Levels of dis-identification with your thoughts

What’s the difference between these two phrases? How do you imagine you’d feel, if someone said one of them to you? Is it different?

  1. “I notice I feel angry”
  2. “I’m angry”

Personally, I would feel a lot more comfortable with the first one. I think this is true for lots of people, particularly people who like NVC-like communication.

But, I was at one point surprised to learn, it’s not true for everyone. Some people find statements like #1 above to be annoying. I don’t have a really deep model of why, but I think it triggers a sense of beating-around-the-bush or otherwise not being frank.

I want to share the value I see in using phrases more like #1 than #2, and to place them on a spectrum rather than just having them be binary. To do that, I’m going to tell a brief story here, which is based on a true story that inspired this post.

The story of the hurt one and the hurter

Friends of mine, whose names aren’t Mitch and Lia, asked me to help them have a tough conversation at a conference we were all attending. They’d been in a romantic relationship for several months, and things were kind of shaky at that point. An incident happened where, due to some ambiguous communication and differing assumptions, Mitch basically felt like Lia had totally ditched him when they’d agreed they would have lunch together that day. Lia had seen him in a conversation with someone else and thought he looked engrossed so she didn’t want to interrupt and figured they’d reconnect in the cafeteria or whatever.

Part of the crux of the challenge was that Mitch didn’t feel safe talking about how hurt he felt when he saw Lia heading towards the cafeteria with other people. He’d brought up his emotions with her in the past, and the experience had often been a negative one, where she felt overwhelmed by a sense of having to deal with his emotions.

“I feel like if I’d gone up to you and said, ‘I feel really hurt’, then you would have been frustrated with me, because I’ve said that a bunch of times before and you don’t have much to say in response,” Mitch remarked to Lia during the conversation I had with them later that day. Lia nodded, yeah, probably. There was a pause, into which I offered, “I think that Lia probably would have been a lot more open to talking about it, even glad, if you’d instead said something like ‘I’m noticing a lot of hurt feelings coming up around this.'”

I got emphatic agreement from Lia and skeptical bewilderment from Mitch.

I don’t recall exactly what he said, but it was clear that he thought of that kind of phrasing as being “unnecessarily verbose” or “fake”, not having a practical purpose. That it was hippie thing or something: I don’t talk like that, he didn’t say but definitely conveyed.

He was also curious though: wait, there is a practical purpose to that kind of language?

The practical purpose to language that dis-identifies you from your thoughts

If you just offer the person “I feel really hurt,” then they are suddenly entered into a conversation with the-one-that’s-hurt. That’s hard in general, but especially hard when they’re cast in the role of the hurter. It implies that maybe the expected response is an apology (even if “the hurter” still feels their decision-making process made sense) or to make reparations, or to somehow unmake the hurtness. This kind of conversation can be really emotionally draining. (Aside: it is possible to have person A cast themselves as the-hurt-one and person B as hurter, and for B to reject those roles, but it’s not remotely easy.)

By contrast, by saying “I’m noticing a lot of hurt feelings coming up around this,” you’re enacting a conversation with yourself cast as the noticer-of-hurt. This means that even if the other person was the primary other agent involved in the origin of that hurt, it gives them the space to play a more intimate, connected, curious role. This framing makes it easier for both partners to engage in truth-seeking around what dynamics were at play to create the experience of hurt, and to work together to prevent it in future, rather than setting up a system where it’s one person’s fault.

(For more on this, try out Brienne Yudkowsky’s exercise Identification and Seeking the Subject of Experience.)

Remapping words to remap thoughts

The other advantage of this kind of language is that it affects your own relationship to your experience. The roles of hurt-one or noticer are not just ones that play out interpersonally, but ones we enact within our own minds even when not talking with someone. If you develop the habit of talking about your emotions as the noticer not as the emoter, then that will help you develop the internal habit of identifying with the experience of noticing more than with the experience of the emotion itself.

This will make you less likely to defend yourself: “BUT I HAVE A RIGHT TO FEEL ANGRY!” Defensiveness is almost never helpful, even if your feelings make a lot of sense given the circumstances.

(For more on remapping words to remap thoughts, check out my post on advanced growth-mindset reframing.)

Evidence of dis-identification

Somewhere in the intersection of these two advantages is a third phenomenon worth highlighting: that when you share your emotions with someone, the language you use can be evidence of how identified with those emotions you are.

(It seems plausible to me that this could be thrown off by someone just drilling over and over again to always replace the words “I feel” with “I notice I’m feeling” but who uses that phrase reflexively and without actually identifying with the noticer. But I think in general this is good evidence, and besides, as I described in the previous section, use of this language will tend to push you in that direction over time.)

