“I don’t know how to talk about my feelings”

We all have big, big feelings. And we are taught, sometimes inadvertently, to find ways to cope with those feelings alone, or to express them in unhealthy ways (or to not express them at all).

Then, one day, you find yourself in a lovely relationship and you realize that you MUST express your feelings. Perhaps it’s a make-or-break situation.

And you realize that you don’t know how to deal with your own feelings or the feelings your partner is having.

What now?

How can things go from being so, so good in the beginning of a relationship  (where you’re both so lovey and open) to being so difficult and overwhelming?

It happens slowly, over time. My clients and I usually unpack this slow journey during therapy, to find out what happened.

But today I want to tell you about what comes next. I want to tell you about how to identify and express your feelings to your partner.

Own it

All feelings are ok. They certainly don’t feel ok, but that’s ok, too. You may feel scared of anger, or scared to express that you are feeling it, but that’s ok (of course, it’s NOT ok to express your anger in threatening, abusive or violent ways).

All feelings are legitimate, and they occur for a reason. They have an important message to deliver. And you must honor that feeling in yourself. How you deliver the message to your partner is totally in your control, and it’s your responsibility to do it in a gentle, loving, and honest way.

Learn to listen to yourself

Break down the feelings you sense yourself having. There may be more than one feeling at play. Here’s an example:

“I hate that I have to make dinner every night. I feel so stuck. I have no time to myself. I get no help from my partner. I feel like my partner doesn’t care about my feelings. ”

More often than not, your partner cares, but they don’t understand how you feel. Or they find the way you express the feelings to trigger their own bad feelings. Digging deep and really learning how to express your feelings can be helpful. Here’s that example again:

“I feel overwhelmed that I have to be responsible for dinner every night. I also feel stuck in a role, and that makes me scared because I am so much more than my ability to make dinner. I feel like I’m losing myself a bit.  I’d love to have help a few night a week, so that I can chat with a friend, or do errands, or read, or relax. I feel like my partner doesn’t understand how I’ve been feeling because I haven’t really expressed it this way before. But now I need help.”

When broken down into several specific feelings, you can see that this person has complex feelings around the activity of dinner-making. It’s not just about dinner, but about the feeling of needing a break, wanting to be seen and valued, wanting free time to reconnect with friends, and about needing to reach out for help in figuring out how to do this.

Once you really understand each other you can take action. But the mutual understanding between you and your partner must come first, otherwise the action you take may not yield the results you want and it may not meet either of your needs.

Reach out vs. Push away

If sharing a feeling is hard, listening to your partner can be just as challenging. When you hear your partner express a feeling, your first instinct may be to recoil or to distance or defend your position. In essence, you pull away. Or you might try to offer a “fix” to make the feeling go away.

Feelings are scary.

But what your loved one is saying is “I feel alone”.

Seeing feelings in this way is helpful because it reminds you of the humanity of your partner when you may be stuck in the content of their issues (and their strong feelings). Step away from the words and focus on the feelings.

Sharing and listening to each other are such vital skills. I work on these skills in every session with almost every client. It is so common to need help with communicating on a deeper level. It’s ok that you might need to work on it, and it’s ok to start from scratch and to slowly get better.

“But I don’t feel like sharing {groan}”

If you’ve made a commitment to improve how you communicate your feelings, the beginning might be rough and filled with resistance. It’s normal to feel like this is “too much.” In fact, you’re right. Digging deep and sharing your vulnerable feelings is a lot of work and if you’re not used to it, it can be easier to keep it all to yourself.

Stay committed to yourself and to your partner by consistently revealing your feelings – start small and go from there.

Time it right

I often recommend that couples choose a time to have a weekly check-in. This is a time when all other distractions, errands, chores are out of the way and the kids are in bed. It can be a time that you both set aside for revealing built-up feelings over the week, sharing needs or missed opportunities, and for doing so in a way that is gentle, vulnerable, and kind. Ultimately, the goal is to get closer, to have a safe place to show your feelings, and to get known by your partner on a deeper, more meaningful level.

Sharing, sharing well, sharing often, and sharing safely all take practice. Make a date to sit down with your partner – the human that you chose –  and start this new chapter, slowly, openly, and as truthfully as you can.