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May 7, 2008 3:09 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to talk through my emotions when I'm very upset instead of shutting down?

It doesn't happen that often, but when I'm really upset with people close to me I have a habit of completely shutting down and being unable to speak.

I think part of it is that I can't figure out how to put my feelings into words, because I'm confused myself or I know I'm just being irrational.

Another part of it is that, when I'm angry, the only things I can think to say are ugly, hurtful things and I don't want to say something I regret and hurt someone I love.

So arguments usually end with me staring off into the distance in silence while someone (usually my poor boyfriend) begs me to tell them what's wrong. Usually, after a ridiculous amount of cajoling and/or quietly thinking and calming myself down, I can get to point where I can say "I'm upset because when you X, I feel Y" or whatever, but I'd like to avoid that wasted time in the middle where we just keep getting more frustrated and annoyed with each other. So how do I get myself out of that place, and learn to communicate my emotions even when they're messy and a little crazy.
posted by kerfuffled to Human Relations (25 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Tell your boyfriend to leave you alone for a while so you can calm down! There is nothing wrong with that. People need time to think and relax. The old saying to never go to bed angry is wrong - it's better to take some time and cool down before trying to talk about something. What you're doing is fine. That time in the middle shouldn't be spent trying to talk with each other, it should be spent apart until you are both calm and ready to discuss the feelings.
posted by jesirose at 3:17 PM on May 7, 2008

I think what you've written here is perfect:

"I'm really upset and it's hard to speak. I don't know how to put this into words yet, and I don't want to say something in anger that I'll regret. I need some time/space to think about this, can we talk when I'm not so upset?"

In my experience, if the other person knows you're not ignoring them or disregarding their feelings it goes a long way to avoiding the frustration and annoyance.

Good luck, I know how frustrating this is for everyone involved.
posted by Space Kitty at 3:37 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

You have to be willing to accept that if you tell your people that when you're upset you need to be left alone, sometimes they will leave you alone.

Try writing things to get exercise in formulating thoughts under stress.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:39 PM on May 7, 2008

Whatever happens around you, don't take it personally. If I see you on the street and say, "Hey, you are stupid," without knowing you, it's not about you; it's about me. If you take it personally, then perhaps you believe you are stupid. Maybe you think to yourself, "How does he know? Can everyone see how stupid I am?"

You take it personally because you agree with whatever was said. As soon as you agree, you are trapped in personal importance. Taking things personally can be an expression of selfishness, because everything is about "me, me, me."

Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own world, in their own mind, in their own dream. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, therefore we try to impose our world upon theirs.

Your point of view is something personal to you. It is no one's truth but yours. So, if you get mad at me, I know you are dealing with yourself. I am the excuse for you to get mad, and you get mad because you are dealing with fear. If you aren't afraid, then you will not get mad at me. If you can live without that fear by not taking things personally, it then follows that you will feel good, content, and serene.

Sociological spam? Perhaps, but if you can practice the concept, over time you will learn to communicate calmly when you are emotional.
posted by netbros at 3:42 PM on May 7, 2008 [9 favorites]

I think this is normal. In a calm moment, explain this to your boyfriend (or friend, whomever), and then when you get mad again, just say "I'm doing that thing where I don't want to yell at you, so please leave me alone."
posted by herbaliser at 3:42 PM on May 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seconding herbaliser. In a calm moment, tell him what you've told us about needing time to calm down, not wanting to speak in anger, etc. Set up a phrase in advance -- "I'm headed to Timbuktu" or something equally unlikely to occur in everyday conversation -- so that when you use that short sentence under stress, you will be communicating your difficulties and he will know to back off for a while.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:47 PM on May 7, 2008

