From butting heads to building strong relationship skills

Ever noticed how those closest to you push your buttons the most? 

This week, I’ve been helping three of my clients work through some tough challenges in their relationships with their moms. Issues between women and their mothers are common; but so are tough issues with dad, sibling, partner, or boss.

It’s especially heartbreaking to see how those conflicts get more and more complex with time.

Over the course of a lifetime, the relationship accumulates layers and layers of hurt feelings, negative exchanges and subtle (or not so subtle) blaming that never get resolved or released.

There’s a reason why our relatives have a knack for pushing our buttons… they had a hand in installing the buttons to begin with! It’s no surprise we react. We’re coded to be triggered by them over and over.

I’ve seen this happen in my mom’s family quite a bit. They’re seven siblings, all with strong wills and imposing personalities, fiery tempers, and few solid communication or relationship-building skills. They love each other to death… and sometimes the hurts they inflict on each other can feel deadly too.


Some of you know exactly what it’s like to have a relationship feel so tangled and tough that you don’t even know where to begin to resolve it. So you do nothing and hope for the best.

One of my clients hasn’t hugged her mom in fifteen years.  Another one avoids holidays with her family. And yet another feels uncomfortable visiting her mom, worried she’ll be made to feel guilty over a recent decision. 

Distancing is the result when we are unable to resolve conflict.

Conflict does not disappear and disconnection gets worse over time.

But there are effective ways to start untangling the mess of feelings and events.

Get a journal and a nice pen.

You start by writing about your experience in a very specific way. This is to build your awareness, clarity and vocabulary skills around what is truly at the core of the issue.

You need to do this exercise in writing. You can’t just think about it. Writing is a more powerful agent of change. When you just think about the relationship, you’ll quickly fall into the pattern of thoughts and feelings in the story you always tell yourself.

1. Start by writing an appreciation for your loved one

Acknowledge what you genuinely love or appreciate about them. It needs to be something that they would be moved and touched to hear -- not something like, “I really like your chocolate chip cookies.”

2. Write an observable fact related to an event that triggered you

Critical point here: this is NOT your version of the story. This is a clearly observable fact that could have been captured on a video camera and everyone would see the same thing. Try to keep it to 15 words or less.

For example…

  • When you arrived 20 minutes late…

  • When you called and said _________ (exact words verbatim) ...

  • When I walked into the kitchen and saw _________ (exact picture) ...

3. Write the feelings you felt as a result of the events

Critical point here: actual feelings are emotion words. There are a lot of things that are said as if they were feelings but they are interpretations of intent in the other person, also there’s a covert accusation contained in them.

True feelings are not debatable. Nobody can tell you not to feel a certain way.

False feeling statements will activate your loved one’s defenses.

False feelings inherently carry your interpretation of their intent and behavior. Nine times out of ten, they will defend themselves from your assumptions. They’ll say you’re wrong and you won’t feel heard or understood. You’ve created another argument that will go nowhere.

Most people have very poor vocabulary for feelings. When they enter a dialogue that they hope will be constructive, inadvertently they trigger the other person by using statements of false feelings like the ones listed above… and there are many more variations!

Most of us were not raised with rich feeling vocabularies or learning how to effectively articulate why we are upset. So I give clients a listing of true feelings to help them pinpoint how they feel. I invite them to close their eyes and find the feeling.

Next week I’ll walk you through three more steps in this exercise. 

In the meantime, start exercising your feeling vocabulary by writing about several conflict situations following the three steps above.

Getting greater clarity about your feelings and practicing precision of language, is a monumental first step in helping you move towards resolving big conflict.

To help you with your feelings vocabulary skills, at the bottom of the post, I’ll list an inventory of feelings. It’s just a starter. Notice the subtle differences and nuances between them.

Acknowledge when you need help

If you’re currently dealing with some big hurt feelings from past wounds, or conflict that you can’t seem to resolve, email me. Having seen so many people deeply hurt through their relationships with their loved ones, I deeply care about helping them heal those wounds and create more constructive ways of being in relationship.

My career is coming full circle from my early days practicing family therapy as a Counseling graduate student. I no longer practice counseling or talk therapy that way. I have come to love the power and efficiency of tools to reprogram the subconscious --such as EFT, NLP and hypnosis-- and tools to build connection and communication skills.

We can all learn how to be masterful in creating loving, connected relationships, where conflict is an opportunity for growth and deepening connections.

Feelings inventory

Since we’re working on conflict, I’m only going to list the unpleasant, uncomfortable feelings.