“I” Statements: Superficial or Misunderstood?
May 8

“I” Statements: Superficial or Misunderstood?

With a dash of humour, Thiv (MSW, RSW) uncovers common misconceptions and unlocks the true potential of “I” statements for effective communication in your relationships. Read on to learn how this fundamental communication technique can revolutionize conflict resolution and your relationships.

— By Thiviyan Sithganesan —

About the Author Thiviyan SithganesanPronouns:He/Him

After completing his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Waterloo, Thiviyan went on to receive his Master of Social Work from Western University. He is a Registered Social Worker (RSW) in good standing with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW) and the Ontario Association of Social Workers (OASW).

I feel hopeful that you’ll give “I” statements another chance after you read this blog post because I’m going to explain some of the common misconceptions about how to use them. See what I did there? I briefly considered doing the entire blog using only “I” statements but then you might hate them more than you already do!

For those of you who aren’t familiar, “I” statements are a communication technique designed to express one’s feelings in a more tactful manner. They’re one of the more well-known therapy tools from pop culture and social media and they typically follow a simple formula:

I feel [emotion] when [situation] because [reason].

The idea is that framing things this way is supposed get your message across to the other person more effectively than if you addressed them using blaming language. You can imagine how someone might get a bit defensive when they’re being called out, even if the complaint seems valid or you feel like it was delivered respectfully (e.g. “truthfully, you’ve been a little clingy” – thanks for that one, Jimmy from Love is Blind).

Okay, well the logic seems to check out, so what’s the problem? Why is it that some people would rather poke their eye out than craft an “I” statement to express how they feel? Honestly, I have heard every conceivable reason over the years from clients who I’ve shared this technique with and let me just say that they have some valid points. Perhaps the most common complaint is that communicating this way doesn’t feel authentic. We don’t often hear the word “formula” when it comes to language, let alone something as intricate and evocative emotions! One of my clients expressed that they were certain their partner would think they were on drugs if they communicated this way since it sounds nothing like how they would normally confront them.

Another criticism about “I” statements I’ve heard is that it feels unrealistic to expect people to be able to communicate in this calm and collected way, especially while they are in the middle of a heated argument. We can all probably remember a time when we went way past “fight or flight” mode into “battle or skedaddle” and maybe used some colourful language! I should probably mention here that crafting an “I” statement can be a lot trickier than it seems (think back to school when they started changing the numbers in math class to letters…now imagine that those letters became full-on words). Remember that you’re using this technique to avoid blaming the other person, right? Well, how exactly are you supposed to accomplish this while also mentioning the situation that happened?

For example, let’s say your partner forgot about your anniversary and you want to communicate how this made you feel. You might start off by saying “I feel hurt that you forgot about our anniversary…” which seems reasonable enough. However, the person receiving this message could still feel this is a blaming statement because you pointed out something that they did wrong. They might even try to deny that they forgot about it or say that it’s not a big deal! You would need to do some verbal gymnastics to phrase the sentence in a way that doesn’t activate their defensiveness, which can prove to be a tough task when you’re in the middle of a heated debate and emotions are running high. You might be reading this and think that this sounds like a lot of effort to put into not hurting someone who just hurt you! Alternatively, you might be worried that the other person would be dismissive of the things you share after you muster up the courage to be vulnerable with them about how you feel. Either way, I think it’s fair to say that these reasons, among others, might be why I hear from some clients that the “I” statements simply don’t work when they use them and why you, the reader, probably don’t use them in your day-to-day lives.

You might be thinking, “I’m never going to use an ‘I’ statement again” after reading that damning case against them. Yeah, I hear you…but let’s not leave them at the altar just yet! Here are five commonly held misconceptions about “I” statements that might be keeping you from realizing their true potential:

1. You need to keep using the “I” Statement formula every time.

Unlike wedding vows, you don’t have to commit to using the “I” statement formula to communicate your feelings every day. Going back to that math class analogy from earlier, you might remember that you learned all sorts of formulas to calculate different things in school. There was an emphasis on “showing your work” so you could prove that you understand the process of arriving at the answer when you first learned a concept. However, once you got to higher grades, you could usually get away with not showing all the steps you took to solve a simple multiplication problem for example. You understood how it worked and you might even just punch it in your calculator nowadays without a second thought. This is how I think “I” statements can be used most effectively. Once you’re able to craft them using the formula, you will have captured the essence of this technique, which is being able to communicate how you’re feeling in a way that’s not going to encourage a defensive response from the other person. You can now go back to talking the way you usually would, but with a newfound sprinkling of emotional awareness, and you should still see the results!

