Words Don’t Work

When I was younger, my relationships would fall apart. I would always be saying the right things, and my partner would interpret me in the wrong way. I always stuck to “I” statements, never “you” statements. I looked them in the eye and said, “I hear you and I understand. It won’t happen again.”

For some reason, they still thought that I had ill-will towards them. Even though I was saying everything right.

In truth, they knew I had ill-will. Tape-recorder me wasn’t convincing. I was angry and no matter how much I steadied my voice and pasted on a false smile and said all of the words used in non-violent communication, I felt very violent.

We know when someone is lying, or at least feel we do. Whether they are actually lying, or are nervous, we distrust people whose actions are not congruent with their words; or who display any of the nervous ticks that we have come to expect of liars. John F. Kennedy famously pulled ahead in the 1960 presidential race after him and Nixon debated on TV. Nixon seemed shifty. People had trusted his words, but not when they were matched up with his face.

Our actual beliefs towards emotions will shine through in our interactions with our children. While many people want there to be certain words that you can say to make it so that your children think that you are okay with them and with what they’re feeling, sadly, these words don’t exist. Our tone, our cadence, our facial expressions and body language will betray us and tell our child exactly what they don’t want to hear: I am uncomfortable with your emotions. And to this, they will hear: I’m uncomfortable with you.

You have to show up to negative emotions, both your own and others.

Is our children’s love and trust in us so fragile that they’ll turn on us the way the voters turned on Nixon in 1960? Of course not. But the principle applies. Slowly, we can chip away at the foundation of our relationship.

The truth is that there are no magic words. It takes active effort on your part to become comfortable with your emotions, and until you can do that, you will struggle to feel comfortable with your child’s.

Learning to show up to our emotions is not something that you can fake until you make. Mindfulness and changing our relationship to our emotions takes an active shifting of the frame. We have to identify less with our emotional vicissitudes, but still acknowledge their existence. We have to allow ourselves to feel angry without telling ourselves the story that we are angry people

There aren’t any shortcuts.

On a crash diet, we restrict calories to the point that we lose energy. We eat food we can’t stand. We do exercise routines we can’t sustain. Once we get to our goal weight, we go back to our old habits and quickly regain the weight.

On crash self-improvement, we say words we don’t mean to convey emotions we don’t have and hope our child will buy the script. This doesn’t work. We have to come up with habits and rituals that are sustainable.

Becoming a better parent means becoming a better person. Simply changing your words doesn’t work.

Journal Questions:

  1. What emotion am I least comfortable with?
  2. What do I want to teach my children about emotions? Are my actions serving this goal?


  1. Name it to tame it. This week, pick the emotion you are least comfortable with. Admit out loud to yourself when you are feeling it. Remember you are feeling it. You aren’t the emotion.

I am feeling anxious right now. That’s okay.

1 thought on “Words Don’t Work

  1. Pingback: Stop running on autopilot.

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