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Why “I-Messages” Can Backfire

EducationWorld is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction. Although the examples in this article primarily feature parent-child interactions, the issues and alternatives apply to any relationship, including teacher-student relationships.

I-messages, a communications tool that became popular in the 1970s, employ a simple—and simplistic—formula to directly connect emotions to someone else’s behavior: “When you (exhibit or neglect to exhibit a certain behavior), I feel (a certain feeling)” or “I feel _____ when you ____.” Some people advocate a third component, adding “…and I want you to (do this),” with the implicit message that “I will feel better if you do.”

I-messages have been promoted to offer an alternative to the seemingly more destructive “You-messages” that attack, blame, or criticize someone else. But although the wording is different, I-messages are really just You-messages in disguise, connecting my feelings with your behavior. They may start with (or include) the word I, but the statements carry the same energetic impact as messages of blame, ones which blatantly state, “You (or your behaviors) make me feel…” As such, I-messages simply give us new language for manipulation, blaming, and projecting. Even worse, they become a tool for self-victimization, as they present us as emotionally at the mercy of someone’s behavioral choices.

There is particular danger when we structure I-messages to suggest that the other person’s behavior is responsible for our feelings, especially when the statements carry the implication that we’d feel better if only the other person would act differently. Even if this were true, do you really want to communicate your vulnerability to someone who may not be willing to take responsibility for your emotional state, someone who may not care enough (or feel guilty enough) to change solely for its sake? Telling an angry or vengeful person “I feel terrible when you say such mean things to me” might well result in confirming for them, “Good! It worked!” Even if they don’t say it aloud, you have just reinforced the power they have to hurt you.

Although I-messages may sometimes seem to work, their outcomes can be quite costly to relationships. We certainly don’t want to burden others, especially children, with the overwhelming—and impossible—responsibility for our happiness and well-being. Remember that the journey of personal growth and self-responsibility typically involves learning to separate who we are, how we feel, and how we feel about ourselves from other people’s behaviors.

Granted, the formula typically used to create an I-message certainly has the attraction of a quick-fix solution, and may have a certain appeal to people who are concerned that simply asking for what we want—a behavior that is often discouraged in our culture—may seem a bit too aggressive or incendiary. There are, however, many ways to set a boundary, request a different behavior, or get what we want from others in our lives without bullying or manipulating them.

Others argue that using feelings to motivate others is more honest somehow than simply setting a boundary, asking for what you want, or requesting a particular behavior. However, many people who have been on the receiving end of an I-message report seeing this approach as extremely dishonest and manipulative. Several mentioned feeling more than a bit put-upon by having others attempt to dump responsibility for their emotional well-being on them. And more than one individual shared that this approach actually had the opposite effect, creating resentment and alienation, rather than compassion and cooperation!

The “dark side” of I-messages: A few examples

Perhaps a parent says, “I feel sad when you get poor grades” in an attempt to encourage a child’s achievement in school. This statement may indeed be an accurate assessment of the parent’s feelings, but it also suggests that his/her feelings are the result of the child’s behavior. If this is truly the case, the issue may be far more about the adult’s sense of adequacy as a parent, the need to look good to others, or the desire for whatever status the child’s accomplishments might bring.

Likewise, let’s say your child’s teacher tells him, “When you forget your library books, I feel angry and frustrated!” Assuming your child cares enough—or is threatened enough—to be motivated by the teacher’s feelings, wouldn’t you prefer that he be motivated to return library books so he can take out some new ones, rather than cooperating in order to emotionally care-take his teacher (or protect himself from the outcomes of the teacher’s anger and frustration)?

Another example is the adult who grew up in a troubled home and who has had to reconcile the shame and frustration of not being able to keep a parent happy, calm, or sober, no matter how well she behaved, how quietly she played, or how many “A’s” she brought home on her report card. These kinds of statements build dependence on external approval, teaching children to choose their behaviors on the basis of other people’s potential reactions and opinions in order to protect their sense of safety and worth. And when it comes to getting the approval of adults and peers who might not be safe or protective, or those who might not have our kids’ best interests in mind, this is exactly what most adults don’t want their children to do.

