(Photo credit: This Relationship by James Bond on flickr.com. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode)
“Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?” –Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
I think about this all of the time. Especially when I try to tell somebody how I’m feeling and they respond in a way that is not in line with how I would respond to somebody who feels as I do. No matter how much I try to explain what I’m feeling, I rarely feel as though the other person gets more than a general idea of what I’m saying.
In my opinion, it is particularly difficult to communicate feelings through direct language. We can use labels to describe the way we feel: happy, sad, angry, hurt, ecstatic. Labels, though, are imprecise. One person’s experience of happiness (or sadness, etc.) can differ greatly from that of another. Yes, we may understand that when you’re happy, you are feeling something positive, something that is the opposite of feeling sad, but sensory comprehension of what you’re feeling can get lost in the translation.
Sometimes a story helps to clarify your emotional state for the other person, but even then, what they take from the story may not be what you’re trying to get across. Their associations are different from yours, so what your story connotes to them is unlikely to be exactly what you’re trying to demonstrate for them.
If we show our feelings through physical behavior, we may get more across than we do with words. For example, if we’re angry, we might grasp our child or our spouse’s arm firmly, or if we’re excited we might hug somebody and lift them off of the ground. While body language communicates emotions more precisely than words, the question still remains: Does your behavior mean the same thing to them as it does to you?
Can we communicate our feelings so that others understand completely?
Probably not. But even if it we can, how can we know that we have? I don’t think we can ever know. Not for sure.
Which leads me to wonder if it really matters if somebody else can know exactly how you feel. We want so badly to be understood by others, but what does that mean? How much understanding do we need to be satisfied? We barely understand ourselves; how can we expect others to know us perfectly?
Isn’t it more important in relationships that we can let our partner/friend/family member know whether their responses to us are helpful or hurtful? And if they are not what we need, isn’t it our responsibility to clarify what response would have worked better? They may not be able to experience our feelings as we do, but with guidance, they can respond to our emotional states in ways that are helpful to us and to the relationship. And we can do the same for them.
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