The Unintended Consequences of Mislabeling Our Thoughts and Emotions

The Unintended Consequences of Mislabeling Our Thoughts and Emotions - ATH BlogOne of the greatest contributions we can make in our lives (to both the world and to ourselves) is to stay dedicated and loyal to the truth in what we think and say. Although that sounds quite simple, it requires a good deal of contemplation to really have a chance of it becoming an art form in each of our lives. The world would be a different place to live in if we each took this to heart.

One of the most common ways we create separation, alienation, and unintended distance from those we love, our friends, family, and business peers is by mislabelling our emotions and needs. We sincerely believe that we are communicating something with specific emotional qualities and messages, but unconsciously our tone is expressing emotions that we’re unaware of that create confusion and conflict. At these times we believe that we are innocently communicating a different message. This is something that often happens in relationships we are most attached to. But we can’t see that emotions or qualities like irritation, blame, or being injured are being misunderstood and miscommunicated by us as strength, sincerity and hurt. 

Our brains convert these feelings into believing that we are being wronged or not considered. This happens mostly, if not totally unconsciously. Can you see when you look at some of your closest relationships at times of stress or challenge that you are prone to both react in these ways and also receive it from others? You might see that you have a fleeting awareness of recognizing, “Oh, I’m actually a bit angry, irritated or impatient when I’m calling out these same qualities in whoever I’m talking to!”

If each of us can understand that left unaddressed, we are setting ourselves up for chaos, unnecessary suffering and ongoing power struggles it will create the motivation to pause and pay closer attention to both ends of our communications. Therefore, it is incredibly beneficial to recognize our personal, specific, subterranean emotional messages and make the adjustments to really communicate accurately from our heart and wisdom.

Let’s take a moment to contemplate with sincerity and open eyes

Think about the number of the most common types of emotions you are prone to mix into ordinary communications at times of stress, anxiety, and anger. In my experience, it would be unusual for us not to do this to some extent. But unfortunately, it often allows you to fall into deeper holes of alienation instead of being able to heal in areas that clearly need it.

It is incredibly helpful to be able to identify the details of your most common miscommunications and what emotions are conveyed (usually out of your awareness). A general understanding isn’t necessarily helpful if you don’t see how it occurs in concrete terms and with which people it happens. Most of us will resist seeing this inside ourselves, and it will be a lot easier to pinpoint how others do it to us. 

So please take some time now and in the future to see this when you are internally in a negative or not-positive mood — it might not even be evident to others. This is where you need to stay more aware to isolate the exact messages, words, and tone. 

Are you protecting or alienating yourself? 

Below, we’ll explore a few examples that will show that statements have a different meaning than what they appear to say on surface value. If they were literally true, then they would be beneficial. However, these statements are often unwittingly misused to get a complaint or unconscious negative message across, which ends up being harmful to self and others. It is important not to hear any of these statements as being intentionally hurtful. Still, they are being pointed out to look at the significant minority of times they distort the truth with meta-messages. If you don’t think this applies to you, I suggest you think again when you’re most moody or upset and find some of these seeds of sustained alienation under the illusion of believing that you are just ‘protecting yourself or being honest.’ 

The most common form I see as a therapist is a substantial emotional cavern between couples and conflicting family members. We rationalize the overt expression of anger and believe we are expressing a need or our hurt and don’t see the long-term consequences of this mislabeling. We believe we are being honest by saying something like, “I don’t like your attitude.” We think we are being sincere, expressing hurt or a need, but instead, we are adding anger, irritation, impatience, or a complaint.

When seen from an objective vantage point, it can be humorous that we are talking about the other’s attitude while ours is injurious. We think, “I’m just being honest about how you’ve been to me.” 

I had an early teacher that would say, “You have to be careful when you criticize another for ‘bad behavior’ so that you don’t curdle the vibration worse than where it started from.” This always stuck with me as excellent teaching. 

In other articles, I have pointed out that my otherwise very loyal and dedicated mother would often tell me something like “Clean your room!” using an agitated tone. However, when you see it in words it can look like a sensible, clean reminder, which is how my mother saw it at the time. However, her tone unwittingly transmitted: “I am angry at you for not doing it, and you should feel terrible about yourself for being so sloppy.” 

In reality, as I’ve looked back many times through the years, it led me to rebel against the attitude of anger and shaming, not the request itself. Look carefully, and it’s virtually inevitable you either received an equivalent or are dishing out versions of this. The point isn’t to create blame for blaming, but to give us the chance to clean up our communication and help it come from our heart and wisdom.

Another example would be when we withdraw rather than communicate what we would like to happen or not happen directly. Instead, we get defensive (mostly without our awareness) by ignoring what is being said, disassociate, and become emotionally and practically distant. We think this is a form of self-protection when in reality, it is a form of reinforcing a fight or distance.

It’s when we’re feeling vulnerable with another person or angry that are the two most frequent times when we are likely to mislabel our emotions. By ‘feeling vulnerable,’ I mean having feelings like hurt, rejection, loss, or abandonment. For those more direct, we may say something like, “That really hurt me, and I’d really like you to treat me with more kindness.” 

This can be a breathtaking moment of honest communication if done softly and from the heart. However, it can just as easily convey, “Hey asshole, why are you treating me so shittily?” 

It can be a form of retaliation, and you might think to yourself that you’re simply asking for more kindness. However, the tone of voice can be as punishing or critical as what you experienced yourself receiving. This isn’t a criticism but a catalyst to awaken awareness of tone of voice, intention, and sometimes words that we don’t pay close attention to. There’s a necessity to pause a few moments and look for the place inside us that has a more open heart, asking with kindness and sincerity for the kindness desired. 

