Nine steps to talking about hurtful behaviors for closer relationships
Yikes. Is there anything more challenging than telling someone they’ve hurt your feelings?
In her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations For A Lifetime of Love, Dr. Sue Johnson wrote,
“We’re naturally reluctant to confront our vulnerabilities. We live in a society that says we’re supposed to be strong, to be invulnerable. Our inclination is to ignore or deny our frailty.”
And yet, this is exactly what needs to happen.
In my years of working as a love coach and hosting courses on communication and emotional availability, I’ve witnessed the transformation in my client’s and student’s lives. Using the frameworks and tools that I teach, I’ve seen them build rock-solid relationships built on love, trust, and vulnerability.
And, you can’t do that without opening up to love.
To create a strong and secure bond with a loved one, we have to let our lovers know how we’re feeling. We have to open up to them, slowly over time. A great way to start doing that work is to let someone know they did something that hurt your feelings.
I know this can be scary because you might think that your loved one will leave you if you bring up hurtful and unwanted behavior.
Or that showing your pain and sadness means that you’re needy and clingy.
And while I can’t guarantee that your partner won’t leave you (we don’t get guarantees on love, no matter what we do), let me assure you there’s nothing needy about having emotions.
Building strong and healthy emotional attachment to a loved requires courage, strength, and a willingness to open up to your emotional reality. Don’t worry; we’ll do this together.
Feelings are a normal part of the human experience
There’s nothing weird, shameful, or abnormal about having feelings. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of being human.
We are an incredibly complex species. The richness of our emotional landscape can be overwhelming at times. Especially if you’re not used to sitting with uncomfortable emotions, getting curious about your feelings, and developing the sensitivity to identify what you’re feeling and why.
Here’s the deal: the more curious you get about your feelings, and the more you talk about them, the easier it becomes to identify them and learn what they have to tell you.
Your emotions are communicating with you, and different feelings will inform you which needs are being taken care of and which might need extra attention.
For example, feeling sadness might mean that your need for connection, attention, and connection is lacking.
Feeling disappointment could indicate that something is amiss in your relationship and how your partner shows up for you.
And when that feeling is connected to something someone said or did, it’s crucial to have the language and the tools to talk about it with that person.
As a culture, we need to normalize having conversations about feelings, emotions, and what people can do to support us in feeling happy, fulfilled, and loved. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you’re not sure what you’re feeling and want to develop your language around your emotional landscape, the feelings wheel is the best resource I know to help you identify what might be going on inside. I use this resource with my clients every week.
When you have a decent idea of what you’re feeling and why, follow these steps to have a conversation with your loved ones about how their behavior impacts you.
Remember, you don’t have to do this perfectly. I’d rather you try and mess up than not try at all.
Nine steps to bringing up hurtful and unwanted behaviors
1. Take ownership of your emotional experience
No one makes you feel anything. This step is hard to understand but crucial to you becoming a sovereign and whole being. People don’t make you feel anything. People act in ways or say things that bring up feelings in you.
In other words, people trigger an emotional response in your body/mind/heart/soul by behaving in a particular way.
Drop the expression, “You make me so angry!” and replace it with, “When you didn’t show up last night, I felt embarrassed.”
2. Open up slowly
When you’re ready to have a conversation about a behavior that has impacted you, start your discussion by sharing how difficult this is for you.
“It’s hard for me to share this, but it’s important that I do it.”
“I’m going to share with you something difficult for me to talk about, and I might fuck this up.”
This is the format I use whenever I’m sharing something difficult, and I’m afraid of messing it up.
3. Be specific about the trigger behavior
When you bring up a hurtful, offensive, or unwanted behavior, be specific.
Being specific helps keep the focus on the most recent emotional response. Over time, the more you do this, the better you’ll get at identifying the exact action or comment that triggered an unpleasant emotion.
Examples of specific behaviors:
“When you cut me off while I was talking…”
“When you flirted with the server last night…”
“When you propose solutions instead of listening…”
“When you dismissed my idea just now…”
“When you told me I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about…”
“When you called me incompetent in front of the whole staff…”
“When you told me I was overreacting…”
“When you showed up an hour late to our appointment…”
“When you said you would call last night and didn’t…”
4. Bring up one unwanted behavior at a time
It can be tempting to throw everything the person has ever done wrong into the conversation, but that’s a setup for failure.
If you want to have a fruitful conversation, stick to bringing up one behavior, action, or comment per session. If you feel tempted to bring it all up, note the specific behaviors you want to bring up and save them for another time.
It’s easy to get carried away and start bringing up past hurtful behaviors; don’t do this. It’ll most likely lead to your partner getting defensive and turning the conversation into an argument.
This is not the time to bring up how they stood you up at Christmas back in 2016 (that’s a blog post for another day).
5. Avoid “you never” or “you always” language
People get very defensive when they hear absolutes because, for the most part, they aren’t true.
“You never take out the trash.”
“You always belittle me.”
“You never watch anything I want to watch.”
“You always come before I do.”
“You never pick up after yourself.”
When you use this language, you set them up to fail. It’s hard to recover and repair from this kind of accusation. People often get defensive and start listing out every time they did what you claimed they never do.
