First Person Vulnerable: What Your Language Reveals About You
Ten women sat in a circle in my living room, warmed by the fire and the company of other women, identifying the attributes of their Inner Critics. In the space they created together for this purpose, they began to share their experiences, making it possible for others to do the same. In a gesture of comfort, trust and hope, they began to shed their protective layers, allowing the group to glimpse their vulnerable, authentic selves.
Full transparency was everyone’s intention. Yet as the evening progressed, a common challenge to the layer-shedding process appeared.
One Degree of Separation…From Ourselves
I’ve noticed that most coaching clients use indirect language to describe an emotional experience. They’ll use the pronoun “you” instead of “I” to distance themselves from their feelings. For instance, if I were to ask, “What role does your inner critic play in your life?” the answer might sound like this: “Your inner critic is trying to keep you safe.”
That happens to be true in general—your inner critic DOES try to keep you safe from the consequences of taking emotional risks. But notice how different it sounds when I admit that it’s specifically true for me:
“My inner critic is trying to keep me safe, to keep me from getting hurt.”
This language reveals a more intimate truth to my listeners. I’ve revealed something real about me, as opposed to speaking in generalizations that save us both from the messy business of having feelings and the vulnerability of emotional connection.
Whenever I hear someone begin the “you” version of a story, I have a hunch that they’re about to reveal something poignant. Without exception, the moment a client switches to first person, the power of their revised language stops us both in our tracks. We pause to pay close attention. We honor the emotional truth they’re expressing. They hear the emotional resonance as they speak, and they learn something significant about themselves.
Staying in the “I” zone isn’t easy when talking about emotionally-charged issues. We’d all rather avoid discussing things that trigger us to feel shame or sadness or grief or any number of less-welcome emotions.
The easy thing to do, the thing we’ve gotten into the habit of doing, is to generalize or intellectualize the experience. Our language reflects that.
We’ve become experts in removing ourselves from emotion and pretending that what we’re talking about is just “a thing,” rather than allowing the listener to hear that it’s a thing for us.
It’s a subtle form of projection. “Let me tell you something emotionally charged, as if it’s about you,” is far more palatable than, “Let me tell you something emotionally charged about me.” We offload our complex feelings—the ones we don’t fully understand or aren’t willing to fully feel—onto the listener.
Self-Awareness is Not Self-Absorption
We all want to be heard, seen, and accepted. For that to happen, we need to use language in a way that expresses the truth of our personal experiences.
What holds us back from articulating these emotional truths? In a word: judgment.
Even in a retreat environment specifically designed for participants to feel safe talking about themselves and intentionally sharing their personal experience, participants dissociate from their feelings to avoid being judged sensitive, self-absorbed, irrational or wrong.
It feels unnatural or unseemly to talk about ourselves—polite society admonishes us not to. But how will anyone else be able to hear us clearly if we don’t speak the words “I” and “me”?
We’ve learned to discount the validity of our emotional experience after a lifetime of parental reprimand, cultural disdain, and a fear that our desire for self-awareness and self-expression is akin to narcissism.
Speaking From “I” is the Key to Connection
It’s vitally important to hear yourself say the words that represent what’s true for you. Notice the difference between the next two sentences:
“You know how sometimes you get scared that you’re doing the wrong thing?”
“I’m scared that I’m doing the wrong thing.”
As a speaker, which one feels like it’s coming from the heart? As a listener, which one feels more compelling, and asks for your full attention and compassion?
Speaking from “I” is a sign of self-compassion and a hallmark of growth. It’s an acknowledgment that our own experiences and emotional responses are true for us. Once we hear ourselves speaking directly about ourselves, we get the clarity we need to own our feelings and be fully ourselves in that moment.
The women in my coaching group know that I’ll flag it when they slip back into “you” territory. I interrupt often to ask, “Who feels that way?”
I can feel every heart in the room expand to hold each woman who bravely musters the courage to rephrase: “I do. I feel that way.”
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