Article originally posted on Well + Good, written by Tehrene Firman.
How often do you say “I’m fine!” when a friend asks how your day is going, even though you actually feel more like that meme of a dog sitting in the burning room (i.e., not fine)? Certainly not never, right? At first blush, it can feel easier to hold back rather than learn how to express yourself and wade into the waters of speaking your truth.
A large reason for this is because expressing yourself can require a lot of courage: The pursuit tasks you with harnessing your vulnerability to share your needs, feelings, and desires with others. Still, it’s a crucial skill to master since clearly communicating what we want is what gets us on the same wavelength as others and quells misunderstandings. “People who express themselves are open about their emotions in a way that people can hear them,” says psychotherapist and author Emily Roberts, who specializes in, well, speaking up and expressing yourself.
But recognizing your emotions and learning to articulate them not only makes relationships more fulfilling, but it also contributes to a healthy, self-assured relationship with yourself, she says. “Holding back what you’re feeling actually has a huge impact on your physical and emotional health.” And to be clear, that impact is rarely positive. Suppressing emotions for any number of reasons (and there are plenty) can increase stress levels and intensify negative feelings. By letting your thoughts free into the world, whether by speaking, writing, drawing them out, or some other strategy, you’re setting yourself up to not only feel better, but also improve your relationships and alleviate any anxiety-inducing fears.
Ready to stop bottling up all your feels? Here are 4 tips for how to express yourself.
1. Be mindful
Beforeyou can express your emotions, you first have to learn how to identify them. Roberts says this super-simple identification step can cut the intensity of certain feelings in half.
Let’ssay, for example, your boss just Slack messaged you asking for a project update, and your first instinct is to implode because OMG, it’s not even close to done. Recognizing the whirlwind of anxiety you’re feeling can help you to respond tactfully and productively, like by asking for an extension, rather than just out of the paralyzing sensation of feeling overwhelmed. “We don’t get that thought until we can identify what we’re feeling,” Roberts says.
Practicing mindfulness regularly can make this step feel totally natural by making your first step of information processing to simply take a beat. “Slowing down your nervous system lets you connect with your body and what you’re feeling,” Roberts says. “It gives you the opportunity to hear what’s going on inside.” Make a habit out of ditching your phone for a few minutes in order to focus on your breath. The small efforts add up. You’ll gradually learn to recognize what your body is saying so you can convey it outwardly.
2. Stop saying “I’m fine.” Seriously.
“‘Fine’ is one of the only ‘F’ words you can’t use to communicate what’s going on,” Roberts says. “It doesn’t give any information.” So instead, communicate your needs in concrete terms. Take that tough project at work: You can seek out a co-worker and rather than reporting that everything is fine, say something like, “I’m having a hard time meeting this deadline and I could use some help.” Taking the guessing game out of conversations keeps overthinking at bay.
Still, you definitely don’t want to unleash months worth of suppressed emotions all at once. While it’s totally okay to take a moment to formulate a response to an email or an ask, set a loose deadline and hold yourself accountable for meeting it. Give yourself the time you need to understand how a situation makes you feel and how to articulate it in a way that makes you feel heard—but definitely still communicate your final answer.
3. Reframe your narrative
Grab a red pen, because it’s time to make some life revisions. Scratch the preconceived notions about worst-case scenarios or rejection that stopped serving you long ago. Because while it’s important to recognize and express negative emotions, letting them drive you into a vicious cycle isn’t anything worth striving for. “We can subconsciously screw ourselves over,” Roberts says. “We have to get real with the stories that we’ve been telling ourselves about how we communicate and what we deserve.”
Think about traumatic grade-school-playground memories, where maybe a bully didn’t let you play with them on the monkey bars. Maybe the memory alone makes you recoil into a sad shell of yourself. Well, instead of letting the memory drive your feelings and maybe even actions, channel the energy of how you would have handled the same situation now. After all, says Roberts, “expressing ourselves is a superpower.”
4. Practice in small situations
Find low-stakes situations to practice getting more comfortable with expressing yourself. A perfect way to test-run the exercise? Small talk with a barista. (Seriously, it’s good for you.)
When in doubt, ask questions. “When people feel like they’re being heard, it helps us be more confident in our communication,” Roberts says. “We recognize that we’re being received.”
You can also use these opportunities to practice asking for what you want, like if the barista would be able to use oat milk in that latte, actually. Frame your ask with considerate statements that validate the other person, almost like a kindness sandwich. Small situations like this are powerful tools for learning how to express yourself with someone you don’t even know, Roberts says. Now how’s that for a confidence booster?
Now that you’re a pro at expressing yourself, here’s how to cultivate a positive mental attitude. Not your thing? Then try using the power of negative thinking to propel you toward meeting all your goals.
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