How Did That Make You Feel? Thoughts on Emotion

“How did that make you feel?” Even if you have never been in therapy before, you probably associate that phrase with therapy. If we look a little more closely, we will see that there is an assumption in that phrase that something (or someone) external to you can “make” you feel a certain way.

Before I go on, I want to pause and have you think about what feelings are, and how they are related to emotions. Feelings are sensory experiences in the body, while emotions are a complex interplay between your environment, physiological sensory inputs from your body, and your perceptions of those sensory inputs, which are influenced by learning, culture, language, and individual differences. At a very basic level, we experience sensory states of arousal or calmness, pleasure or pain. But our minds add an additional layer of interpretation to these states to arrive at joy, sadness, anger, fear, etc. Emotions are not universal across every culture. Some cultures have emotional states, described with language, that don’t exist in other cultures. And, some cultures pay more attention to certain emotions than others.

The takeaway is that emotions are constructed, and they are individual as well as shared. You may experience an emotional state that your partner doesn’t, or you may both experience what you label as the same emotion, but maybe you each experience it a little differently based on physiological, cultural, or learning differences. So, going back to therapy, when a person says to their partner, “You made me feel this way,” part of their emotional construction puts the power over their emotions with their partner. I’m not going to argue that feelings or emotions don’t arise from encounters you have with other people or with other stimuli in your environment. But I am arguing that maintaining responsibility for your feelings is better than allowing someone else that control. When you make the shift to thinking about your emotions as your own experience and your own responsibility, you get better at knowing yourself and what you need. You get better at reading your feelings and emotions as data that inform your choices, what you choose to reveal to your partner about yourself, and what you ask for in your relationships. You get better at taking a break when you feel emotionally flooded, and knowing how to get yourself into a calmer state. You also get better at not assuming you know how someone else feels just because you feel a certain way, and so you learn to listen with openness.

When I hear a person say, “You made me feel this way,” I usually encourage them to drop the “you made me” part of the statement, and just focus on articulating how they feel. The feeling matters, and when we can identify what triggered the unique emotional process that came up around the feeling, and anchor it in the context of the person’s experiences, learning, and perception, we can move toward identifying what the person needs. And when a person’s partner feels unhooked from the responsibility of taking care of the other person’s feelings and emotions, it allows them to listen, learn, and respond without defensiveness. This fosters emotional safety and intimacy, which supports stronger relationships–and stronger individuals–and that’s why therapists are asking about your feelings in the first place.

If you want to explore this topic further, check out the Invisibilia podcast “Emotions” episode that originally aired on June 1, 2017.

No One Can Make Another Person Change

Remember that no one can make another person change. It is normal to come to therapy hoping that you can get your partner to change, and hoping that if you can tell your side of things in a persuasive enough way, your therapist will see who is at fault, and agree that the best way to solve the problem is to get your partner to change. Unfortunately, if both of you are coming to therapy with this mindset, there is only one winner—the one the therapist sides with. As you can imagine, this means there is also a loser, the person the therapist doesn’t side with.

If couples therapy is focused on getting one person to change, that person will likely either disengage from therapy, or make a superficial change that doesn’t last. When that happens, you both lose. That’s why it’s not in your best interest for your therapist to take sides.

How Does Change Happen? Change happens when a person decides a change is necessary in order to reach a goal they want to achieve, uphold a personal value, or make their life better in some way. In short, change happens when a person wants to make a change for their own personal reasons. Making changes in your relationship will require you to identify what you want to change about yourself in order to improve your relationship. If both of you do this concurrently, and it’s based on values or goals that you share as a couple as to what you both want in your relationship, then you will likely have the most successful outcome. Sometimes, only one person wants to participate in therapy. If one of you changes, this can also sometimes change the system enough that the relationship improves. But if change in one person doesn’t trigger enough change in the relationship, it is also possible that the person who is doing the work to change will decide that the relationship doesn’t support their goals and values. So, the takeaway here is to approach couples therapy thinking about how you want to change yourself, not how you want to change your partner.