So what’s the alternative?

Please note that I am not suggesting that we teach kids to be inconsiderate of others. However, people-pleasing and emotional care-taking are not the same as respect and consideration; they are much more about equating our safety and self-worth with others’ reactions and opinions, and making choices simply to self-protect. (Think of adults you know who tolerate neglectful, disrespectful, or abusive behavior out of fear of the additional conflict they might encounter if they stand up for themselves and ask for what they want. We certainly want better for our children!)

Healthy cooperation, respect, compassion, consideration, and service come from quite a different place, one that respects and values the needs and feelings of others, one in which conditional self-worth or emotional safety are never an issue. Ultimately, we want to encourage these qualities—which, incidentally, is much easier to do in relationships that aren’t burdened by power struggles, over-enmeshment, or manipulation.

There are a few other issues to consider. While older children may have learned that compliance protects their safety and self-worth, and that agreeing to do what you want may get you off their backs (regardless of their actual intentions to cooperate), very young children may have difficulty identifying with another person’s feelings. And children of all ages may resist if they are competing with you for power.

If you simply want your children to change their behavior, then you probably don’t need to express your feelings in the first place. There are several ways to eliminate your feelings from the equation. If your child is being obnoxious or disrespectful, you don’t have to talk about how much her attitude upsets you or hurts your feelings. You do, however, need to refuse to accept, support, engage, or encourage unacceptable behavior— and you can even do this without criticizing her attitude, making her wrong, or pointing out that her behavior is unacceptable (labeling the misbehavior).

If you’re good at this (or feeling particularly generous), you can validate her feelings: “I can see you’re very upset about this.” But absolutely disengage by setting a boundary, making it clear that your further participation is contingent upon her talking to you in a civilized fashion: “I want to hear about this when you can talk without yelling or attacking. Let’s try again in a little bit.” And then walk away. This sends quite a different message from a statement that suggests that she is controlling how you feel— which, incidentally, may be exactly what she’s trying to do.

This approach also offers a healthy, self-caring and assertive model for kids to use when they’re being bothered or bullied by their peers. If we can teach kids to say, “I feel sad when you call me names,” we can certainly teach them to say, “I’ll play with you when you stop calling me names,” or better yet, to just walk away and choose a more respectful playmate. Instructing kids to “Tell him how it makes you feel” increases their vulnerability, and often only sets them up for additional conflict and pain.

Likewise, using positively-stated contingencies that tell children, “You can watch TV as soon as your homework is done,” “You can have the car again this weekend as long as you get in tonight by the time we agreed to,” or “I will make dinner as soon as the counters are clean,” simply leaves the outcomes of their choices with them, without requiring their cooperation to keep you from going crazy, being disappointed, or getting upset.

Watch your intent. There are better ways to ask your children for a more desirable behavior then by asking that they change so that you’ll feel better. You may need to back up and identify what it is you really want, set better boundaries to anticipate and avoid future problems, or polish up on your follow through, but if you can resist the convenience of a formulaic communication available in I-messages, you can also eliminate the patterns of manipulation, guilt, and self-victimization that go with them. The result may just be your children’s cooperation, but most important is the absence of conditionality in your relationship, and respect for the desire that both you and your kids can come through a conflict with everyone’s feelings unscathed.

This piece was adapted from an article that Dr. Bluestein originally wrote for an issue of Families in Recovery, a parenting magazine no longer in print.

Related resources

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is Your School Emotionally Safe?
Accommodating Student Sensory Differences
Tips for Positive Teacher-Parent Interaction
The Art of Setting Boundaries
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 1
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 2
Stressful Student Experiences: What Not to Do

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.

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