The Distinction Between Thoughts & Feelings in Non-Violent Communication

Originally Published on Instagram on December 12

I love The Gottman Institute’s relationship work, but I disagree with this list of "feelings". A lot of these aren't feelings at all, they are thoughts about other people's actions. Anger, sadness, and fear are emotions. "Excluded" or "the bad guy" are not. They are thought stories about what we experienced and hurt is what we feel about what happened (feeling wheels are great for finding nuanced ways to express our emotions).

This distinction is important in non-violent communication because the stories we tell ourselves about other people are often inaccurate, which is why we stick to facts + emotion rather than what we think the actions meant. We don't actually know what's behind a person's choices until they tell us. Yet we often make make assumptions about why people did things based on the long running stories in our own mind. 

For instance,  "I felt excluded" is not a factual thing that happened. "I wasn't invited" is factual. Excluded is the assumption I made when I found out I wasn't invited (exclusion is a story I used to tell myself all the time based on my trauma). It's a story shaping the facts. When we put these stories on our relating partner, we're often projecting our fears or trauma triggers. And this is where conflict often turns ugly, because we set our partner up to defend themselves against something that isn't true for them.

Another example, when I share information with my husband, they often go to find confirmation. I used to get upset because I assumed that "they don't trust me as a source of information." But that's not factual. My husband seeks confirmation about everything. It's not about me at all, they actually trust me more than most others.

The formula we use for telling each other we hurt is "I felt this emotion about this factual thing you did and my loss was..." So instead of saying, "I feel distrusted" or "you don't trust me," I would say, "I felt sad when you sought confirmation of what I shared and my loss was a lack of belief that you trust meme." Can you see how the first could lead to my husband's defensiveness while the second would more likely lead to a compassionate response?