Mean What You Say, and Say What You Mean

by Erik A. Fisher, Ph.D., aka Dr. E…
Article Summary: How do you communicate with your kids, and how does it affect their emotions? Dr. Erik Fisher offers an education in the semantics of emotion.

Dr. Erik FisherWhen was the last time that you really thought about the true meaning of what you were saying? If you have ever taken a foreign language, you may have heard from your instructor that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn because of all of the rules and exceptions, in addition to the many situations when there are no rules. Furthermore, depending on where we live in the country or world, two people could say almost the same thing, but mean two different things. I believe that the most critical times that we express ourselves is when we try to communicate our feelings and emotions with others.

There have been many books and lectures provided on how men & women and children & adults communicate differently and misunderstand communication. However, beyond our gender and age differences, there are basic sentences and phrases that we use when discussing feelings and emotions that potentially set up misperceptions that carry through generations of us. In other words, do we really think through the semantics of what we are stating, or do we just speak as we have been spoken to in the past?

Semantically Speaking…

Semantics is the field of language that assesses and addresses the accuracy and true meaning of language. Semantics has to do with understanding the difference between statements or questions such as, "Can I go to the bathroom?", and my 4th grade teacher’s sarcastic correction, "I don’t know if you can go to the bathroom or not, but you may go to the bathroom if you feel the need to go."

There are countless situations in our communication with others in which we use inaccurate language to express ourselves to others. In most languages, people use slang and other colloquialisms to simplify communication and/or create a sense of commonness or unity within a group of people. Teenagers, for example, have coined different phrases from generation to generation such as hip, cool, gnarly, bad, dope, da bomb,… that separate them from adults and increase their sense of familiarity and group homogeneity.

When simplifying language, it may be quicker to use some forms of language, but it often detracts from the accuracy of the statement and can lead to confusion for those who may not be skilled in the language usage. Children are especially sensitive to misinterpreting slang usage, because developmentally, their brain understands things very literally. Think of the favorite children’s joke, "What is black and white and red (or read) all over?" The answers: "A skunk with diaper rash, or a newspaper." This kind of humor is funny to children because they understand it very literally.

If you have ever talked with a foreigner who was school trained in English, you may have experienced situations where they had difficulties understanding what someone was saying until the person thought about what they were saying and communicated more precisely. Furthermore, foreigners, who were taught English in their schools are often more adept at correctly speaking and writing English than most Americans, because they have not learned much of the slang and "lazy usage" that we pick up in our day to day usage.

But Can You Talk the Talk?

If we really started to pay attention to the meaning of what we are saying, we may start to realize that we use the English language very carelessly. I tend to believe that we try to communicate with each other using as few words as possible. But the words we use still have meanings that subtly affect the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us. As a psychologist and an astute observer of language usage, I have seen that what we think and say is an indication of what we feel internally. But how often do we really think about the words that we are saying and how it reflects our internal attitudes, emotions and beliefs?

So with this verbose and somewhat circumlocuted introduction, you may be wondering, "What is he getting at?" What I would like to address is the verbiage that we use to communicate emotion. To address the issue of communication of emotion, what does it mean when someone says, "I am angry at you." If we begin to dissect this phrase, the words I would like to consider are "am" and "at you". The word "am" is a form of the verb "to be" which means "to exist". To demonstrate what I am addressing, think of how we introduce ourselves to others, "Hello, I am John Doe." In this statement, I will always be John Doe, all day, every day, from birth to death. To the literal mind, when I say, "I am angry", it literally means all of me is always angry. In other words, I have become Anger embodied. We could spend time refuting the exactness of this, but the issue being addressed is literal semantics, not colloquial usage.

The next piece of the phrase is what it means when I say "I am angry at you." What "at you" means is "all of you," not part of you or your actions. To a child, this phrase can feel very intimidating and overpowering. The child tends to interpret the phrase as them being "bad or wrong", not what they did. The thought to consider is that we are powerless to change who we are, but we do have the power to change our behaviors and choices.

What we are probably meaning to say when we communicate emotion is, "I feel anger (frustration, confusion, irritation) with what you did." This phrase takes a few more words to state, but I hope you can appreciate the accuracy of what is being stated. The most accurate way to communicate emotions is with the verb "to feel," not the verb "to be."

Another issue to address is that when we state our emotion with the verb "to feel", we can "feel" more than one emotion at a time, but it is difficult to "be" more than one emotion at a time. The second part of the communication, "at what you did," addresses the issue of the action of the individual, not the individual themselves. When we address the action or behavior of the person, it is very clear what they can change.

In educating children and adults on the "semantics of emotion", I often tell children that their parents will always love them, but they may not like what they do. If we address the action, behaviors and choices of the individual ("at what you did"), it points out what they can change. If we address the individual as the object of our anger ("at you"), it is difficult to know what to change.

Another important aspect to consider with the statement, "I am angry (sad, afraid, stupid,…)," is that we are only communicating the most salient or obvious emotion (anger), while almost always feeling other emotions internally. When we say, "I am angry at you," we are also likely feeling frustrated, hurt, disrespected, threatened, fearful, sad, misunderstood, confused, as well as other combinations of emotions.