Nthing the opinion that it's healthy and normal to want to hold back until you feel better able to voice your opinion, but I would also add that perhaps instead of asking your boyfriend to leave you alone, or sitting there while he begs you to tell him what's wrong, take a more active stance and remove -yourself- from the situation temporarily. As Space Kitty suggested, voice your feelings much as you did here - but finish by saying you want to take a walk, or go off by yourself for a while - and then DO so. Go write down your feelings, or talk them through to yourself on a walk, whatever it takes to get you to a point where you're feeling a little more ready talk work things through. There's nothing wrong with that (plus I find that taking a walk and muttering to myself the whole way is a great way of figuring stuff out and starting to feel better ... so long as I remember not to move my lips too much while I'm muttering ;)
posted by zeph at 3:50 PM on May 7, 2008

There's nothing wrong with taking some time to figure out exactly what you're feeling and how to best express that. I think the important thing is to let the other person know that's what you're doing. Rather than staring off into the distance, let them know that you need some time alone and you'll let them know when you're ready to talk. And then actually follow up and have the conversation once you're ready to.
posted by curie at 3:54 PM on May 7, 2008

Explain this tendency to your boyfriend first when you're NOT upset. Let him know that the cajoling makes things more difficult for you. Develop some kind of neutral signal to use when you're upset that lets him know that you promise to talk about this later, but you can't right now. The sillier the better - pat your tummy and rub your head. No, really, I'm serious. It's difficult to stay angry when you are doing something so goofy.
posted by desjardins at 3:56 PM on May 7, 2008

Or pretty much what herbaliser and MonkeyToes said.
posted by desjardins at 3:57 PM on May 7, 2008

Hmm, sorry for the additional post but another thought just occurred to me: sometimes lately I've realized that when I feel the way you describe, it's in part because I'm actually quite afraid of my negative feelings ... it's like I don't trust myself with extreme emotions, like somehow I think my anger is more "toxic" than other people's and that as such I'm under obligation to repress it and never express it unless I've completely brought myself back under control ... and maybe that's a little more extreme than is really healthy ... I dunno.

My point being, that while I still think the "remove yourself until you can better articulate your feelings" approach is a highly valid and appropriate one, it might also be worth asking yourself if you're shutting down because you're afraid of your own anger, and if that's so, whether your fear is entirely a good thing or might in some ways be forcing you to give up the right to -healthy- venting (if there is such a thing). Heh, I wish I had more of an "answer" to this particular line of thought myself, but failing that I thought I might still put it out there as another possible side to consider ...
posted by zeph at 4:01 PM on May 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

All these answers are really good, but I think they are pointing out something else I need help with, namely:

You have to be willing to accept that if you tell your people that when you're upset you need to be left alone, sometimes they will leave you alone.

When I tell my boyfriend I need some time and he actually gives it to me, it just makes me feel abandoned and more upset, like he doesn't even care. Because I don't actually want time (since I'm afraid that will just lead to it being swept under the rug while I grow quietly bitter). I want to resolve it NOW. I just can't. So I guess what I'm seeing here is that I need to learn to be okay with taking a break.
posted by kerfuffled at 4:04 PM on May 7, 2008

Waiting to talk... not always effective. Case in point: I hate it when someone wants to "collect their thoughts." I can accept that figuring out situations are hard and emotions even harder. I don't like that s/he won't consider that I'll feel fluctuating levels of anxiety until the issue's resolved, which means the longer it takes for you, the more heartache for me. Not to mention all that time could result in me fuming or resentment or whatever. In other words, the time can create problems just as easily as it can solve them.

Anyway, it sounds like (since hurtful words arise easily and "I feel... when you..." phrases are difficult to bring up) that you just need more practice learning how to yell at someone express your feelings without doing things you know you'll be ashamed of later. Likewise, I'm sure your boyfriend will work with you, even if something does slip out. We all do things out of emotions that our logical brain don't want us to do and it's part of what makes us human. If you never said anything out of anger that you regretted later, that would um, kinda make you a robot.

While you should minimize saying hurtful things, you could see it this way: If you stick around and try to argue, you'll hurt him, but you'll be gaining experience (even if in the form of what not to say). If you leave for a couple of hours, he may be just as hurt, and you learn nothing about how to express yourself in a heated argument. So you can either a) hurt him and learn or b) hurt him and not learn. Hm, that's a tough decision...

