I-messages, a communications tool that became popular in the 1970s, employ a simple—and simplistic—formula to directly connect emotions to someone else’s behavior: “When you (exhibit or neglect to exhibit a certain behavior), I feel (a certain feeling)” or “I feel _____ when you ____.” Some people advocate a third component, adding “…and I want you to (do this),” with the implicit message that “I will feel better if you do.”
I-messages have been promoted to offer an alternative to the seemingly
more destructive “You-messages” that attack, blame, or criticize someone
else. But although the wording is different, I-messages are really just You-messages in disguise, connecting my feelings with your behavior. They may start with (or include) the word I,
but the statements carry the same energetic impact as messages of
blame, ones which blatantly state, “You (or your behaviors) make me
feel…” As such, I-messages simply give us new language for manipulation,
blaming, and projecting. Even worse, they become a tool for
self-victimization, as they present us as emotionally at the mercy of
someone’s behavioral choices.
There is particular danger when we structure I-messages to suggest that
the other person’s behavior is responsible for our feelings, especially
when the statements carry the implication that we’d feel better if only
the other person would act differently. Even if this were true, do you
really want to communicate your vulnerability to someone who may not be
willing to take responsibility for your emotional state, someone who may
not care enough (or feel guilty enough) to change solely for its sake?
Telling an angry or vengeful person “I feel terrible when you say such
mean things to me” might well result in confirming for them, “Good! It
worked!” Even if they don’t say it aloud, you have just reinforced the
power they have to hurt you.
Although I-messages may sometimes seem to work, their outcomes can be
quite costly to relationships. We certainly don’t want to burden others,
especially children, with the overwhelming—and
impossible—responsibility for our happiness and well-being. Remember
that the journey of personal growth and self-responsibility typically
involves learning to separate who we are, how we feel, and how we feel
about ourselves from other people’s behaviors.
Granted, the formula typically used to create an I-message certainly
has the attraction of a quick-fix solution, and may have a certain
appeal to people who are concerned that simply asking for what we want—a
behavior that is often discouraged in our culture—may seem a bit too
aggressive or incendiary. There are, however, many ways to set a
boundary, request a different behavior, or get what we want from others
in our lives without bullying or manipulating them.
Others argue that using feelings to motivate others is more honest
somehow than simply setting a boundary, asking for what you want, or
requesting a particular behavior. However, many people who have been on
the receiving end of an I-message report seeing this approach as
extremely dishonest and manipulative. Several mentioned feeling
more than a bit put-upon by having others attempt to dump
responsibility for their emotional well-being on them. And more than one
individual shared that this approach actually had the opposite effect, creating resentment and alienation, rather than compassion and cooperation!