Problems with a popular formula
© 1991, 1999, 2003, 2013
This article was originally written for an issue of Families in Recovery, a parenting magazine that is no longer in print. Although the examples primarily feature parent-child interactions, the dynamics, issues, and alternatives are applicable to any relationship.
A man in one of my workshops once told me how hard it had been for him to learn to express his feelings. “At first,” he said, “it would usually sound like, ‘I feel you should take the trash out’ or ‘I feel you’re really depressed.’” He said he had since learned a great deal about feelings, including the unsettling discovery that many of the strategies he often used simply masked his attempt to control or change others.
When we are learning new skills for growth and self-care, it can be easy to inadvertently misuse or mishandle them, but certain strategies come with a dangerous dark underbelly that may not be immediately apparent. This has certainly been the case with I-messages, a communications tool that became popular in the 1970s and refuses to go away.
I-messages are often described as statements that can be used as a way of taking responsibility for one’s own feelings in conflict situations, and certainly statements like “I’m afraid of spiders,” “I’m really sad my friend is moving,” or “I’m too angry to call her back now,” demonstrate honest and responsible ownership for one’s own state of mind. But I-messages are rarely used simply to describe emotions. Instead, they employ a simple— and simplistic— formula to directly connect emotions to someone else’s behavior: “When you (exhibit or neglect to exhibit a certain behavior), I feel (a certain feeling)” or “I feel _____ when you ____.” Some people advocate a third component, adding “…and I want you to (do this),” with the implicit message that “I will feel better if you do.”
While I will admit a certain initial appreciation for the intentions behind this formula, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with what has always felt like a slightly creepy meta-message implicit in how these statements are communicated and used. Even an honest description like “I’m angry about this mess,” which may well be preferable to stating, “You kids are such inconsiderate slobs!” or “You make me so angry!” becomes problematic when expressed to kids to get them to clean up. (Yes, there may well be a cause-and-effect connection between the kids’ behavior and the adult’s emotional response, but there are other, more effective, and less emotionally-loaded ways of motivating kids to put their things away, strategies that don’t rely on our anger or conditional approval to generate cooperation and commitment from others. More about these strategies later in this article.)
I-messages have been promoted to offer an alternative to the seemingly more destructive “You-messages” that attack, blame, or criticize someone else. But although the wording is different, I-messages are really just You-messages in disguise, connecting my feelings with your behavior. They may start with (or include) the word I, but the statements carry the same energetic impact as messages of blame, ones which blatantly state, “You (or your behaviors) make me feel…” As such, I-messages simply give us new language for manipulation, blaming, and projecting. Even worse, they become a tool for self-victimization, as they present us as emotionally at the mercy of someone’s behavioral choices.
There is particular danger when we structure I-messages to suggest that the other person’s behavior is responsible for our feelings, especially when the statements carry the implication that we’d feel better if only the other person would act differently. Even if this were true, do you really want to communicate your vulnerability to someone who may not be willing to take responsibility for your emotional state, someone who may not care enough (or feel guilty enough) to change solely for its sake? Telling an angry or vengeful person “I feel terrible when you say such mean things to me” might well result in confirming for them, “Good! It worked!” Even if they don’t say it aloud, you have just reinforced the power they have to hurt you.
This approach may sometimes seem to work, but the outcomes can be quite costly to the relationship. We certainly don’t want to burden others, especially our children, with the overwhelming— and impossible— responsibility for our happiness and well-being. Remember that the journey of personal growth and self-responsibility typically involves learning to separate who we are, how we feel, and how we feel about ourselves from other people’s behaviors. When our peace of mind (or our sense of competence as parents) depends on our children’s choices, achievements, or appearance, we remain continually vulnerable to all sorts of things over which we have limited control.
Now the formula typically used to create an I-message certainly has the attraction of a quick-fix solution, and may have a certain appeal to people who are concerned that simply asking for what we want— a behavior that is often discouraged in our culture— may seem a bit too aggressive or incendiary. There are, however, many ways to set a boundary, request a different behavior, or get what we want from others in our lives without bullying or manipulating them.
I suspect that to a certain extent, some proponents of I-messages are motivated by a fear of other people’s reactions to a more direct, assertive request, or advocate for their use in the hopes that the other person will not take advantage of the vulnerability we exhibit by sharing feelings we believe we experience as a result of their behavior. In some instances, that may indeed occur, but these types of interactions require a staggering amount of intimacy and goodwill, qualities often absent in the relationships (or situations) in which the use of these messages are often recommended!
Others argue that using feelings to motivate others is more honest somehow than simply setting a boundary, asking for what you want, or requesting a particular behavior. However, many people who have been on the receiving end of an I-message report seeing this approach as extremely dishonest and manipulative. Several mentioned feeling more than a bit put-upon by having others attempt to dump responsibility for their emotional well-being on them. And more than one individual shared that this approach actually had the opposite effect, creating resentment and alienation, rather than compassion and cooperation! These negative reactions are likely with people of all ages, whether or not the individual can articulate (or even understand) why the interaction provokes offense or discomfort, so there is a good chance that you will not achieve what you are trying to accomplish with this strategy.
