How we describe our situations affects our emotional and behavioral responses. When we use language without enough nuance, it negatively impacts our ability to reflect and act in nuanced ways. Here are some distinctions I hope you’ll find helpful!
OMG I’m the worst.
Oof I have limits to work on and/or accept.
This distinction matters because... These are very different ways of feeling bad for/about yourself. Humiliation is a debilitating emotion, not unlike shame-- the humiliated person gives up on themselves and then avoids the triggering situation. To be humbled is a step towards developing a realistic and compassionate sense of self, towards acknowledging and working with our temporary or permanent limitations. The humbled person does not give up on themselves.
I don’t want them to know, because there’d be trouble if they did.
I don’t want them to know, because it’s mine and they don’t need to know it.
This distinction matters because... Negotiating trust and independence are both essential tasks in any partner relationship. Secrets hide a betrayal of trust; private matters do not. Unfortunately, these two terms often get conflated, especially when jealousy (see below) is involved, with one or both partners seeing the other’s independence as a threat to their connection. Consider which of these statements seems healthy and which is a red-flag: (1) “We have no secrets in this relationship.” (2) “I have no privacy in this relationship.”
You have it, and I want it.
I have it, but it could be taken away.
This distinction matters because… I want clients to appreciate how both envy and jealousy serve to highlight what we value, but then notice how the intensity of those emotions may reflect a lack of placing value in ourselves. Both are focused on fear of failure, and this fear can get in the way of productive and healthy actions. For a client immersed in envy, I advise taking stock of what they have and what they can realistically pursue. For a client immersed in jealousy, I advise strengthening the connection they value, as well as acknowledging (rather than acting out) their fear of loss.
We can’t/shouldn’t keep pursuing this.
Let’s get through this; it will make us stronger!
This distinction matters because… Admittedly, these are not words I hear from clients, but they describe two different ways of visualizing challenges in pursuit of personal and interpersonal goals. Mistaking a hurdle for a sign is how we quit prematurely. Mistaking a sign for a hurdle is how we injure ourselves by violating our own boundaries. So, how to tell the difference between the two? I… don’t quite know, although it seems like the proportions of promise/pain we’re feeling is a good indicator.
I'd feel that way too.
I understand why you feel this way.
This distinction matters because… Sometimes others want our support, and we don’t feel comfortable giving it whole-heartedly. When we don’t want to validate, we can easily revert to attacking the other’s feelings, a move that serves neither the person nor the relationship. Good news-- You can always empathize without explicitly validating! “That must’ve been ____ for you” makes the other “feel felt,” without requiring you to compromise your own perspective.
Here's why this is ok.
Here's why this makes sense.
This distinction matters because... When we (reasonably or not) see someone’s actions as unjustified, it can stop us from fostering curiosity about the beliefs and intentions that led the other to act this way. They might do something “for no (good) reason,” but they always do it “for some reason.” It’s ok to reject what someone does, but we’ll have a better chance of managing the situation when we seek to understand the other’s internal reasoning.
"I'm sorry" (moral guilt)
"I'm sorry" (sympathetic 'guilt')
I feel bad that I caused the problem.
I feel bad about your situation.
This distinction matters because… I’m not suggesting that we do away with the phrase “I’m sorry,” but recognizing the difference can alleviate unwarranted guilty feelings. This is especially important when we are conflicted because doing the right thing could make someone else feel bad; I’m specifically thinking about the challenge of setting boundaries in relationships. “I feel sad that they will feel bad” is different from “I shouldn’t make them feel bad”-- confusing sympathy for guilt is how we violate our own needs in order to protect another’s feelings
What distinctions are important to you when you reflect on yourself and your situations?