When a Feeling Is Not Really a Feeling

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

One of the most important aspects of healthy communication is being able to share our feelings, thoughts, and needs respectfully. But, what happens when commonly used words are expressed as feelings, but are actually thoughts and assumptions about what someone else did to us?

See if any of the following sentences sound familiar. Perhaps these are words that you’ve said, thought, or heard.

“I feel abandoned.” “I feel manipulated.” I feel betrayed.”

Although statements like these may seem and even claim to be expressing feelings, words, like abandoned, manipulated, and betrayed, are not emotions. They are words to describe what we think another person did to us. Psychologist, author, and founder of Non-Violent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg refers to such words as pseudo-feelings.

In addition to abandoned, manipulated, and betrayed, here are a few additional pseudo-feelings that often get mistaken for emotions:

  • blamed
  • judged
  • neglected
  • unappreciated
  • unloved
  • used
  • rejected
  • ignored
  • misunderstood
  • pressured

This list is not exhaustive, but if you’re new to the concept of pseudo-feelings, perhaps you can see that the words listed above are not emotions. They are assumptions about how someone else treated us.

What often happens when people use pseudo-feelings in a conversation is that it puts the receiver on the defense because the “feeling “it’s about the receiver rather than the speaker.

When we feel an emotion, it’s inside of us. It’s our truth, our experience. Nobody can argue that we feel the way we do because we feel it. (Well, someone might try to talk us out of how we feel, but that’s another story or article.) If I tell you I feel sad, that’s how I feel. That feeling is inside of me.

But, if I tell you I feel judged, now I’m telling you/assuming/accusing you of judging me and this significantly decreases the chances of connection, clarity, or resolution.

In general, when we express our emotions to someone, we have a deeper need that’s connected to those emotions. Since pseudo-feelings tend to put the listener on the defensive, they usually don’t help us get our needs met. They often do just the opposite.

So, what’s the alternative to a pseudo-feeling? This would be to identify your true feelings and needs. For example, if you’re thinking you “feel abandoned,” this might mean that you feel hurt, angry, or afraid. These feelings could indicate a need for support, mourning, or hope. If you’re thinking you “feel manipulated,” you might feel angry or confused and have a need to be understood or to understand.

If you find yourself focusing on what someone else did to you or how someone else “made” you feel, try tuning inside and identifying your authentic emotions and needs instead. Here’s a list if you get stuck.

Naming our feelings and needs often brings a sense of clarity, especially if we do it with self-compassion. Once we get clear on our needs, we can see if there’s something we can offer ourselves or perhaps there’s a need we can respectfully request from someone else.

Keeping an eye out for pseudo-feelings and shifting our focus to authentic emotions and needs can have a profoundly positive impact on our relationships with ourselves and others.

Respectful communication requires intention, awareness, and for most of us, lots of practice, but it’s well worth the effort. Once we’re fluent in this most important language, it significantly increases the chances of both people feeling heard and connected. And after all, isn’t that what we all want?

View on Psychology Today