Speaking Your Heart

Find out why sharing your feelings has the potential to go wrong.

Speaking your heart can be tricky. On the surface it seems like such a good, honest thing to do—and it is. But sharing your feelings has the potential to go wrong unless we stay very conscious of our own part in things.

Often we worry that voicing our feelings might hurt or offend someone. But it can be risky for us, too, because opening up to someone who is deaf to emotion can be a painful, invalidating experience. Speaking your heart sometimes feels like placing a bet and waiting to see what the cards will bring.

Sharing your feelings is the first act of emotional intimacy. You are letting the other person know what’s going on inside you and therefore allowing your true self to be known. Intimacy, by definition, occurs when you are real and present in communicating your inner experience with the other person. Deep bonds take root when we open up and share what we feel with others. But even negative honesty can build closeness between people if it’s done well. It comes down to your motive and the outcome you’re seeking.

Let’s say you have resentment toward someone. If you’re considering telling him or her about this, the first thing to do is to clearly imagine what you hope will happen as a result. What is the outcome you’re seeking by speaking your heart? If your motive is to get the person to see your point and agree that you’re right, you probably won’t get what you want. He or she will become defensive. People just don’t like being told how to behave. They like to choose that for themselves.

Speaking your heart works best if your motive is self-expression and emotional connection, not changing or blaming the other person. Communicating your inner world to another person is a worthy goal in and of itself. But you can improve the odds of working something out if you acknowledge that you might be doing some distorting yourself. You don’t have to believe absolutely that you’re mistaken; you just have to be willing to make allowances for that.

Brené Brown in her Netflix documentary, The Call to Courage, suggests starting difficult discussions with the disclaimer that you may be misinterpreting things. Instead of criticizing the other person up front, she recommends leading with: The story I’m telling myself about what happened is that… Then she asks if that’s true. This opens the door for the other person to clarify his or her intent toward you. When you own your fantasies about the meaning of other people’s behavior and allow that you could’ve been mistaken, they have a chance to correct your perceptions and keep the conversation going.

Should You Use “I-Messages”?

Try Actively Communicating & Taking Responsibility

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Decades ago, we were taught to use “I-messages” in which we spoke our hearts by saying something like, When you said x, I felt y. This can work well when you’re dealing with sensitive people who want to know how you feel. But many people experience I-statements as accusatory because there is still that cause-and-effect implication. I-messages are better than launching into criticism but are still likely to put the other person on guard.

If you speak your heart while acknowledging up front that your interpretation may be skewed, then the other person is invited to participate in the active construction of your relationship with each other. The motive of such communication is not to correct or change the other person, but to solicit his or her input on your internal story so it doesn’t keep eroding your good feelings toward him or her. It’s always the other person’s choice whether or not to change his or her behavior toward you.

But at least you have been transparent in the very human fact that your upset came from what you imagined the other person was intending. Taking responsibility for the story about the interaction you’ve been telling yourself removes at least one potential source of distortion from your attempt to communicate.

Even if you’ve done all you can to clean things up on your end, you may still get a defensive or offended response. If this is upsetting, it’s your opportunity to go back and clarify in your own mind your original motive. Perhaps you had secretly hoped you could change the other person, rather than focusing on the more achievable goal of just practicing your autonomous right to speak up.

Just remember that while speaking from your heart momentarily creates more intimacy between you and another person, that doesn’t mean he or she will reciprocate or engage. However, if your motive is purely to be clear and fair at your end, you’ll still come out of the interchange feeling pretty good about yourself. You’ll have a sense of integrity and dignity that you tried.

By sharing your experiences, you’ll be saying you belong in this world, an equal among equals. Speaking your heart while owning your possible distortions is the way forward to creating something truly honest and real between you and others.

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