The reason why we do not take the time to communicate these other emotions is because many times we do not take the time to be aware of what else we are feeling, and we also may fear that stating the other emotions could communicate weakness or vulnerability. When we consider communicating our emotions to our children, it is in the best interest of all to consider what we are teaching them through our own patterns of communication. They are often learning oversimplifications of emotions, as well as how to manipulate others through our own language usage.

Baby Talk

In terms of emotional oversimplification, children rarely learn to look below the surface of the most salient emotions to understand how emotions such as anger, sarcasm, or arrogance may be triggered by other emotions. More simply, they are not taught to do this. Also, because children are learning a "new" language (English) the do not know many of the words. They tend to confuse the meanings of emotions, which often results in additional difficulty with communication of emotions. Relative to manipulation of emotions, children understand, at some level, how they feel when someone says to them, "I am angry at you." They often feel guilty, fearful and shameful and understand through trial and error, in the least, that they are supposed to respond in some way to try to correct the situation.

When children begin to understand their feelings and how other people may manipulate their feelings, they often want to try the things on others that have been done to them. It's like playing with a new toy. When they begin to try to play the "I am angry at you" game with others, they are expecting that the person they showed anger toward will feel guilty and respond to correct the situation. Young children may play this game through showing temper tantrums, "the silent treatment" and even by communicating their feelings directly ("I hate you. You are a mean mommy."). Unknowingly, many parents do respond to these tactics, further increasing the likelihood that children are going to try this with others, not only to find that it doesn’t work but they may receive harsh reactions from some. Do we and our children recognize when we are playing the game? Many times, no.

When parents and others respond harshly to children’s guilt-provoking statements, the child is beginning to learn about their power and often questions why someone else has the right to do that to them when they apparently do not. These types of interactions are formative events in children’s struggles for power and can be the source of much confusion, conflict and resentment throughout their lives.

To provide a sample interaction, Billy is playing with a friend, and his mother tells him that it is time for his nap and his friend will have to go home. He does not want to take a nap and begins to resist. He starts to cry, and as his mother picks him up Billy yells, "I am mad at you. I don’t like you." His mother then tells him, "You have no right to talk to me like that. I am your mother." Just the day before when Billy wouldn’t go to his room when told to, his mother said, "I don’t like you when you don’t listen, I am very angry at you." Between the two incidents, Billy is not able to understand the difference between what he is supposed to say and what his parent is allowed to say because they are the parent (Is there a double standard here?). Billy only wants to get what he wants. He knew that what his mother said to him the day before resulted in him feeling fear, guilt and shame, which affected his behavior, and he was only wanting to do the same toward his mother. The result of the interactions and statements made by the mother is that Billy feels confusion, misunderstood, and unfairly treated.

You're making me so very angry....

An example of another type of inaccurate emotional statement to examine is, "You are making me angry" (sad, confused…). When this statement is made, it is literally telling the other person that we have given them the power to "make" us feel something. The purpose of statements such as this are also often meant to evoke a feeling of guilt, blame, or responsibility in others, or to evoke a feeling of intimidation and warn the other party that if we react to what they said, our reaction is their fault. This statement furthermore allows us to not take responsibility for our reactions and "makes" it easier for us to play a victim role. If we react to them, we feel justified in stating that our reaction to their statement was only to protect ourselves. It is in our best interest to accept our power and understand our emotions so that we can take responsibility for our emotions and actions.

What I try to help others to recognize is that we have the power to choose to feel what we want to feel. Furthermore, we have the power and choice to communicate our emotions more accurately. Other people can say what they wish, and some of what they say may evoke feelings within us, but it is always within our power to feel what we want or choose to feel. It is in our best interest to recognize more accurately what we are feeling so we can choose to react in a manner that is respectful to all. It is integral to own our ability to recognize that no one can take our power away from us, unless we choose to give it away.

It is important to understand that if there are others trying to take our power, it is almost always because they feel vulnerable or threatened in some way. We can choose to manipulate their vulnerability to externally promote our own sense of power, or we can understand what they are feeling and respond in a manner that is respectful to us. Depending on the situation, anger and rage may be our best emotion to react with, but those events are rare. One has to use their power to choose to feel their own emotions wisely, because it is easy to use defenses such as rationalization and denial to avoid feeling our emotions or manipulate the emotions that others may be trying to "make us feel". We also may choose to manipulate their emotions in return when we feel that they have manipulated ours.

Ch Ch Ch Changes

In order to begin changing the manner in which we communicate to others, we first have to be willing to listen to what we are saying. It is very easy to rationalize and say, "It doesn’t matter how I say things, others will know what I mean." That statement is often hiding the fear that it is too hard to change, and "What will I feel if I realize that others have felt hurt by the way I communicated feelings?" Our likely internal emotional response is guilt, shame, frustration, sadness, regret, and others, as well as anger toward ourselves.

As you may decide to change your language patterns, it is important to understand that it is like changing a habit. Habits form over time, and it takes time to develop new habits. It is in our best interest to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes in order to see where we need to improve our behaviors. As we realize the various inaccuracies in our communication, it allows us to recognize inaccuracies in our belief systems, since what we say is an indication of what we believe. We owe it to ourselves to be aware of our communication and how it affects our own emotions, as well as how it affects the emotions of others, especially those we love.
Erik Fisher book About the author:
Erik Fisher, PhD, aka Dr. E…, is a licensed psychologist and author who has been featured on NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at to learn more about his books "The Art of Empowered Parenting" and "The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict or to check out his blog.