Trust that these fights are good for you. I could sit here and say, "Hey I think you need to figure yourself out" all day long and you won't have nearly the same incentive as when you need to explain what happened just so that someone else can stop being upset. I've been through a few relationships and let me tell you... the screaming matches from #1 definitely helped me a lot through all the subsequent ones, if only because I realized that screaming matches weren't the way to go.
posted by reebear at 4:09 PM on May 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

sorry for the double post, but...

If you can't figure out what to say, start off with, "I feel bad. Can I get a hug?"

It does three things. 1) Expresses some approximation of what you feel. 2) Expresses approximation of what you want (which is reconciliation). 3) Gives him something to do and buys you thinking time. :)
posted by reebear at 4:19 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's all ultimately about fear, isn't it? Fear that we're going to lose. Fear that we are wrong. Fear that he/she will leave me. Fear that he/she will stay. Fear that we might have to change.

An old, sage curmudgeon in AA once told me, "Son, don't take yourself so damn seriously." Lighten up. Enjoy life. Don't worry about what others think of you. If you can learn to love yourself, then you will eventually be free of fear and resentment.
posted by netbros at 4:25 PM on May 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

You know, if you tell him that you really want to keep talking, but you're apt to lash out, he might be able to just brush off more or your ire than if he's under the impression that you mean those words. Tell him you are afraid of the lonely feelings you'll have if he goes away, but also afraid of being pressured, thoughtless and harmful.

I'm VERY much the same way as you describe, and I'm fortunate enough to have a partner who can turn the other cheek because he too wants to work right through it (most of the time). Dealing with the mean misbehavior you exhibit when your feelings are unprocessed and you're confused, when you're all overwhelmed with anger, fear, embarassment, vanity, whatever, is just about the only thing I've ever tried which has contributed to changing my habits in those heated moments. Playing it out, with a patient partner who simply knows: YOU'RE A HOTHEAD and can forgive you for it has made ME a nicer partner, less cruel, him a more secure partner for the faith I put in him and the help I ask him for, and us far better at knowing how to react to those warning lights one another exhibits (Beep! Beep! meltdown imminent! Go get her a glass of water!).

...But this requires that you lay a lot out on the table and ask for help, with what are some of your most proud, defensive, independent moments.

The alternative is learning how to do the emotional processing alone, and that's fine, fine, fine. But I just have to remark that it can be struggled through more cooperatively, and maybe that strikes some people as too codependent, but I figure two heads are better than one sometimes.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:40 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I tell my boyfriend I need some time and he actually gives it to me, it just makes me feel abandoned and more upset, like he doesn't even care. Because I don't actually want time (since I'm afraid that will just lead to it being swept under the rug while I grow quietly bitter). I want to resolve it NOW. I just can't. So I guess what I'm seeing here is that I need to learn to be okay with taking a break.

I feel exactly the same way. Sometimes, if we're in an appropriate place, I say, "I love you, but I'm really upset. Can we just sit together quietly for a little bit while I calm down?" Then we'll hold hands or hug for a bit until I feel more collected. This works for us because MuddDude is a pretty touchy-feely guy. He gets the reassurance he needs that I'm not crazy angry, and I get the time I need to collect my thoughts.

Waiting to talk... not always effective. Case in point: I hate it when someone wants to "collect their thoughts." I can accept that figuring out situations are hard and emotions even harder. I don't like that s/he won't consider ...