Again you might say to yourself, “Oh yeah that’s the way I do it already!” But I would caution that any of us mere mortals are likely to be at least intermittently saying it with some form of agitation rather than a softer vulnerability that is asking from the heart.

A real-life example of mislabeling thoughts and its unintended consequence in someone’s life:

 I had a very revealing indication that it was a phone message from a prospective client asking to see me as a therapist. She said in her message, “I’d like to come in to see you with my husband, and we’re having issues with our marriage.” She went on to say, clearly without awareness, “As far as issues go, we are having pretty standard problems as you know how men are, and beyond that, I think we’re pretty normal.” 

Before I even began seeing them, I could see she had a major bias that ‘men’ carried something like an emotional disease that she experienced as objective and general. She wasn’t in touch with ‘typical female issues’ or the truer reality that generalizing when it comes to psychology is a limited and inaccurate art at best. 

I could see that she had a bias against men, which was so extreme that it was evident even before our first telephone conversation that she would be prone to negative labeling even before we got into specifics. This kind of thing would be true in political, religious, and ethnic types of prejudice where you’d be able to hear negativity being said without a hint of awareness of a prejudicial slant. 

This is good for all of us to scan to see if we have the equivalent in any of these areas. In today’s divided country and the world, this is much more common than at any other time in my 73 years of living. 

Can you see any area where you might have this tendency? If so, does it motivate you to take a closer look to not be so generalizing and clean up your language and tone to lessen prejudice and be open to looking in a fresh individual moment about a person, religion, politics, business, etc.? 

Can you pause to feel the motivation to express your needs with a caring or at least neutral tone of voice? Can you realize with your awareness that you also have some impatience, and irritation that you are containing within yourself for the best connection possible? You might even say, “I want you to know that I’m aware I’m having some more aggressive emotions that I’m doing my best to not dump on you. I hope I’m successful.”

Taking care of yourself vs. excusing indiscipline and laziness

“I need to take care of myself” is a common statement that can mean something like self-love when it is simple and sincere. This could range from resting when you’re sick, sleeping when you’re tired, eating healthfully, and exercising. However, it also can be one of the greatest rationalizations to give yourself permission to not work at your reasonable best efforts or to make excuses for not showing up to things that would create benefit.

I remember being at a meditation retreat where the leader was talking about this very issue — how many of those at the retreat would justify not showing up to a majority of the meditations with a rationalization like, “I’ve just really got to take care of myself so I’m not going to sit in meditation at these various times.” 

Of course, there are instances where it is actually healthy and helpful for people set such boundaries. Especially if they have medical, psychological, or physical conditions that might be better with boundaries like these. 

But I agree with the teacher that many times it’s used as a rationalization because we feel lazy or undisciplined and give our reasonable best efforts to fulfill a deep need. We all would do well to make this discrimination whether it’s about being a meditator, apolitico, religious advocate, etc. When you say anything like I need to take care of myself, I need this from you. I don’t know why you’re talking to me like that, I’m hurt, or you made me feel insecure, we need to look out for those sneaky little aggressive feelings of a wide variety of blame. If we can see these, own them inside ourselves, and have our communications carry a tone of sincerity we are changing not only our life but also those that we care about as well. This is a mini-miracle every time it happens. It helps once you have gotten the hang of it for a longer period of time.

Why missing someone may not always equal love

As a therapist and in my personal life, I have seen the words “I missed you a lot repeatedly” being given a meaning of love. However, without awareness, it can be a statement that fosters a certain kind of dependency that isn’t optimal for parents-children or most relationships. Now it seems very natural to miss another once in a while, but when you have consistent and regular contact, this statement might be a warning of reinforcing dependency rather than one dominantly one of love. There might be a need for parents to have their children call them more, need them more that isn’t in their awareness. This is often a hard one to see, but if seen and modified, it can reinforce a greater sense of love and strength vs. love and dependency.  It supports a healthy autonomy which in return allows for more complete intimacy.

The word “missing” can be a genuine sign of loving, of course, or an unconscious way of communicating a dependency and not fostering healthy independence. There are several clients through the years who have begun using this word more sparingly. Instead, they’ve been addressing how their need to be the center of their child’s life has been more about their need to be in the center more so than their love. 

Mislabeling thoughts and perceptions and its impact on socio-political issues

Another common bias amongst an almost infinity of options for mislabeling is around the homelessness issue in our country. A version of the sentiment I’ve heard is, “The homeless are unmotivated, a hassle, and they’re really bugging me showing up at a stop light, and sleeping in my neighborhood.”

A lack of reflection on the real circumstances that have created homelessness reveals itself as a shift of meaning and blame from a certain kind of unsympathetic, uninformed public. It leads to them making a statement in conversations that don’t accurately reflect a collective responsibility that we all bear. Missing a level of empathy and talking like an expert is a common form of mislabeling and not seeing the real dilemma of life circumstances that create the majority of homelessness, whether it’s family disruption, post foster care, poverty, addiction, or mental health issues, etc.

I am hopeful that you will identify with aspects of mislabeling in your own life and find it rewarding to find where this is the case. This gives us the chance to live a more intimate, compassionate life with crisper communication. Our world needs to be supported in every way, and miscommunication can be the source of everything from divorce, religious competition, and war to an endless series of divisions in our society and world.

It would be helpful if you’d be open to staying with the question — “Where are you most prone to miscommunicate or mislabel parts of your life? Think about it in terms of both intimate relationships and broader areas of world importance.”

This is a step we can take no matter where we find ourselves in life. It has been helpful for friends and clients to write down where this is their tendency, especially at first, to help keep our attention on where it has the most unintended consequences. It also is very paradoxical because where we can see the most unintended mistakes of communication that bad news can be the greatest news of the day if we accept it without judgment and then turn it around and speak from our more precise heart and wisdom.