2. You should use any emotion you’re feeling in an “I” Statement.

This one might seem puzzling since our goal is to be able to share our emotions openly, but some emotions can be triggering in and of themselves (I’m looking at you, anger). Now, by no means am I saying that there are “bad” emotions (anyone who has seen the movie “Inside Out” can testify). However, finding out that someone you care about is feeling frustrated or upset at you can be an unpleasant experience, even if they seem calm and collected as they are talking to you. Those feelings that come up can make it difficult to see that behind the other person’s anger, there is often a more vulnerable emotion that isn’t being expressed. This means that you could phrase your “I” statement with care and the other person could still respond defensively because the emotion that was mentioned was anger. For this reason, you might reconsider starting off your statement with “I feel angry.” Does that mean then that if you’re feeling any kind of anger that you just need to keep it to yourself? Fortunately, not! Since anger is often a secondary emotion, we can instead opt to share the feelings beneath our anger when we use the “I” statement. When you hear that someone is feeling “hurt” or “overwhelmed” for example, it usually feels less personal, and people are more likely to empathize with your situation. Interestingly, the person who is feeling anger probably wants to feel understood this way when they express their emotions; It’s a cruel joke that their instinctive approach makes it even more difficult to receive the validation they are craving.

3. “I” Statements are about holding the other person accountable for their actions.

I’ve mentioned how people have lamented the amount of effort that goes into using “I” statements. Why is the burden of responsibility on the person who was affected to be mindful of how the perpetrator feels? Seems kind of backwards when you look at it that way, but there is actually a simple explanation. Suppose that you’re someone who isn’t bothered by dirty dishes being left in the sink overnight. If that were the case, you probably wouldn’t bring up to a partner that they didn’t clean the dishes before going to bed (they might have even gone ahead and washed them). Sometimes, we can forget that the reason this situation has become an issue to address is not because our partner did something that’s inherently wrong but because this behaviour brought up some unpleasant emotions for someone in the relationship. “I” statements offer a way for you to take ownership of your emotions by communicating them to your partner in a way that increases the chances that they will validate them. When a blaming statement is used (e.g. you are lazy), this crucial step is skipped, and this can make it difficult for the other person to empathize with the emotions that are being experienced on the other end. Makes you wonder why our default approach is often to characterize someone we love in a negative way when there are more effective ways to address the problem without hurting them.

4. You need to be able to deliver “I” Statements on the fly.

For the reasons I’ve outlined above, being able to come up with an effective “I” statement on the spot might not work out the way you would hope. However, that doesn’t mean that we need to scrap this resource altogether! I like to think of “I” statements as a way of identifying what you’re hoping to address when you enter a conversation with someone. There is no shame in having to read from a script if you want to make sure you get your message across! You could even craft another statement in response to what their response might be to your first statement. Imagine developing a flow chart of “I” statements that you could use to navigate the dreaded “we need to talk” discussion (I’m pretty sure this is how AI is going to replace my job). Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily need to go to those lengths to get value out of using “I” statements; Using just one could certainly make a difference!

5. “I” Statements are supposed to work every time.

While they can be a powerful tool, “I” statements are not magical spells that you can recite to make the other person bend to your every will (though you might consider using blackmail as a close approximation). Suppose you’re able to incorporate all the tips from above and you feel you have executed a flawless “I” statement, but you’re still met with an invalidating response. Unfortunately, this is a real possibility when you put yourself out there and communicate your feelings with people. Everyone is prone to having a bad day here and there, but if this is a situation that you consistently run into with someone, it might be time to consider the possibility that this person just doesn’t care about meeting your emotional needs. Perhaps this would be someone you would benefit from establishing some boundaries with and maybe even re-evaluating the status of your relationship with moving forward. This approach to communicating is built on the foundation that you’re interacting with someone who cares about you and wants to support you when you’re feeling distressed. If anything, “I” statements are more of a litmus test for relationships than a roll of duct tape.

Well, there you have it, “I” statements may initially seem daunting or ineffective as a communication technique. However, I believe that understanding and implementing them correctly can significantly improve conflict resolution and foster healthier relationships. Remember, effective communication is a skill that requires practice and patience, but the benefits of expressing your feelings assertively and respectfully are well worth the effort. So, don’t hesitate to incorporate “I” statements into your communication toolkit and watch as they transform the way you interact with the people around you.


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