Good point: Fighting effectively is highly dependent on the people involved in the fight. This is something that should be worked out when the people involved are NOT fighting, IMO. When I'm really upset, I can't figure anything - and the fact that I'm not thinking rationally is something that will make me more upset. MuddDude and I quickly figured out that when I'm angry, implying that I'm "unreasonable" is the last thing I want to hear. So discussions about what we should do during a fight need to happen when I'm calm.
posted by muddgirl at 5:05 PM on May 7, 2008

If this problem is limited to personal issues, such as you vs. boyfriend, then it's something that I bet you can work out on a personal level. As others have said, talk about it when you're not upset about anything; tell him that sometimes you might shut down, etc. But you might want to work out a procedure where, when you're feeling like that, you say, "sit with me here for a few minutes and let me collect my thoughts." Don't let him go away, because that might make you feel abandoned. Or you could just have 5 or 10 minute (or 20, or whatever amount of time works for you) timeouts.

But if this is something that isn't limited to your home life, it has to be dealt with in a different way. At work, you can't very well tell someone to leave you alone for a while for you to collect your thoughts. (Just the other day at work I nearly blew up on someone; I have been known to shut down as you describe and I was so aggravated, all I could come up with was, "Just. Stop," and I walked away to pick up some printouts. Later I apologized profusely. It wasn't professional.) Times like that, you really have to get a grip. For me, when I'm not at my worst as I just described, I need to just literally take a deep breath, and tell *myself*, internally, to "just stop." My next step is to calmly figure out what needs to be said or done next to advance the situation in a positive way, not a negative one. I try to figure out, what is the conflict? I know I want to just walk away and let it go for a couple hours until I calm down, but I know that will just delay the process. So, what's the conflict, and what steps do I need to take to resolve it? What does my coworker need from me, or what do I need from her, in order to figure it out? I try to think of what I would want my coworker to say to me in this situation. Would I want them to be snotty (as I want to be) or would I want them to calmly take a new, objective look at the situation?

And it's easier at work, because you (presumably) aren't in love with the person you're fighting with, it's likely not personal (or if it is, it goes away when you leave work), you don't have to sleep with them, etc.

But I've also found that shutting down in my personal life isn't always the most efficient ways of doing things, either, because it breeds frustration. I shut down, boyfriend is confused/frustrated, boyfriend goes away because I tell him to, I get frustrated because he abandoned me, frustration breeds in both of our heads, and the problem is just dragged out. Even when I want to shut down, a timeout is usually better.
posted by iguanapolitico at 7:00 PM on May 7, 2008

Fastest way I know to dissipate useless anger is to jump up, leave the house and go for a good brisk furious walk. This also has the advantage that it kills any argument stone dead, because the arguing parties are no longer in the same room. By the time I've come back, we're both simmered down and ready to deal rationally with whatever it was.

In my experience, anger walks off about twice as quickly as it waits off.
posted by flabdablet at 7:50 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

When trying to nip things in the bud, my husband and I have a "safe word" for arguments that means the other person is really pissing us off and it's time to cut it out. Dropping this does put a damper on things, but it's better than getting so angry that we end up quarreling and miserable.

I can't usually talk about my feelings right away either, because I get really emotional and in any case am SO not articulate. I can write, however, so usually we separate for about half an hour, I write down (or even just think about how I would write down) what I'm feeling, and then not only am I calmer but I feel more prepared to talk with reasoned explanations.

Only once was I so upset that I came close to actually giving him the letter afterwards; we did end up talking, but I had to read large chunks of it to him because I couldn't express myself properly without falling apart or sounding histrionic.
posted by GardenGal at 8:02 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I usually tell myself it's all brain chemicals, and go get something done while waiting for them to subside. Go running, biking, or release your tension on whatever physical activity you normally do. You might even invite your husband to join in, so you can talk afterwards.
posted by semi at 9:47 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

when I'm really upset with people close to me I have a habit of completely shutting down and being unable to speak. ...I think part of it is that I can't figure out how to put my feelings into words, ...So arguments usually end with me staring off into the distance in silence...

Yup. That's me, too. I'll have things to say, but it's almost as if the link between the part of my brain that feels things and the part that formulates spoken sentences gets broken. And it's really hard to look at anyone while that's happening.