Anyway, what this means is that if you’re indeed outside of your thoughts in this way, then it can be helpful to let your conversational partner know that by using clear language. Otherwise it may be safer (for both of you) if they assume that you are indeed identifying with your own thoughts. Depending on the relationship that’s there, the goals of that relationship, and the content of the particular thoughts/emotions being discussed, this could suggest various courses of action. (I have a lot to say about this, so it’ll go in a future post. Feel free to bug me about making that post if it’s been more than a month and this text is still here.) But regardless, it’s helpful to have more information of where someone is on a spectrum of dis-identification.

(For more on this, check out When You Can’t Find the Edge of the Frame, particularly the quoted anecdote.)

A spectrum of dis-identification with emotions

Right, the aforementioned spectrum. This was also something I shared with Mitch at the time. (It possibly worked better out loud, because I could imitate the tone rather than just describing it.)

So there are really a lot of different things Mitch could have said to Lia. If he was just utterly consumed by his feeling of hurtness, he might have gone up to her and articulated his feelings by saying:

“AUUGGHHHHNNN”

…we can all agree this would be challenging to hear, to make sense of, and to relate to productively. If you were slightly more aware of what was happening inside you, you might have said something like

“I’m hurt!” or “you hurt me!”

with a vaguely panicky tone and body language that suggested that the hurt was all there was for you at that moment. The chief difference is that here you had the ability to name the feeling. Moving along, we get

“I feel really hurt”

but in this case spoken with a tone more like “I need to get my needs met and right now they’re not met because I’m hurt.” It potentially has a kind of fix-me quality to it. This is the one Mitch was considering. Slightly past that is

“I notice I feel really hurt”

which has the additional dis-identification added by “I notice” but which still contains “I feel” which is evidence of there still being some identification with the feeling itself. Further still would be

“I’m noticing a lot of hurt feelings coming up”

Now you’re just the noticer, and the feelings are a think that you have, rather than a thing that you are. Going this far gets most of the benefit, I think, but I’ve totally said things like:

“I’m in a space right now where I’m noticing experiences of feeling hurt coming up in response to my fear-channel’s interpretation of what happened.”

…but this is probably excessive for most contexts. And I wouldn’t endorse trying to speak like this on purpose. It’s just the kind of thing that happens if you do a lot of culture-hacking and language-hacking like this. I would advise aiming for the penultimate one: “I’m noticing a lot of hurt feelings coming up.”

(For a totally different take on spectra related to subjectivity of experience, read about Subject-Object Notation.)

Caveat lector

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This post has mostly talked about how to share your own experiences in ways that are easier to hear. This is a fundamental capacity for Reveal-based cultures. (I’m using capacity here to mean something like “a skill that you may have more or less of at a given time depending on various factors”) But listening is also a capacity.

This means:

  • Even if you phrase something super dis-identifiedly, the other person might not have the capacity to hear it that way, especially if the situation involves them or if they already feel tired or threatened.
  • You can learn to use your own skill at listening to give others the benefit of the doubt and to break out of roles like angry-one and angerer. That doesn’t mean falsely believing they’re less emotion-identified than they are; it’s more like even though they’re identifying themselves with their emotions, you can hold those as distinct.

Also worth noting:

  • Remember, Mitch thought this language was dumb prior to the conversation we had. Odds are that some people you know will too. So be aware that you might frustrate people by doing this, which won’t be so connective.
  • Don’t make it out as if what I’ve described is “the right way”… i.e. don’t try to force other people to do this! Although it might be cool if you and your partner (romantic or business or project) both read this blog post and had a shared understanding of the value of this kind of language.

Alright, that’s enough from me for now—let me know how this works (or doesn’t) for you!

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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2 Comments

Glenn Thomas Davis » 14 Aug 2015 » Reply

I found this post EXTREMELY useful, but for reasons that are entirely about my inner voice and my relationship to my own emotions. Just starting to tell myself “hey, I notice some anxiety when I think about X” totally reframed my relationship to my own anxiety, which triggered a whole boatload of other productive stuff. I realize that my typical relationship to anxiety up to now has been sort-of the equivalent of the guy yelling “AUUGGHHHHNNN” internally, at myself.

Richard Crease » 15 Aug 2015 » Reply

It’s true, as you say, that people sometimes don’t like hearing the seeming-artificiality of “I notice I feel angry.” Maybe the speaker who says this is simply standing up for what she believes in, at the risk of sounding offensive to others. Or, It could be that the speaker is lost in a pretentious and convoluted mind-game with herself. We have no way of knowing which it is, or if it is some other type of phenomenon. All we can relatively sure of is that each person gets to do life — and speech — his own way.

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