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Thursday, 3 October 2013

Why “I-Messages” Can Backfire

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!


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