Two tactics that have helped me:

Absolutely tell your boyfriend in a calm moment that this happens. I had to have the same talk with a good friend--it's still hard, because I know the suspense of waiting is miserable for him and that can add another layer of stress. But at least now if he prods me and I can only croak out "trying," he knows what I mean.

When you're having a hard conversation, sit side by side rather than facing each other. Facing each other feels like a confrontation. Side by side feels like working on a problem together. It identifies the thing you're upset about as something outside the two of you, which means it doesn't feel like a threat, and it's easier to put that fear aside.
posted by hippugeek at 9:52 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

My fiance and I have this exact issue. He wants to hash things out right away and I need time to think it over. We've decided to give me a certain amount of time to think it through. I tell him - I can't talk about this right now, but if you ask me again tomorrow at dinner (or any other set time during the day), I'll tell you what I'm thinking through.

But then, at dinner time the next day, I tell him what I'm thinking, even if I'm not certain that I've worked it out completely. This has worked fairly well. It gives him a specific time where he can anticipate some conversation, but it also gives you time to think through whether your feelings are justified, where they're coming from, why... etc. More often than not, just having the space for even a short while to think it out usually calms me down. And, I can approach the situation more rationally.
posted by poq at 10:12 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's an old pop-psychology book, called something like "I'm okay, you're okay" and a lot of the concepts in there are very dated, but there's a view on the world that I find quite useful as an analogy for these circumstances for me, it allows me to label myself and my behaviour in a way that makes sense. This book (from memory) divides up the self (or behaviour) into Parent, Adult and Child components, and gives suggestions for dealing with them. For example, if you find yourself saying to your partner something like "How many times have I told you..." and other things your parent might have told you, then you are not engaging rationally, you are using a sort of programming, a memory of experiences that allows you to act in a way without thinking. If you find yourself saying "I hate you! I never want to see you again", then you might be using a different set of experiences and memories. If you were to say, calmly, "I feel quite angry about this situation, but I haven't actually identified why. Let's sit and work it out.", then you are using your adult, rational side.

Most of us are not taught how to behave in this way. All we know is what we did as children, and what our parents showed us. These behaviours are useful at certain times, when it's handy to run on automatic, or when it's fun to be spontaneous and playful, but they're really not useful for working out mature and reasonable ways to disagree.

So maybe browsing that book might give you another version of netbros' way of seeing things. I too believe we are responsible for how we feel, and not responsible for how others feel, but I find it really hard not to take some (okay, I have to use this word again, what other word will do?) responsibility for another person's feelings when my behaviour hasn't been in my normal range. And vice versa. If my partner has been doing things that I'm not happy about, then I feel reasonable about blaming him. But experience has shown me that it's true, that I choose how I react to these things. Let us assume goodwill between us, and he does something like forget my birthday. I get angry. How could you, I say, you didn't even put it in your calendar? Or I could say, while I'm disappointed that he forgot, nobody has ever shown me unconditional love like he has, he has always been there, day in, day out, and I know he doesn't value one-off days during the year. I could choose to be angry and hurt, but the fact is, my partner loves me deeply and shows me daily.

I think I've gone a little off track, so to summarise:
You can choose how you react, and it might help to use the "I'm OK, you're OK" labelling system. Using a system that works for you might help to cut down on the quiet time, or make the quiet time more acceptable to you.
posted by b33j at 7:02 AM on May 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

When I tell my boyfriend I need some time and he actually gives it to me, it just makes me feel abandoned and more upset, like he doesn't even care.

Aha! I've found in my own life when I seem to have some stubborn behavior or thought pattern that I want to stop that there are hidden benefits which I'm not taking into account and which I am willing to "pay" for.

Seems when you are upset one of the benefits you get is a lot of needy attention from your boyfriend.

So, how to get rid of the behavior? Simple. Take a sheet of paper and write down the behavior at the top. Draw a line down the middle and on the left side write down all of the benefits you are getting from the behavior. On the right, jot down all of the negative outcomes from continuing to behave that way. Repeat as necessary for several months.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:48 AM on May 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

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