Let’s work this through: Perhaps you say, “I feel sad when you get poor grades” in an attempt to encourage your child’s achievement in school. Now this statement may indeed be an accurate assessment of your feelings, but it also suggests that your feelings are the result of your child’s behavior and, in this instance, that your happiness depends on him getting a good report card. If this is truly the case, that you simply can’t feel happy unless your children are doing well in school, it’s a safe bet that it’s not about the grades. The issue may be far more about your sense of adequacy as a parent, the need to look good to others, or your desire for whatever status your children’s accomplishments might bring you. Wanting your children to do well is quite different from attaching your emotional well-being to their achievement.
But let’s say it works. You say, “I feel sad when you get poor grades,” and suddenly, your child begins to apply himself and pulls his grades up! However, what’s likely to be behind the change in his behavior? Perhaps the improvement was indeed driven by his attempts to keep you from feeling sad, or to protect himself from your disappointment (withdrawal of your conditional approval). But this is a very different motivation from, say, the satisfaction of personal achievement, the desire to learn something new, or even the intention to gain access to certain privileges that come with such improvement—motivators that do not depend on someone else’s approval or reaction, motivators which in no way compromise the child’s sense of worth or emotional safety.
Likewise, let’s say your child’s teacher tells him, “When you forget your library books, I feel angry and frustrated!” Assuming your child cares enough— or is threatened enough— to be motivated by the teacher’s feelings, wouldn’t you prefer that he be motivated to return library books so he can take out some new ones, rather than cooperating in order to emotionally care-take his teacher (or protect himself from the outcomes of the teacher’s anger and frustration)?
Parents who cringe at the thought of telling their children, “You’d better behave. You don’t want Daddy to start drinking again!” might easily slip with a statement like, “I get really hurt when you two don’t get along,” or even “I feel so happy when you make your bed.” Whether extreme or seemingly benign, all three statements make the child responsible for the parents’ state of mind, and convey the impression that the child somehow has the power to control how Mommy and Daddy act and feel.
There are several dangers here. Ask any adult who grew up in a troubled home who has had to reconcile the shame and frustration of not being able to keep a parent happy, calm, or sober, no matter how well she behaved, how quietly she played, or how many “A’s” she brought home on her report card. These kinds of statements build dependence on external approval, teaching children to choose their behaviors on the basis of other people’s potential reactions and opinions in order to protect their sense of safety and worth. And when it comes to getting the approval of adults and peers who might not be safe or protective, or those who might not have our kids’ best interests in mind, this is exactly what most adults don’t want their children to do. It’s not fair to complain about the power of peer pressure when we keep communicating to kids that their likability, approval, and emotional safety are the conditional results of doing what other people want and expect, from automatically putting the wishes of others ahead of their own, or from simply doing what makes other people happy.
Please note that I am not suggesting for a second that we teach kids to be inconsiderate of others. However, people-pleasing and emotional care-taking are not the same as respect and consideration; they are much more about equating our safety and self-worth with others’ reactions and opinions, and making choices simply to self-protect. (Think of adults you know who tolerate neglectful, disrespectful, or abusive behavior out of fear of the additional conflict they might encounter if they stand up for themselves and ask for what they want. We certainly want better for our children!) Healthy cooperation, respect, compassion, consideration, and service come from quite a different place, one that respects and values the needs and feelings of others, one in which conditional self-worth or emotional safety are never an issue. Ultimately, we want to encourage these qualities— which, incidentally, is much easier to do in relationships that aren’t burdened by power struggles, over-enmeshment, or manipulation.
Aside from the obvious dangers in reinforcing people-pleasing, telling kids that you’ll feel happy, proud, or less angry if they do what you want puts them in the often painful position of having to choose between your feelings and their own when their needs are different from yours. Once again, consider your intention. In most instances, people report that they use I-messages (or teach others to use I-messages) to get others to change thoughtless or hurtful behavior, or to simply get others to behave in a way that is more desirable to the person communicating the I-message. However, using I-messages assumes that the other person cares more about your feelings and emotional well-being than about whatever satisfaction he gets from continuing to behave the way he’s behaving. What if he doesn’t care? What if he isn’t afraid of your anger or disappointment? And in fact, what if his intention is to be hurtful, or to inflict some form of emotional discomfort? In that case, using an I-message simply communicates that his strategy is working, reinforcing the behavior you are trying to extinguish, and increasing the likelihood that it will continue.
There are a few other issues to consider. While older children may have learned that compliance protects their safety and self-worth, and that agreeing to do what you want may get you off their backs (regardless of their actual intentions to cooperate), very young children may have difficulty identifying with another person’s feelings. And children of all ages may resist if they are competing with you for power.
In talking about “I-messages,” there are really two issues here. One is the desire to motivate certain behaviors or develop particular attitudes in your children. The other is the array of feelings, reactions and issues that get triggered— feelings you experience— along the way. Both of these are real, reasonable, and important, and each is a separate issue to be dealt with in different ways.
