From the couples and family therapy files at Embolden Psychology
The amygdala (my nickname for this area of the brain is Amy) is the part of the brain that is activated during feelings of fear, anxiety, threat, and aggression. By putting feelings into words — a process known as “affect labeling” – we can help diminish Amy’s response when we encounter things that are distressing. Verbal expression is generally controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, including the temporal and parietal lobes. In addition, the frontal lobe helps with decision-making and problem-solving. It also tells you what not to say: impulse control. This ‘party of four’ – Amy, as well as the parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes, are all part of the ability and vulnerability to share personal problems with others.
Underneath it all is an actual desire and commitment that you want to communicate without harm to self or your loved one(s). Related, read Healing in Relationships: Imago Therapy for Communication.
The ability to express feelings to a trusted other entails employing relational / interpersonal / social skills, verbal skills, and the most mundane and important strategy of all: practice. While some people may have seemingly kissed the Blarney Stone, for most, communication requires effort and practice.
Important factors include timing and dosage. When you get a medication prescription, it tells you when to take (or give) it and how much to ingest. Vulnerable communication is much the same.
*Physical state. If you are not a ‘night person’, and you’re exhausted, that’s probably not the best time to engage in a conversation. Similarly, many people cannot converse or listen well early in the morning.
*Mental state. If you are someone who can become angry or impulsive at times of duress or stress,￼walking away can be very helpful before speaking. ￼ Most people do not speak very well when Amy is the major person in the room.
*Location location location. No one can listen well if they feel cornered. I always suggest to parents not to confront children or teens in their bedroom or in the car. Some of my adolescent clients have told me they felt like jumping out of the car because they had nowhere to go and their parent was ‘talking at them’.
This is equally true for adults. Some couples may continue an argument for hours, even physically following each other while one person tries to ‘get away’. Some believe that you have to talk it all out as soon as possible, but if your partner does not have the propensity or ability to do the same, it can actually create harm. ￼Taking a time out, no matter your age, when feeling stirred up, is a good idea. Set a time to talk later. That doesn’t mean that you are sweeping things under the rug. It means that you are acknowledging the respect of speaking at a time where everybody is in a better headspace.
*Emotional learning skills / EQ. Not everyone knows how to verbally express their emotions. This is an important point for compassion for self and others, as well as a commitment to learning how to communicate. If you had no role models to show you how to discuss emotional experience and feelings, how are you supposed to know? The good news is that it can be learned and practiced like all other learning. Related, read: What is Affect Phobia?
*Ask for consent. Reciprocal communication requires permission. Is this a good time to talk? May I set up a time to discuss something?
*Pick your people. Have a trusted friend who will support you. If you need a lot of talk time, try spreading your conversations out to multiple people. One person can get worn out, and having a broad social support system lets you distribute that load. In a healthy relationship, I always say that things are 49–51. There is no 50/50. But no one should have to carry the bulk of the emotional labor habitually.
*Talk with an end point. Absolutely no one I have met can talk for hours, especially with intensity. When you have a discussion that’s going to be affect-laden, limit it to a pre-agreed-upon time and duration. I have couples practice this in my office with actually having a physical object, such as a small ball or baton to pass back-and-forth. Listening to intently is not a skill that most people have without practice. In fact, research indicates that most people know what you’re going to say before the other person is even finished talking.
*Do not co-ruminate. Contrary to the old adage, misery does NOT love company. Having a group of friends who are consistently negative, coworker who complain regularly, or online chats that are focused on how terrible your child/partner/spouse is have shown no significant effects on the ability to share vulnerable feelings, reduce distress, or experience relief.
*Writing helps. A number of studies from the department of psychology at Southern Methodist University have shown that writing out your feelings can be as effective as expressing them verbally. You don’t even have to share what you write. But being able to ‘get out of your head’ from what you’re experiencing, perhaps even a repetitive or intrusive thoughts, is helpful. Writing also creates a sense of continuity in thought. See also Restorative Writing on Mental Health.
*Seek professional help. Being able to have a place to vent where you feel safe and not judged is the essence of therapy. I always say to my clients, I may see you for three hours a month. In between, there’s a lot of living that happens. If possible, write it down. Those three or four hours each month can give you a space to present and process those feelings, and not have them used against you￼. In a journal or your phone Notes App, jot down your thoughts, if you’re not sure that you will remember what you want to say in the therapy session.
*Practice a range of verbal expression. Talk to people you care about regarding both positive and negative feelings and experiences. Speaking about the positive as well as the negative is like a bank account. You won’t go into emotional overdraft if you do both. Interestingly, the simple act of texting during the day, even a check-in, has shown interpersonal positive effects. Read: https://embolden.world/the-power-of-texting/
*Not everyone benefits from talking it out. This might seem contradictory to the ‘traditional’ verbal expression model of psychotherapy. In their clinical psychology research, Drs. Siddique and Bonanno found that dispositional repression was at times related to good mental health. ￼This was even true of individuals who had suffered early conjugal bereavement and other traumas. This sub-group appeared to receive more social support, and returned to their regular routine faster than people who expressed feelings of bereavement and loss. Individual differences matter when it comes to self expression.
Not everyone benefits from endless analysis of feelings, a hard truth in clinical psychology.
From the American Psychological Association online library: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-02328-010
On emotional dissociation and self deception: at play in the fields of consciousness. Bonanno, G. and Siddique, H., Lawrence Erlbaum, New York, NY, 1999.