It’s obviously uncomfortable sharing your most intimate conflicts with a paid stranger, but one of the more surprisingly awkward aspects of going to couples therapy is using “I feel” statements. The way it works is, instead of calling your spouse dramatic or unreasonable, you would describe something that happened and how you felt about it. For instance, “When you yell at me in front of our friends, I feel bad about myself.” The logic is that if you communicate this way, your partner will be less defensive and better equipped to listen.
It’s a slight adjustment for the sake of improved interactions, but it’s not the most natural way to talk. Plus, it openly welcomes the ill-advised joke: “When I speak this way, I feel like an asshole.”
It turns out, I feel statements can seem patronizing because they were initially developed for children. When psychologist Thomas Gordon came up with the idea in the 1960s, I feel statements fell under the broader umbrella of “I-messages,” as opposed to the more accusatory “you-messages,” and were designed to help parents tell their children how to behave without upsetting them too much to get the point across. “You’re being bad” became “I don’t like it when you bite me — be gentle instead.”
I-statements worked so well with kids, Gordon eventually applied the same logic to adults in his 1977 book Leadership Effectiveness Training: L.E.T. — a tome about getting ahead in business, seemingly the last place you want to lead with your feelings. When renowned couples therapist John Gottman began incorporating I-messages into couples counseling in the 1980s, I feel statements became the predominant form. (If you look up examples of I-messages, a vast majority of them are I feel statements.)
However, clinical psychologist Kimberly Martin confirms that I feel statements aren’t just for kids or couples — they’re for anyone who wants to communicate in an assertive but effective way. “I feel statements are appropriate to utilize in any situation of communication and not limited to dating, marital or couples work,“ Martin explains, adding that if these messages feel patronizing, that may have more to do with the delivery. “I think the tone of I-statements would make them appear patronizing.”
Part of the challenge is that I feel statements appear simple, but the ability to use them isn’t innate and takes practice. This could explain why they may feel unnatural or not land the right way at first. “I-statements are a skill, and there’s a learning curve where they may sound stilted,” clinical psychologist Steve Sultanoff tells me. That’s why couples are initially coached through the process of using I feel statements and I-messages.
“I recommend that the sender tell the receiver that they’re working on a new way of communicating and that it might seem awkward,” Sultanoff continues. “Another way of simplifying an I-statement is to ask oneself, ‘What’s this other person doing that’s affecting me?’ rather than judging the behavior.”
Martin starts off couples with a simple four-step process. First, the person offering feedback states the feeling: I feel hurt, upset, angry, sad, etc. The key is that it has to be a real emotion you can take responsibility for, and not a roundabout way to insult the other person. In other words, “I feel like you’re being a fucking dick,” doesn’t count.
In the next step, the person describes the behavior or situation that made them feel that way, followed by explaining any triggers that can be identified: I’m angry when this happens because it reminds me of another upsetting thing that happened. Finally, the speaker offers another option: I would like it if you considered how I feel next time.
“I feel statements work best when each person has a chance to complete the sentences,” Martin says. Likewise, it’s helpful for the recipient to repeat what they heard back to make sure they’re perceiving it correctly, before launching into their I feel statements. “When done correctly, a person listening can identify what behavior they engaged in that triggered an emotional response, why the action triggered the response and what the person would like instead,” Martin adds.
It’s sort of like when your boss asks you to do something you don’t want to do. Not only do you need a good reason for saying no, you need to bring alternative options to the table if you want to seem like a team player. In a business context, I feel statements can be a little more comfortable to use when you walk it back to the original I-message and leave the feelings part out of it, but the same four-step process still applies. The difference would be, that instead of saying, “I feel upset,” you’d just say, “I’m upset,” or “I don’t like it when…” The “feels” are used to soften the statement, but even with kids or couples therapy, the goal of the speaker is still the same — to take ownership over their emotions.
That said, I-statements can still feel uncomfortable to use when you’re in a position of authority, for the same reason they’re effective. “It definitely takes out ego,” says therapist Laura Goldstein. It’s humbling to say, when something happens, “I feel” a certain type of way. “It takes trust to feel like you can take off some of the layers of self-protection and expose your own experience,” Goldstein explains. “This is so much harder than just pointing the finger at another person.”
Ironically, then, I feel statements aren’t child’s play, but a way to get better at using them is by practicing with positive emotions. Martin offers the example, “I feel happy when you cook dinner for me because it reminds me that you care, and I’d like it if you continue to cook dinner from time to time.” You can even try using the four-step process to talk yourself through a stressful or traumatic event: “I felt worthless after getting laid off because I’m the provider for my family and I need an income to feel safe and secure.”
In the end, I feel statements are incredibly helpful, but they’re not a magical trick that will get everyone to listen and change immediately. “While I-messages do result in less defensiveness, they most often result in some defensiveness,” Sultanoff warns. “It’s true that the ultimate goal is to have the receiver change, but it’s in the context of the sender accepting that the receiver may not change.”
Still, even if using them makes you feel stupid, it’s at least worth a try, if only for the sake of better communication. I feel we could all benefit from that.