If you simply want your children to change their behavior, then you probably don’t need to express your feelings in the first place. There are several ways to eliminate your feelings from the equation. If your child is being obnoxious or disrespectful, you don’t have to talk about how much her attitude upsets you or hurts your feelings. You do, however, need to refuse to accept, support, engage, or encourage unacceptable behavior— and you can even do this without criticizing her attitude, making her wrong, or pointing out that her behavior is unacceptable (labeling the misbehavior).
If you’re good at this (or feeling particularly generous), you can validate her feelings: “I can see you’re very upset about this.” But absolutely disengage by setting a boundary, making it clear that your further participation is contingent upon her talking to you in a civilized fashion: “I want to hear about this when you can talk without yelling or attacking. Let’s try again in a little bit.” And then walk away. This sends quite a different message from a statement that suggests that she is controlling how you feel— which, incidentally, may be exactly what she’s trying to do. (This approach also offers a healthy, self-caring and assertive model for your kids to use when they’re being bothered or bullied by their peers. If we can teach kids to say, “I feel sad when you call me names,” we can certainly teach them to say, “I’ll play with you when you stop calling me names,” or better yet, to just walk away and choose a more respectful playmate. Instructing kids to “Tell him how it makes you feel” increases their vulnerability, and often only sets them up for additional conflict and pain.)
Instead of approaching your kids after they’ve tied up the phone night after night with a statement like, “I feel so frustrated when I can’t use the phone,” how about letting them know ahead of time, “I’ll need to have the phone free between 8:00 and 9:00 tonight” or “You need to wrap up your calls by 8:00 so I can use the phone.” (Author’s note: This article was originally written back in the days when most households only had one telephone. I debated about changing the example, but it’s one that is easy to understand and applies to any shared space or device.) This statement sets clear boundaries without using your feelings to manipulate or control. It may help to get a commitment from your children that shows how they will plan their calls in order to be off the phone in time. You may also need to make tomorrow’s phone privilege contingent upon their cooperation today. All this without relying on your anger, disappointment, or frustration to get what you want! Getting the phone when you want it may simply be a question of asking for it clearly and firmly, and securing an agreement to a plan that works for everyone concerned. (Keep in mind that you’re far less likely to encounter rudeness or resistance when your kids see you working for win-win solutions that attempt to accommodate their needs as well as your own.)
Likewise, using positively-stated contingencies that tell your children, “You can watch TV as soon as your homework is done,” “You can have the car again this weekend as long as you get in tonight by the time we agreed to,” or “I will make dinner as soon as the counters are clean,” simply leaves the outcomes of their choices with them, without requiring their cooperation to keep you from going crazy, being disappointed, or getting upset. (You will probably need to clarify your requirements with additional details. For more information in using clear, win-win boundaries, see the following articles: “Unconditional Motivation,” “No-Lose Parenting” and “Following Through.”)
Teaching consideration comes much more easily in an environment in which it’s clear that everyone’s needs and preferences are respected and valued. Allowing (modeling and encouraging) the expression of needs, wants, and desires and working toward mutual, win-win solutions offers an approach that carries far fewer psychological land mines than using feelings to get us what we want, and in most cases you’ll have much better luck with a contingency that doesn’t rely on your child’s need for approval or fear of anger or abandonment.
Learning to have and express our feelings without making other people responsible for them is one of the greatest challenges for personal growth, especially for parents and their children, where the boundaries between them can so easily blur. One of the arguments in favor of I-messages is that this formula can help people identify and express their feelings. While I certainly see the advantages of processing or working through feelings that come up in our interactions with others (an affective process that is appropriate to being upset about something), I’m not convinced of the need for attaching a specific name to those feelings (a cognitive process that, at best, is difficult to accomplish when we’re upset, and may not always be particularly appropriate, relevant, or even necessary to actually working through our feelings).
Nor am I convinced of the importance of letting others know which feelings their behavior has brought up. If you’re simply interested in identifying and externalizing your feelings (getting them out), you don’t need to involve the other person at all. Because if you’re feeling sad, frustrated, embarrassed, disappointed, hurt, or whatever because of the way your kids act or look, it’s a safe bet that it has far more to do with your own agenda, unfulfilled expectations, or sense of adequacy than it does with the kids. Sure, there will be time when you’ll want to work through your feelings with another person. Fine. Go ahead and talk about the reaction you’re having to someone’s behavior, language or attitudes, but talk about it to someone beside the person whose behavior is triggering (not causing) those feelings! Do you really need to externalize your feelings to your children, or do you just need to get them out period, perhaps by writing in your journal or talking to a therapist or a trusted friend?
Watch your intent. There are better ways to ask your children for a more desirable behavior then by asking that they change so that you’ll feel better. You may need to back up and identify what it is you really want, set better boundaries to anticipate and avoid future problems, or polish up on your follow through, but if you can resist the convenience of a formulaic communication available in I-messages, you can also eliminate the patterns of manipulation, guilt, and self-victimization that go with them. The result may just be your children’s cooperation, but most important is the absence of conditionality in your relationship, and respect for the desire that both you and your kids can come through a conflict with everyone’s feelings unscathed. ❦
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