And then we’re not headed towards a loving and healthy discussion about unwanted behavior; you’re falling into an argument that no one can win.
6. Be prompt (If possible)
Whenever possible, try to bring up the behavior when it happens.
I know it’s not always possible because of when the trigger happens (at a party, in the middle of a work meeting, or in front of the children) or because you’re not aware of the impact of that behavior right when it happens.
Sometimes, it takes a while to feel that something didn’t sit right, and that’s OK. You can have a conversation about it when it’s more appropriate.
That said if you can recognize the offensive or unwanted behavior right away, and you have the opportunity and space to bring it up, do it.
When appropriate, there’s no better time than the present moment.
OK. So you’ve identified the unwanted behavior, and you’re prepared to bring it up in a specific and prompt manner. Good job.
7. Talk about the feeling
After you’ve identified the trigger, tell them what feeling comes up for you.
“When you did this, I felt this.”
That’s it. Check these examples:
“When you flirted with the server last night, I felt ridiculed.”
“When you raised your voice just now, I felt inferior.”
“When you comment on my lack of performance, I feel inadequate.”
“When you told me I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about, I felt powerless.”
“When you called me incompetant in front of the whole staff, I felt embarrassed.”
“When you showed up an hour late to our appointment, I felt worthless.”
“When you said you would call last night and didn’t, I felt lonely.
8. Share the story that you’re telling yourself
You are a collection of stories, experiences, and traumas.
Most people don’t know these stories, and it’s useful to shed a little light on why you feel a certain way if you have the awareness to do so.
Sharing the story you’re telling yourself gives more context about why you feel the way you do. It’s a beautiful (and vulnerable) way of sharing your history with your loved one.
Let’s look at these examples:
“When you cut me off just then as I was talking, I felt powerless. It feels a lot like how my dad used to talk to us when we were little. There was never any room for us to express ourselves. I know that’s not your intention, but that’s how it feels to me. And when you do that, I tend to disconnect and shut down, even though that’s the last thing I want.”
Notice how I told a story about childhood? “When you do this, it feels a lot like when my dad used to do that….”
Here’s another example:
“Just now, when you said, “you have no idea what you’re talking about”, I felt inadequate. The story I’m telling myself is that I’m less than you are and that we’ll never be equals. I know that’s probably not your intention, and that’s how it feels. I want us to be equals in this relationship, and when you tell me I have no idea what I’m talking about, I have a hard time seeing that happening.”
“When you pressure me to have sex when I don’t want to, I feel threatened. You might not know this about me, but when I was younger, people pressured me to have sex when I didn’t want to. I never felt safe to say no because I was scared of their reaction. I know you wouldn’t ever hurt me, but when you pressure me, that’s what comes up, and it’s scary. You had no way of knowing because I’ve never told you, and I’m telling you now.”
This is the high-quality information that your loved ones need to understand your triggers and what they touch inside you. The more you share about what’s going on with you, the more your person will understand you.
9. Share the impact of the behavior
Sometimes, you don’t have a story. But you can share the importance and the impact of what’s happening for you.
Let’s look at a few more examples:
“When you raised your voice just now, I felt inferior. It’s important to me that we communicate with love and respect. When you raise your voice, I feel small, scared, and not an important part of this relationship. It’s OK for you to be angry, but it’s not OK for you to raise your voice or yell at me.”
“When you called me incompetent in front of the whole staff, I felt embarrassed. I need to work in an environment where I’m respected and not embarrassed in front of my coworkers. If you have a problem with my work’s quality, please talk to me about it in private. This job means a lot to me, and I want to be the best employee I can be.”
“When you showed up an hour late to our appointment, I felt worthless. I need to have relationships with people who value my time and my worth. When you show up late without calling, I feel less than, and it feels bad in my body.”
What this will accomplish in your relationships
Eventually, you do this enough, and people will start to intuit what you need more because they have the information necessary to proceed with care and love.
Sometimes, this is enough.
Your person will understand the impact their behavior has on you, and there’s no need to make a request.
They’ll know that you’re asking, without asking, not to cut you off, not telling you that you have no idea what you’re talking about, or not pressure you for sex.
Sometimes, sharing the impact of the story is enough. God bless those who can make adjustments to their behavior without having to make a request.
And sometimes, a request is necessary.
It’s the action step that some people crave to understand better how to best support you. And there’s nothing wrong with people who need more information. It helps them make sense of the situation and gives them a clear path forward.
Speak up for yourself
There’s no better way to build the kind of love life that you’re proud of than by speaking up for yourself. Yes, it can be scary. Yes, it can all go sideways. And yes, there’s nothing easy about this work.
But you are ultimately responsible for your happiness and the quality of your relationships.
The best way to have more fulfilling and nurturing relationships is to share with others how their behavior impacts your life. The more you do this, the closer your relationships will be.
Some people won’t handle being ‘called out’ with grace and love. That’s too bad, and it’s also OK. Because you’re not calling anyone out, you’re speaking up for yourself and telling others what you need to be safe, loved, and respected.
That is work worth doing, all day every day.