’t be suppressed. An analogy has been made comparing these resentments with the green stamps that were given out in supermarkets in the 1960s. Each stamp seemed insignificant. However, you pasted them into a little booklet and eventually you could redeem booklets of stamps for a substantial gift. A “book” of emotional “stamps” can be redeemed for an angry explosion.
Actually, it’s not so diabolical. We don’t deliberately save resentments to “get others” at a later time. Rather, we’re taught that feelings are petty, trivial and unimportant. We attempt, unsuccessfully, to repress them. The slippery critters just won’t go away.
Since it’s not good to “save” our resentments, we need a communication model for “clearing the air.” Here is one I recommend.
The first step is simple. You always ask permission. “I have a resentment for you. Can I express it?” If the answer is “Yes,” then you go ahead. However, sometimes people are not in a receptive state of mind and feel unable to really hear the feeling. They can suggest another time in the not too distant future, for example, “after lunch” or “this evening.”
At a time when a person is receptive, here is the format. It is a simple, fill-in-the-blanks sentence:
When you ….(A)….
With this format, you fill in two types of information. (A) is a description of a specific behavior. For example: When you came home an hour late last night. Another example: When you raised your voice at me this morning. It’s important to be specific because the goal is clear communication.
The second part (B) is a description of how you felt. For example: “I felt angry” or “enraged” or “resentful.” Held resentments are often accompanied by other feelings such as fear, hurt or sadness.
Below are a few examples that put it all together in one simple sentence: “When you didn’t want to kiss me this morning, I felt hurt and resentful.”
“When you made vacation plans without consulting me, I felt angry.”
“When you called me ‘stupid,’ I felt hurt, scared and extremely angry.”
The major mistake that people make when attempting to use this format is to substitute a judgment for one of the phrases. Consider first a well-expressed held resentment:
“When you left your dirty dishes on the kitchen counter yesterday, I felt angry.” If a judgment is inserted in the first part of the sentence, you get: “When you acted like a slob and showed disrespect for me, I felt angry.”
If a judgment is inserted in the second part of the statement, you get: “When you left your dirty dishes on the kitchen counter yesterday, it showed what a slob you are and what little respect you have for me.”
As you can see, passing judgments is more likely to start a fight than to clear up communication.
When the format is used properly (without judgments), the resulting statements are not disputable. They merely report how one person felt when one particular event occurred. These are often referred to as “I statements.” No immediate response is necessary. Too much risk of defensiveness. In fact, the best thing the recipient can do is take the statement seriously, acknowledge it, and then think about it.
One final note of caution. This method only works when people are committed to mutual respect. Be careful in other situations!
For 8 years, Robert Schwebel Ph.D. wrote a weekly psychology column for the Sunday edition of the Arizona Daily Star. This article is one of many.