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The “I Message” vs. the “You Message”

Psychologists often advise that when telling someone how you feel, it’s important to use an “I message” rather than a “You message.” This is especially important if you’re expressing something the other person would interpret as negative. For example, if you feel upset by something a friend has said, instead of saying “You made me upset when you said that,” you would say “I felt upset when you said that.”

The more I’ve thought about this advice and put it into practice, the clearer I am that the reason an I message is preferable to a You message is that it expresses a profound truth about our relationship to our own feelings and how we respond emotionally to what other people do or say.


On the most basic level, when you express your feelings with a You message, you are likely to make other people defensive because a You message tells them that they are responsible for your feelings: “You made me upset.” In contrast, expressing your feelings with an I message simply describes the way you feel—“I felt upset”—but it doesn’t say that someone else is responsible for your feelings.


The importance of expressing yourself with I messages instead of You messages isn’t just a matter of being diplomatic and making it more likely that your interactions with other people won’t make them defensive. In reality, other people are not responsible for your feelings; nobody makes you feel as you do. Your feelings are part of your inner world, and how you react emotionally to the outer world (your responses to other people and to the circumstances you encounter) depends on what your inner world is like.


A major part of what your inner world is like depends on your machinery and your programming (the way you are wired to think and act based on your earlier experiences). How you respond emotionally also depends on whether you allow your machinery and programming to run on automatic pilot, which keeps you in the past, or whether you interrupt your machinery so that you are actually in the present moment instead of being controlled by your past programming.


When you’re in the present, you are responding emotionally to what is actually occurring in the present. When you are being run by your machinery on automatic pilot, your emotional responses are being completely determined by your programming from the past. In other words, the emotions you feel in response to what another person says or does in the present are actually reactions not to the current situation but to a past situation that your machinery likens to the current situation.


For example, let’s say that when you were growing up you had a highly critical parent who repeatedly called you stupid when you made a mistake. Now it’s the present, and you’re in a relationship with someone who points out to you that you’ve made a mistake.


If you’re on automatic pilot, the mere fact that the other person said that you made a mistake will make you feel awful. It will bring back the humiliation you felt when your parent called you stupid. But you won’t be aware of why you’re feeling this way: it’s not because you’re responding to the actual situation in the present but because your machinery has been triggered to react with awful feelings from your childhood experience.


In a situation like this, it’s clear that an I message—“I felt upset when you said I made a mistake”—communicates the truth of exactly what happened. You felt upset when the other person said you made a mistake. He or she did not make you feel upset. You felt upset because your machinery, and the past experiences that shaped your programming, triggered you to feel the upset from your childhood experience all over again.


This happens only when you allow your machinery to run on automatic pilot instead of manually interrupting your machinery and being in the present. By “manually interrupting,” I mean focusing your mind on the present and shifting your mental gears so that you’re no longer on automatic pilot.


Expressing yourself with an I message about your feelings will help you manually interrupt your machinery. It can remind you to start reflecting on why you are feeling upset, to notice that you have been letting your machinery run on automatic pilot, and to start mindfully reflecting on what is happening.


Once you interrupt your machinery and start being mindful—paying attention in the present with an open, rather than a judgmental, mind—ask yourself, Am I reacting emotionally to what is going on right now or to something that happened a long time ago and that my machinery is interpreting the current situation to be like?


Once you start being mindful, ask yourself, Did I hear the comment about my making a mistake as judgmental because it was actually said judgmentally or because of the way that I interpreted it?


One of my cardinal rules is that when your machinery is running you on automatic pilot, you hear what you expect to hear and see what you expect to see based on your past programming.


When you’re mindful and are actually in the present, you can tell the difference between your past-based expectations of what you will hear and see and what is actually taking place. When this happens, even if you’ve started to react based on your programming, you will begin to hear and see the current circumstance clearly instead of being mindless and unconsciously mistaking it for a repetition of the past.


I often find myself in this situation when someone tells me that I’ve made a mistake. If I’m on automatic pilot, then no matter how the other person tells me about the mistake, I hear it as “You are wrong! You are bad!” and I feel shamed and blamed. This is because when I’m on automatic pilot, my own inner critic—which is contained in my programming—is running me, and it amplifies whatever it interprets as criticism into a storm of criticism. So on automatic pilot, I don’t hear what the other person is really saying; I just start reacting and defending myself or attacking the other person with the defensive strategies contained in my programming to get rid of the awful feeling of shame and blame.


I’ve learned that the intensity of my reaction—the way that my emotions take me over because of the feeling of shame and blame—is a clue that I’m on automatic pilot. When I recognize this clue, I focus my mind to interrupt my machinery, and I start to become mindful.


Being mindful changes everything. Once you start being mindful, if another person has told you nonjudgmentally that you made a mistake, you’ll discover that your feelings begin to change. Instead of feeling upset and ashamed for making a mistake—the feelings you had in the situation with your critical parent—you may feel appreciative to have had the mistake pointed out because it gives you a chance to correct it. Instead of “I feel upset,” the I message would then become “I’m grateful you told me about it.”


On the other hand, if you mindfully recognize that the other person has pointed out the mistake in a judgmental manner, you may still be upset or even angry. With mindful reflection, you can recognize the relationship between your response to the current situation and its relationship to the past experience with your parent. In this circumstance, the I message might be “I feel upset and angry when you talk to me so judgmentally.”


You might also share with the other person why the comment was especially upsetting to you—that your parent was highly critical and shamed you whenever you made a mistake. You might communicate that, therefore, your inner world is especially sensitive to judgmental language and a critical tone of voice.


The I message reports accurately to the other person how you feel without blaming him or her for your feelings, and it also gives you the opportunity to share more of yourself to give the other person insight into who you are and how the two of you can communicate better and create a more fulfilling relationship with each other.



  • 1 Aug, 2013
  • Posted by Steve Fogel
  • 3 Tags

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