When Feelings Become Accusations
It’s so important for me to say, off the top, that feelings are not inherently accusations. And we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be manipulated into apologizing for our emotions because someone else doesn’t like them. Your feelings are valid simply by virtue of their existence. As we covered in a blog earlier this year, you don’t choose your emotional reactions to things. They just happen in your brain. But this forces us to face the question - Why, then, do people often react so defensively when we try to tell them how we feel? I think we’ve discovered an answer.
We call them pseudoemotions. But before we define that word for you, let’s take a look at them in practice. Let me introduce Karen:
As you can see, Karen’s pretty pissed. Her husband, Steve, has been gone for hours. He said he would be back by 4:30, here it is 6:30, and she hasn’t heard word one from him. A few minutes before 7, Steve finally rolls in.
“Where have you been?”
“What?” says Steve, already perking up his defenses. “I was just playing cards with Rick and the guys. I lost track of time.”
“This happens all the time,” she responds. “And I just feel so abandoned.”
“Abandoned?!” Steve shoots back. “I didn’t abandon you. You’re a grown woman sitting comfortably in your own home. It’s not like I left you in the middle of the desert!”
“You’re not getting it,” Karen says, trying to get her point across. “I just feel… unloved. You know, when you don’t call.”
“Now I don’t love you? Like you can’t pick up a phone?” Steve’s frustration is visible. He’s breathing heavily, his arms are folded. Karen falls silent.
“You’re right,” she finally says quietly. “I guess I could’ve called you.”
The argument is over, but Karen feels no resolution. She feels confused, as though she’s somehow done something wrong by being hurt - but she can’t seem to make Steve understand, so maybe, she thinks, it’s better to just let it go. But the damage is done. Steve’s heart is light-years away from hers at this point, and they’ll spend the rest of the night quietly passing each other with as few words as possible. Both alienated, neither satisfied, and no one quite understanding what just happened. And, perhaps, most importantly, both of them a little more hopeless about their relationship, because, as Karen points out, this is not the first time this has happened. Will they ever understand each other?
Sound familiar at all?
Steve & Karen’s story is hardly unique. And their situation is certainly not hopeless. But it can certainly start to feel hopeless when you and your spouse have the same fights over and over. Fights where one of you doesn’t feel heard and the other one feels unnecessarily attacked, nothing gets resolved, and you just spin the wheel one more time.
Steve has done something wrong here - no question. If you’re gonna get home later than you said, you should call. That’s just a courtesy. Especially if you know your spouse is sensitive to that kind of thing, or has a stricter sense of dealing with time than you do. And I’m sure (because I’ve done it, Carly’s done it, and we’ve heard and watched others do it) that when Karen told Steve how she felt about his lack of courtesy, she thought she had clearly and succinctly stated her emotions to him. And if Steve was an enlightened creature, he would know that emotions are nobody’s fault, they’re just involuntarily chemical reactions in the brain. So there’s no reason for him to be defensive… But there’s a problem.
The words Karen used to express herself: abandoned, and unloved… Those aren’t emotions. They’re not feelings. Which can be confusing because they’re predicated by the phrase, “I feel…” But words like “abandoned” and “unloved” are actually, you guessed it, pseudoemotions. Pseudoemotions are words that sound like feelings, but are actually subtle evaluations of someone else’s behavior. To say that you feel abandoned is really a way of saying, “It seems to me like you are abandoning me.” The same with unloved - you’re saying, “I think you’re not loving me.” And, whether consciously or unconsciously, your spouse’s brain hears what you think is an emotional expression as an accusation about their behavior. They didn’t hear anything about how you feel. They only heard a statement about what you think they did - and if they disagree with your characterization of their behavior, they’ll get defensive, and completely miss what you were originally trying to express.
Luckily, getting around this involves two very simple steps:
STEP ONE: Get back to basic emotions.
Somewhere along the way, we substituted actual emotions (sad, happy, lonely, hopeless) for words that sounded more mature, but weren’t actually feelings. To avoid the hopeless cycle of attempting to express feelings being met with defensive arguments, you just need to actually state your emotions. With simple, straightforward, feeling words. This isn’t difficult, but it can be complicated because we have all said the words “I feel” and followed them with words that weren’t feeling words for years. So it may take a little while to sift through your thoughts to find a word that expresses an actual emotion. But as creatures of habit, we tend to feel the same 2-3 emotions when in conflict, so if you do the work one time, and commit it to memory, you’ll at least have a word bank to sift through the next time you need it. Or…you could use the word bank we developed! It isn’t an exhaustive list of emotions, but it’s a thorough list!
STEP TWO: Define your perceptions.
After stating your emotion, follow it with the words “when I perceive” or “when it looks like to me that” before you express what your partner’s actions look like from your eyes. Those short phrases allow just enough wiggle room that your partner can hear how you emotionally responded to what you thought happened, without actually having to agree with your version of events.
So, in our example, Karen could have said, “I feel lonely when I perceive that you cared more about spending time with your friends than with me.” Or maybe, “I felt sad when it seemed to me that what you thought what were doing was more important than calling me.” In both cases she has clearly stated how she is feeling, and explained why she is feeling that way. Within her emotional and mental construct, Steve has wronged her by not calling. And that caused her to feel something. But by stating it as a perception, she gives Steve the room to acknowledge her version of events (lack of care or concern for her), while still holding to his own timeline (being present focused and losing track of time). This allows Steve to attend to her emotions, as he didn’t want to make her feel sad or lonely, and they can talk constructively about how to avoid that in the future. Once Karen feels heard and validated, she can probably hear Steve’s version of events with a more open mind.
Thanks so much for reading! We’ll keep these coming every week. You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, & Pinterest with the buttons at the top of the page, or post this article to the platform of your choice with the buttons below. Also, please feel free to leave a comment! We’d love to hear your questions or receive any feedback you’d like to offer! Finally, if you’ve found this information helpful at all, you should know that we get to sit in person with couples like you every week and help them through their relationships. We’d love it and be so grateful if you would consider making a donation to support our work so that we can keep serving couples in our community and all over the world! Thank you!