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How To Communicate Hurt (While Owning Your Stuff).

Four prompts to initiate dialogue during hard moments.

When we communicate, we’re reacting to content and experience. During relationship conflict, we are responding to what a partner is saying or doing while simultaneously experiencing numerous bodily sensations, memories, and cognitions. Sometimes our physiological experience is impacted by temporary things, like whether we ate or slept enough. And sometimes what comes up for people in conflict is old hurt—past wounds or experiences that may be quite different from what's actually being said or done in the moment.

You can think about the intensity of your emotional responses using the metaphor of volume. Be mindful of whether the volume of your emotions and sensations is aligned with the context of the current moment, like the volume one may use in the context of a library versus a party. For example: If your emotions are at a 9, but the present situation is at a 5, the mismatch might be an indication that past hurts are coming up for you—that what you’re feeling isn’t only about what’s happening right now. This does not mean that you’re being dramatic, irrational, or “too much.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to better understand your own emotional landscape, communicate effectively with others, and advocate for what you need.  

If you’re noticing your own stuff coming up during conflict or getting in the way of repair, here are four prompts to initiate dialogue during these hard moments:

“A story that I’m telling myself right now is…"
Sometimes the narratives you’re hearing are yours alone—stories that may be partially written by your own anxiety and may not be totally true. Starting a conversation with this prompt acknowledges your own hurt and experience, while also recognizing that it’s your story (which leaves room to understand someone else’s too).

“I notice what’s coming up for me right now is…"
When you focus on your own feelings and experience, you can often decrease defensiveness. You’re not telling the other person what they’ve said or done wrong, you’re sharing your hurt from your own perspective. Using I-statements like this one can sometimes prevent conflict from becoming a litigation of facts. Speaking to your own emotions acknowledges that your experience is your own, makes space for others to share theirs, and can refocus conflict on impact and repair.

“I recognize that this conversation is pushing up against my…"
This demonstrates that you’re aware of your own boundaries and limits. This is a great opportunity to share (or reassert) what your boundaries are.

“Patterns of mine are being activated and I want you to know…"
You can own that your past hurts are being brought up in the current moment. This statement reflects to others that you know there’s a mismatch in volume—that parts of your past may be present now and impacting your reaction. This is also a great way for the other person to learn more about you. Another way to say this could be: “An old wound that is getting activated for me is…”

Maybe this language feels too therapized for you—feel free to make it your own! The takeaway nugget is: it’s natural that past wounds show up in present moments and acknowledging this experience can support relationship repair during or after conflict.