Talk The Talk

5 Ways To Tell Someone You’re Upset Without Feeling Weird About It

It can be hard to muster up the courage to tell people how you’re feeling. Having a few back-pocket phrases can help.

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Older man and younger man having heartfelt conversation

So, you’re feeling uncomfortable. Or hurt. Or frustrated. Or something that feels heavy. It could be due to a bad joke, an impending project, or an embarrassing story you didn’t want told. Whatever it is is bugging you enough that you want to say something. To your buddies. To your spouse. To whomever. But you hesitate because it may feel unnatural or exposing to explain how you feel.

The old stereotype dies hard. Men are supposed to solve problems, not have them. They’re supposed to be strong and unflappable. But sad, scared, unsure? Eh, not so much. That’s not what history has dictated. No, men are not a monolith. Yet it remains difficult to shake certain acquired “rules” about masculinity. The narrative is changing, but not fast enough.

“Men have done the tough jobs,” says Pat Love, relationship expert and author of Five Forces Destroying Your Relationship You Probably Never Heard Of. “They bury the dog.”

Ultimately, whatever you say should make yourself feel better and bring you closer, because you want to be left knowing that the other person in on your side.

The reality is of course different. “We’re not as tough as we think we are,” says Mitch Abrams, clinical psychologist in Tinton Falls and Fords, New Jersey.

Fine. You can accept not always having the answer, but it’s common to still worry about being vulnerable and the risk of mockery and alienation that may ride shotgun. Guess what? You’re already dealing with being upset. You might as well get it all out. The question is: How do you tell someone what you’re feeling or going through in a way that you can stomach and that doesn’t make it feel like you’re being exposed? Here are a few suggestions.

1. “I’m Not Good With That.”

Shakespeare this isn’t. But it gets the point across. This line dumbs things down and lets you put “a toe into the water,” Abrams says. Yes, it’s basic and vague — exactly the intention — and it doesn’t expose you really at all, also intentional.

But it allows you to introduce the idea that something is off, and at least it’s a step forward. You’re still saying something, and it prevents you from reverting to such habits as sulking and isolation that never make things better.

The next step is readying yourself for the response, which could be good or the opposite. If it’s the latter, one phrase to say is …

1a. The Followup: “OK, Now’s Not The Time.”

It might have taken a lot of courage to bring whatever it is you’re feeling up during poker night, but your buddies don’t know that, have to care, or appreciate what you’re going through.

“The world doesn’t have to stop and talk about it,” Abrams says.

Accepting that reality before you speak undercuts a lot of stress. If you sense there’s no traction, you say the above and try to not take it personally, because it might not be. You then have a choice: Find a more receptive audience. Deal with it by yourself. Or decide if it’s important enough to force the issue. On that last one, “it usually doesn’t work,” he says.

What can help is to realize that bringing it up to one person over a group generally works better. Fewer voices mean less noise, less competition to get a word is, and more safety in talking freely.

If saying, “I’m not good with that,” is well-received, you could follow up with …

2. “I’m Kind of Struggling With Something.”

With this one, you’re putting more toes in. Plus, “struggling” ups the vulnerability. Eventually, you might ask for help, but along the way, follow the general rules of talking and use “I” statements to keep it conversational and not turn it into an accusation-fest.

Stay curious because as much as you think you know what happened, you might have been upset from a misunderstanding. That’s something that can usually be corrected, “but not if you’re making ‘you’ statements,” Abrams says.

3. Put Your Hand On Their Shoulder.

Okay, okay. This isn’t a phrase. But non-verbal communication can speak volumes, especially with your spouse or a close friend. You want to convey that something is off, and the current environment must change in some way. But that last thing you want is lots of attention or embarrassment for you or the other person involved.

“You’re trying to avoid making it bigger than it is,” Love says.

This subtle move doesn’t stand out. It should, however, register with your partner or friend. Maybe they stop the story or move the two of you to another room. Maybe your partner just takes your hand. Even if what you’re worried about isn’t fully understood, the physical contact and sense of connection can help regulate you.

Once you’re alone, you can explain all the details, and next time there won’t be any guesswork on what your gesture means.

“You now have a signal,” she says.

4. “I Feel … And What I’d Prefer Is That You …”

Here, you’re taking full ownership of how you feel and you’re being vulnerable. It’s hard for the other person not to respond with empathy. And while you’re clearly saying what you want, you’re not telling someone exactly what to do, so they have options and don’t feel cornered.

“It cuts to the chase,” Love says.

5. “I Might Not Do That.”

You know the specific line or inflection, your partner likes to use when they’re upset? Use it for this phrase. It’s not mockery, but evidence of your history, and the change of direction will make them stop and understand, “Oh, I know what this means.”

“You have to listen to know the language, but the impact comes from doing something different and using their own strategy to make your point,” Love says.

Ultimately, whatever you say should make yourself feel better and bring you closer, because you want to be left knowing that the other person in on your side. That comes from being honest and vulnerable. It doesn’t require talking every time you’re upset, but it also doesn’t mean staying forever silent.

“Not saying anything might work in the moment,” she says. “But it builds resentment.”

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