Learning How to Talk About Hard Feelings Is, Well, Hard—Here Are 3 Tips From a Therapist to Make It Easier

Photo: Getty Images / Alejandra de la Fuente
As a therapist, I’ve had countless sessions with people from a variety of cultures, religious backgrounds, class and community groups. If there is one thing that each person who has sat across from me had in common, it’s that talking about their emotions was one of the hardest things they had to do—especially when it came to telling their loved ones, friends and partners how they felt.

A big part of the journey toward happiness, joy, or insert whatever adjective you aim to feel, is being able to talk about the hard feelings that are getting in the way of you living the life you want and have impacted you along the way. Why? Vulnerability is the center of human connection. Yet I have found that most of my clients have the hardest time talking about their feelings to their friends, family and significant others. You'd think this would be the opposite; that it would be easiest to open up to the most important people in our lives. But being vulnerable can almost be harder with people you know, because you might be afraid to scare, disappoint, or hurt them in the process.

But talking about how we feel is crucial for every relationship, particularly those with your loved ones. When we gather up the courage to talk about how we feel, we strengthen the relationships we have with others, and we also build upon our emotional intelligence—aka the ability to understand and respond to the emotions of yourself and others. This is key because being aware of how we feel helps us to better process and manage our feelings, and how we engage with the people who may have provoked those feelings inside of us in the first place. When we’re able to identify and name our emotions, we are then able to develop skills such as problem solving, self-regulation, and we also learn how to develop empathy and compassion for others as we become more conscious of how we make others feel.

Talking about what hurts doesn’t always mean that those feelings will disappear, however, once they rise to the surface you are able to tap into the power of doing the work that will eventually lead to healing from what you are feeling. So how does one talk about their hard feelings, especially with friends, family or significant others? Here are three places to start.

How to talk about your feelings with your friends, family, and loved ones for deeper relationships:

1. Identify and accept what you are feeling

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “your feelings matter” before. And though it seems like a redundant cliché in the mental health world, this motto is worth repeating because people often judge or shame themselves for the things that they feel. For example, you might be angry at a friend or partner, and judged your anger as an overreaction; maybe you feel abandoned or hurt and you label yourself as needy.

Knowing what you feel is important, and accepting those feelings is equally important. When you are able to be compassionate toward yourself for what you feel it lessens the amount of guilt and shame behind the emotion and you can embrace yourself with total acceptance. Once you accept your feelings for what they are, you can then communicate them confidently when fear or self-imposed judgement is no longer standing in the way.

If you're struggling to articulate how you feel, I recommend journaling. This is a useful tool for folks who feel that their emotions are scattered. If this is where you are, know that it’s totally okay. Learning how to express yourself doesn’t happen overnight, but when you practice releasing your words and engage in self-reflection, it provides a safe space for you to sit in until you are ready to move to a place of person-to-person contact.

2. Don't minimize your emotions

In our day and age, people are communicating less in person and more through text. This barrier gives us room to be more courageous with our words, but sometimes, we use language (and emojis) that lessen the validity of our feelings. For example, have you ever been upset with a friend and texted them how you felt but then added a "lol" at the end of your sentence? Or maybe you've started off a serious conversation with your partner by saying, “This isn’t a big deal but?” This might seem like normal communication, but these words and actions inherently minimize the feelings you're trying to convey.

We are all victims of this use of minimizing language, and a lot of this is rooted in our fear of being abandoned or rejected. It’s important to examine how you communicate your feelings to others. I like to think of emotions as data, and so how we share that data with others can impact how people receive the information. If you manipulate or alter the data with minimizing language, that means someone will likely not have the full picture to understand you—which defeats the purpose of talking about your feelings.

3. Practice the 'sandwich method'

Telling your friend or partner that they hurt you or made you angry can be hard. But if you look deeper into your relationships with these people, you will most likely find a lot of things that you value about them, and a variety of strengths in your relationship with them. That's where the sandwich method—a way of giving feedback that "sandwiches" negative feedback between two positive pieces of praise. This ensures that you have a strengths-based conversation focused more on growth and less on blame. When we can start off by saying something positive or affirming, it makes the conversation more inviting and falls on the ears more easily.

For example, if your friend made you upset when they canceled plans last minute, you can say something like, “I always have a great time whenever we hang out. But when you cancel plans last minute, I feel unimportant to you. I’d like if you could give me at least a two-hour notice if you are going to need to reschedule.” This approach first started off with a positive reflection of the friendship, then it states the effects the behavior has on you, and it is followed up by a direct request clearly showing what your needs are. It doesn’t cast blame, but it provides non-judgmental information and allows the listener to respond without the need to defend.

Humans are complex and no matter how good a relationship is, there will be moments when the people we love evoke negative feelings in us. A relationship or friendship should always feel like a safe space to talk about how you feel. Vulnerability takes time, but the more you practice it, the more normalized talking about your hard feelings becomes.

Here are five things you should always ask a therapist before your first appointment. And here's what to know about "safety signals" and how they can help you cope in a stressful moment.

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