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Is not wanting to share your emotions a reason not to use I messages?

I recently heard the proposition that someone would not use I messages because they were concerned they did not want children and/or adolescence to know what they are feeling. Maybe I misunderstood the proposition when I heard it, but it sounded like 'never use I messages because we may not want children or adolescence know what we are feeling'. That made me think is this a good enough reason for not using I messages in some circumstances and is there another option?
It is always good to have others pose counter arguments to suggested solutions. This can help ensure that solutions are used only in situations that are appropriate. If you are not sure what an I message is then check out the I messages page and these posts I messages, you messages, I & You messages and negative use of I messages.

My initial response is to question the logic in the proposition. That is will children and/or adolescences only work out what your feeling if you tell them. From a young age most have developed skills around social perspective taking and can understand how others think and feel. They might use body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and the words used to help them try and understand what others are feeling. This has been shown to be an important skill to teach children with aggression and/conduct problems (Bloomquist & Schnell, 2005, p132-134). It is misleading to think that children and/or adolescences do not have much of a clue about how someone is feeling. They would have already picked up on the social clues provided.

What is missing in this situation is why you are feeling that way. This of course is where I messages come into it. There should be a clear statement about what behaviour has caused the feeling. They can see your emotions but may not have a definite idea what has caused it, but they maybe able to guess it. But what if they guess wrong? They believe they are at fault when it is actually something different. What are the implications of this imagined cause later on and for the ongoing relationship? It is better to be direct and explain why. If the behaviour that has caused the feelings is not something you wish to disclose just be honest and say so. "I am feeling really upset now but I do not want to discuss it. But I do want you to know that it is not because of anything that you have done."

Is the real issue was not so much discussing the emotions but the reasons for the emotions? Remember I messages do not have to be an in-depth discussion on emotions and/or the reasons. One word to describe that your angry, upset, disappointed is all that is needed. Like suggested above sometimes the reasons may not need to be gone into detail. Maybe this part of I messages is being misunderstood and helps cause resistance to using I messages. It is really important that young people have good role models in showing how to deal with emotions and how to discuss feelings in a mature and appropriate way. So just avoiding discussing feelings all the time is not appropriate or a long term solution.

The key issue in this proposition is not wanting to talk about feelings or trying to hide your true feelings. Good luck with trying to hide those feelings, you may get away with it. But there may also be a cost. There is a good chance that the child or adolescent will know something is 'not quite right' and this could eroding feelings of trust, even though they can never quite put the finger on why. It just ‘does not feel right’ or ‘I know they are hiding something from me’ (Also see denying feelings). Having work with lots of young people, being honesty is the simplest and best way in most cases (also see showing emotions). You do not have to go into all the details, but you can acknowledge where there is issues that cause you to have feelings and that you are impacted by those feelings.

Given the hugh scope for human behaviour and situations to occur, foreseeably there could be reasons that leads to needing to disguise our true feelings. So what can you do? Well, don't use an I message in these situations. I messages are a communications tool to help. Like any tool, part of the challenge is picking the right tool for the job. So if it is not the right tool then use something else.

So is there other options? Below are some examples taken from the I messages page of some other possible options.
Use "get" or "become" to replace the "feel" part of the message. You still have to come up with a description of a feeling but it makes the statement less feeling orientated. For example:
  • I get concerned when I hear stories about the dangerous pranks that are played on people.
  • I become frustrated and annoyed when people say they will do something for me and then they donʼt.

Or use the behaviour & effect version of I messages. Just state the behaviour you would like to see and the consequences involved in not following that behaviour. This should be used sparingly as it can sound demanding or blaming and erode respect very quickly.
  • I want everyone to stay away from the edge because they could fall and get seriously hurt.
  • I want everybody to be on time because we need to have this finished tomorrow.

While the above emphasises the positives of using I messages and addressing feelings, there is certainly some merit in not using the technique unquestioningly in all situations. It is important to consider time and place. Is I messages the right tool for this time and place? Stop and think. If it’s not the right tool then use another way of communicating instead.

Bloomquist, M. L. & Schnell, S. V. (2005) Helping Children with Aggression and Conduct Problems: Best Practices for Interventions. Guilford Press NY
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