Why You Say Things You Don’t Mean

Why You Say Things You Don't Mean | Colorado Counseling CenterBy Joshua Downs, LCSW

Since well before my career as a marriage counselor, I have heard some variation of the belief that we must mean the things we say if we are saying them. In working with couples and individuals through the lens of Emotionally Focused Therapy, I have come to understand that what we say and even think is not always an accurate reflection of how we really feel. It doesn’t reflect the whole picture. And only if we take into account our whole emotional experience can we ultimately be kinder and more understanding of ourselves and those who matter to us.

Our Brains Are Designed to Protect Us

To help us understand the factors that continually set us up to say things that we wish we could take back, we need to understand our own brains. In terms of our brain circuitry, we are feeling and processing emotions long before we are even conscious of them. Our limbic system is designed to ready us in the presence of perceived threats and danger—both the physical and emotional kind. It makes nano-second quick assessments with the limited information it has and sends an unmistakable battle-station cry to the rest of our body. And we should be grateful to it for its hypersensitivity. If the limbic system sat around waiting for the rest of our brain to be one hundred percent positive about whether something in front of us was a real threat, we wouldn’t stay alive very long. Take an impending car accident, for example—you’d rather feel embarrassed about slamming on the brakes (because you thought you were going to hit that car) than risk injury or death from an actual accident.

… Yet, Our Brain’s Alert System Also Leads to Defensiveness

In the same breath that we give thanks for our sensitive limbic system, we could also curse it when it comes to how we behave when emotions are high:

  • The tendency for our limbic system to play things “safe not sorry” often puts us on the defensive.
    • And in a defensive place, we are more likely to react to a feeling of fear instead of the more vulnerable feelings of loneliness and pain that might be underneath.
      • If we could touch our vulnerabilities and share them, we could encourage a more nurturing—or at least a more understanding—response from our partner.

So, in this defensiveness, the words that come out are actually evidence of fear or lack of safety, not of the true needs or feelings in our heart.

Defensiveness vs. Vulnerability & Connection

In session with couples, I have heard partners say things that sometimes sting and cut deeply. These remarks are hurtful, and if I were to end the session immediately at these points, the hurt partner could justifiably label the other as a cold-hearted, uncaring jerk. But with some persistence on my part, the offender can connect with feelings of total rejection or inadequacy when he thinks about how his wife seemed to be more interested in spending time with her friends than with him. Once he realizes he has these feelings, I may ask him to turn and share them with his wife. Yet even with this “new” knowledge, the limbic system doesn’t always stay quiet, and often, that seemingly simple task of sharing becomes another life-or-death moment of fear.

But when courage wins over, and a partner takes a risk to share vulnerable feelings, it can be powerful. The whole interaction can then take on a new meaning; a meaning that better illuminates the need for closeness that both people feel.

Slowing Down Defensiveness

A step to help slow down our defensiveness is to cultivate an ability to at least share the perception of what seems to be happening. This is by no means easy. As I said, our more reactive emotions have a head start on the parts of our brain that allow us to think through things calmly and consider other, less-dangerous interpretations of our partner’s behavior. Initially, we may have a better chance at identifying the softer emotions under the mean things we say by looking back soon after a situation. And in this case, the principle of “better late than never” certainly applies as we—hopefully with our partner’s help and patience—strive to understand what went wrong in those moments.

It’s worth considering the following as an exercise to try and understand the things you didn’t mean to say. Looking back on a recent negative interaction with your partner, consider and share the following:

  • What was it that was said or that you saw that triggered an emotion in you?
  • What seemed to be happening? (What you thought that person was trying to do or what he/she meant when they said ________?).
  • And what did that perception make you feel?
  • And what did you say or do in response to that feeling?
  • As you look back on the event can you identify a feeling or a need that was there but didn’t get expressed?

If in going through this exercise you struggle to come up with answers, you may consider counseling as an option. Some couples are in a place where these exercises are sufficient for them to start seeing changes. Others may need a safe environment where they can explore and connect with the whole of their emotional experience—not just the part that tends to add to the distance between loved ones. Finding out what we really mean when we say things is possible, even if it takes time.

About Joshua Downs

Joshua Downs, LCSW provides marriage counseling and individual therapy in the South Denver Metro Area. He uses Emotionally Focused Therapy with couples, and is a valuable member of the Colorado Counseling Center team. Learn more about Joshua's counseling specialties at coloradocounselingcenter.com/josh-downs

3 thoughts on “Why You Say Things You Don’t Mean

  1. This is awesome Joshua! Giving thanks and cursing our limbic system – love it! I am always shocked at how long it can take me to understand all of my feelings – and I “do feelings for a living!” Thanks for a great post!

  2. Thanks for this helpful post about how we may not always “mean” what we say; and how that happens. I know there have been times when words came out of my mouth that didn’t reflect my true intention. I was glad at those times to have a family who was willing to believe that it was my pain or exhaustion speaking, rather than my heart.

  3. Great post Josh! You normalized our tendency to get defensive and explained beautifully how to repair-by gaining more awareness around our own feelings and triggers. It takes practice, AND yet it is possible to do.

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