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How to use “I-statements”
Changing your words will change your relationship
“You are such a slob. You just expect me to clean up after you.”
“You are always working. Work is more important to you than your family.”
“You are so frivolous. You just think money grows on trees.”
Arguments about housework, priorities and money are nothing new. In fact, for many couples, they are weekly challenges. That’s exactly why “I-statements” are so important. Choosing the right words during an argument can be the difference between resolving your issues or making them worse. When you change your words, you change your life, and nowhere is this more true than in relationships.
Even when you have the best of intentions, what you say can escalate an argument into a full-blown fight and really hurt the one you love. And one of the most common mistakes those in a relationship make with their language is the use of “you-statements” instead of using sentences that are framed as “I-feel statements.”
What is a “you-statement”?
“You-statements,” such as those listed above, are phrases that begin with the pronoun “you” and imply that the listener is responsible for something. They show no ownership of emotions, but rather blame, accuse and assume the receiver. This type of statement is more likely to make your partner feel defensive and resentful, and he or she will be less likely to want to make peace.
What is an “I-statement”?
An “I-statement,” on the other hand, forces us to take responsibility for what we are thinking and feeling and prevents us from blaming our partners. When using “I-statements,” we can still be assertive, but find a less hostile, more compassionate way to communicate. Tone of voice – vocal inflection, volume and pitch – is an important piece of communication puzzle that we often forget about. “I-feel statements” help prevent miscommunication that can happen when one partner takes an accusatory tone of voice.
The psychology behind “you-statements” and “I-statements”
Studies have shown that “I-statements” reduce hostility and defensiveness and that “you-statements” can provoke anger. Today it’s a commonly accepted fact that the use of “I-statements” in relationships and even at work results in better communication. But why?
“You-statements” make your partner feel that you are punishing them. When people feel attacked, they naturally become defensive. It’s hard-wired into our DNA. By pointing out what they’ve done wrong or how they’ve made you feel upset, sad or angry, you’re either trying to make them feel as bad as you feel or you’re trying to make them change. Neither is a part of creating a healthy relationship. Rather than inviting a productive response from your partner, you’re inviting anger.
An “I-statement,” on the other hand, shows personal accountability. It states that even though your partner is not acting or speaking in the way you’d prefer, you are not blaming him or her for how you feel. When using “I-statements,” you take responsibility for the part you played in the disagreement and display the openness for deep listening and resolution.
So how do you turn a “you-statement” into an “I-statement”?
First, remember that the point of an “I-statement” is to express how you feel inside. That’s why they’re often called “I-feel statements.” A true “I-statement” uses specific emotions such as “I feel…” joyful, anxious, lonely, resentful, angry, calm, embarrassed, fearful, etc.
Avoid words that may seem like emotions, but really imply the action of your partner: “I feel…” ignored, annoyed, pissed off, mistreated, manipulated, controlled, cheated, abandoned, etc.
It is also a common misperception that you can tack on the words “I feel” in front of a “you-statement.” For example, “I feel like you are taking me for granted.” That is just a “you-statement” in disguise. It implies blame and there is no actual emotion being expressed.
It can be difficult to use “I-statements” if you’re not used to this type of language. These “I-statement examples” will help.
- “I felt lonely when you did not come home to have dinner with me all week.”
- “I get anxious when you don’t tell me you’re running late.”
- “I felt embarrassed when you were talking to that man at the party for half an hour.”
- “I get confused and hurt when you leave your clothes on the floor because I thought I had communicated how important it was that you put them in the laundry basket.”
- “I feel resentful when you take our dog to the dog park on the weekends without me when we have not had time together for weeks.”
Using “I-statements” in your relationship
Using “I-feel statements” works best when your emotions seem overwhelming and you want to lash out at your partner. When you first start using them, you should explain to your partner what you’re trying to accomplish and admit you might not do it perfectly the first time. Try to be as gentle as possible and realize that the tone of your voice matters as much – if not more – than the words you use. Remember the “I-statement” examples listed above and try to identify the emotion you are feeling and where it stems from. Admit if you have a trigger from the past that is playing a part in how you feel and if this is making you over-react.
To help you better understand how you to turn a “you-statement” into an “I-statement,” consider how to change your language during these common conflicts:
Using “I-statements” in therapy
The best “I-statement” examples are often found in therapy settings – this is actually where the term originated! In a type of therapy called person-centered therapy, you’ll often hear the therapist asking, “How does that make you feel?” Carl Rogers pioneered this therapy in the 1940s, but it was his student Thomas Gordon who actually coined the term “I-statement.”
In one-on-one therapy, “I-feel statements” can help you uncover your real emotions, which are often buried or ignored, and take responsibility for them. You’ll begin to realize that, as Tony says, you can “take control of your consistent emotions and begin to consciously and deliberately reshape your daily experience of life.” You can’t control how others act. You can control your own emotions.
In couples therapy, “I-statements” are one of the first things you’ll learn. To de-escalate conflict, these types of statements may be the only way each partner is allowed to express themselves.
You don’t need to be in therapy to learn the difference between “you-statements” and “I-statements” and begin to use them in your relationship. It may feel strange at first, but once you and your partner get into this habit, you’ll see positive changes and take your relationship to the next level.