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Couple by a Lake
Couple by a Lake

Act on Your Goals, Not Your Feelings

Sherry Tucker, LSCW
October 29, 2007

Have you ever wished you could take back words you’ve said in anger? Have you ever regretted hurting someone you love by voicing some feeling or thought impulsively? You probably have – we all say things at times without fully considering the impact of our words. Part of being in relationships is sometimes being angry with people we love or care about. So, how do you voice your thoughts and feelings in an honest way without causing hurt and damage to the ones you love? How do you express your aggressive feelings constructively?

A helpful concept to assist you in confronting others constructively is to "act on your goals, not your feelings." In order to follow this guiding principle, you first have to always remember that there is a difference between feelings and actions. You may say “of course – I know that,” but in the heat of an argument or a problem many bright, mature, kind, good people totally forget the difference and may say harsh words. A feeling is an internal awareness of an emotion; feelings are what we think about and feel inside. Actions are the external behaviors we do based on what we think and feel. Having a feeling does NOT mean you have to act on it. Sometimes people will justify acting on their feelings impulsively by saying “I was just being honest.” Or they blame the person they are angry with and say “you MADE me do it – you made me SO mad.” Or they just fall back on “I couldn’t help it” (which, for some highly emotional people literally feels true).

For instance, maybe the baby kept you up all night and your husband forgot (AGAIN- for the millionth time) to take the trash out. Now there’s a backlog of smelly, messy garbage that’s going to stink up the house for five more days until the trash truck comes back. So, in addition to being angry about no sleep, you’re furious at your husband for his chronic forgetfulness. You forget you love him, forget he’s a good guy most of the time and you throw some insult at him like “you’re an idiot – you always forget – what’s the matter with you??” Or your wife promises to stay within the budget but you discover she’s charged $500 worth of clothes you don’t think she needs after you’ve forgone new golf clubs. And this is not the first time she’s ignored the agreement to stick to the budget. Plus, you didn't get the bonus you were expecting at work so you feel embarrassed and upset about that too. In anger, you say with cold sarcasm “the only thing I ask of you is to keep the house clean and stick to the budget – too much to handle huh?” (By the way, your wife is unhappy and embarrassed about not being able to find full time employment in her field, so down deep you know that will hurt her….just like she hurt you).

So, what do you DO with all these intense, angry, outraged feelings? You THINK. Hold onto your feelings and think to yourself “what do I want here?” Is it more important to be right, to say the truth exactly as we see it, pay him/her back for being unfair etc. etc. etc.? Or is it more important to have a good relationship and be effective at influencing our partners to cooperate and care about our feelings? Life is about choices. We can’t always get to be totally honest AND effectively influence people. We just can't. We can’t always get to say the truth exactly as we like AND preserve a loving relationship. If you insult your wife about her money skills, is that going to help you get your goal of influencing her to follow the budget? Probably not. More likely she’ll resent you for hitting her below the belt, dig her heels in and get more rebellious. Is insulting your husband for being forgetful going to help you achieve your goal of getting him to remember chores? Again, most likely not. He’ll probably feel hurt, feel bad about himself and resist cooperating. So, is the short-term satisfaction of letting feelings fly out of our mouths in impulsive comments worth the longer term cost of humiliating and hurting someone we love? Most people would assess the cost/benefit and say no. The cost in guilt for being nasty, hurting someone, inciting resistance and rebellion is probably not worth the benefit of “being honest."

My client, Jane, who has been struggling to have control over her angry outbursts told me recently that “this idea of acting on my goals, and not my feelings has totally changed my life." Jane and her husband were on the verge of separating – he couldn’t take her verbal abuse anymore and she was in trouble at work for being confrontational. She convinced her husband to give them some more time to work in the relationship and began to apply this principle as much as she could at home and at work. As she regained control and stopped demonstrating her pain and anger, she was able to better analyze and deal with the root causes of her pain. Although it was difficult, she persisted. Jane told me that as she practiced stopping herself from exploding and talked her feelings out first. Eventually it became easier and easier to do. She liked the side benefit of being seen as a nicer person and more importantly, she liked feeling like a nicer person. Her marriage is back on track with more constructive conversations and she has a much better relationship with her boss these days.

So, if you’re tempted to be impulsively honest especially when you’re angry or disappointed or hurt, the solution is to take a time out, breathe, think “what’s my goal here?” and act on the goal, not the feeling. You may not always get your way but you’ll certainly increase your chances!
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